Microsoft’s Money 2001 gets personal

But can software giant close gap in personal finance software category? Even with the rollout of new versions of Money, Bill Gates' minions have long way to go

The battle for leadership of personal finance software is heating up. Microsoft, which has of late been winning a fair share of critical reviews, Monday introduced new versions of its Money product, offering features that were developed in association with American Express' Financial Advisors. Now Bill Gates' minions are going to try and exploit that favourable press coverage to increase market share.

That will be no easy task. To be sure, the two biggest players in the personal finance software category are Microsoft, with Money, and Intuit, with Quicken. But Intuit's Quicken program, which has enjoyed the clear leadership in the personal finance software category for some time, now enjoys an 80 percent share in retail.

"Design is not what sells the product here. Quicken has a tremendous share and it will probably maintain it because it's a pain to switch programs and new users often ask old users what they use," said Chris LeTocq, research director at Gartner, noting how hard it is for consumers to shed habits.

The ensuing features war between the two rivals is expected to ratchet up as the year progresses. Indeed, a new version of Quicken is going to be announced 23 August.

But Microsoft hopes that its retooled product will shake consumers out of their usual behavior and focus attention on today's announcement. Money 2001 is meant to provide a more customised experience. Through a series of questions, the program prods individuals to define what is most important to them and lets them subsequently track that information.

The deluxe version of Microsoft Money lists for $85.95, while the standard edition costs $44.95.

George Barto, research director of consumer financial services at Gartner, calls the new features "gotta haves" because this is the direction that finance offerings are going. But Barto also noted that Microsoft is playing catch up, an unaccustomed role for the software giant.

Consumers have actually been able to receive Money for free when they buy new systems, a promotional vehicle used by Microsoft in hopes of winning new customers. But analysts believe that Microsoft will have to take even more drastic action to shrink Intuit's lead. Although Microsoft Money also offers Web features, Barto suggested that Intuit has been the more aggressive rival.

"Intuit has changed its business model from a software company to a Web company, providing a number of financial services on their Web site including Internet-enabling software for banks and brokerages," he said. In a similar fashion, LeTocq agreed, saying that the only way Intuit can really lose this battle is if the company takes its collective eye off the ball.

"The big winner here," he said, "is the consumer because you have two major companies competing to deliver a similar product. One would hope that the rest of the software market was like this."

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