MY father-in-law, Rod, has one of those tax situations that accountants must delight in. He owns his own business. There's property. A year ago, when I recounted my success with a computer tax program, he was skeptical.
Computers might handle simple tax situations, but surely it couldn't handle complicated ones like his.
Today, he's excited. By the time you read this, Rod should be halfway through the process of putting his tax data into a computer program called TurboTax. Although he'll still send off the information to his trusty accountant, Rod eventually hopes to handle most of the work himself.
I suspect that this is how the computer revolution is won - not overnight, but step by step, program by program. Tax software represents one of the advance columns of this revolution. It's designed to be cheap, easy-to-use, and disposable.
People will use it only once. The following year, they have to buy a new version with the latest Internal Revenue Service rules and regulations.
Tax software probably won't convince complete novices to go out and buy a personal computer. But it will pull sometime-users into new areas of computing.
Rod has used his PC for years to write letters. When he bought a faster machine last June, he started adding other types of software. He now keeps his checking account on computer, the payroll records for his business, and his tax records.
If Rod is still moving into personal computing, my friend Ron is a PC pro. He bought his first system in the late 1970s. He helped push me beyond word-processing into other computing realms. He set up my first database.
Last year, Ron started using a computer program to fill out his taxes. He used Parsons Technology's Personal Tax Preparer - a program he found adequate but very slow. Even though Parsons claims it has revved up the software this year, Ron has also moved to TurboTax. It's made by ChipSoft Inc., the leader in this niche of software. ChipSoft has been growing at a compound rate of 35 percent a year over the past three years. It expects to equal or better that rate in 1992.
I have a soft spot for TurboTax. It costs about $45, but I used it to file my income taxes last year and saved $180 because of one of its suggestions. It's hard not to like a program like that. So, when the evaluation copy of TurboTax came along this year, I shipped it off to Rod so he could take a look. And I dug into the new version of TurboTax that runs on the operating system called Windows.
TurboTax has several modes of operation. I like the "Interview with TurboTax," which guides me through the process by asking me questions and then moving me to the correct form. Ron, a trained accountant, just fills out the forms directly. He and I have jumped right into the program, barely pausing to look at the manual. Rod, by contrast, has read the manual carefully.
Tax software has to be extremely simple to use. After all, no one's going to buy something that takes 20 hours to learn for four hours' worth of work. My experiment with TurboTax last year still took a lot of time. Its interview mode seemed a little disorienting after years of filling out forms one at a time. I could never quite tell where I was in the process or how many forms I had already filled out.
This year's Windows version is better because it displays the actual forms as you fill them out.
Tax software is not yet simple enough for Everyman. But it's a sign of progress that 10 years after Ron wrote his own accounting program for his first personal computer, three of us have moved to TurboTax. We have radically different tax situations and PC expertise, yet we're using the same prepackaged software. Tax software is moving the computer and its users into a new area of work.
Beware those who urge you to take the plunge into computers. I think most people prefer to wade in slowly. Find a good spot, where the machine can really help you do something better or faster. Then dip your toe in.
The water's fine.