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My father described to me his accounting system just now. He uses a hodgepodge of methods, because no software that exists works well enough. He's a contractor, and travels from business to business working on computers. He often works in places with computers that break or network that is unstable for anything but email, so remotely accessing accounting software would be difficult, especially since one of the few workable choices is QuickBooks, which doesn't play nice in any sort of distributed environment short of remote-desktop over a fast network.

So he uses an adaptation of old accounting techniques, now electronic. He sends bills to customers, puts a copy in his email in an IMAP box, and when a customer pays a bill, he drags it to the "Paid" folder. At the end of the year or quarter, he sums it up and enters it into spreadsheets and calculates taxes and the like. It's a reliable system that even in the face of software failure, is quite robust. Email is well enough studied that things pretty much Just Work, mailboxes are reliable databases (if poorly indexed).

So to expand on this system and build a distributable workflow for accounting, imagine this:

Build a simple XML or RDF format for accounting documents (I suspect this already exists) — invoices, statements, promisory notes, checks. Attach them to emails as MIME multipart/alternative messages, with the alternate part being a text or HTML (or both) representation of the bill for human reading. Write simple software for generatingthese documents.

Then, the next stage, build extensions or external software for reading and cataloguing these documents — this could be a Thunderbird extension, even — and for summarizing. From there, build simple reporting software to pull what they need from the summaries and be able to calculate tax liabilities and other period-end financial tasks.

It's a simple, scalable system. Contacts for bills can be pulled from an email address book. Customer relations systems that integrate with email would then integrate with the financial end of customer management. Email recording and logging systems could make record of financial transactions as they can make record of any other email sent or received. Cryptographic signatures can be used to sign the messages.



( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 10th, 2006 10:13 pm (UTC)
Sounds like a good system.

What exactly is Blue Sky? Because I'm pretty sure that's the name of a supercomputer at the University Centers For Atmospheric Research in Boulder.
Mar. 10th, 2006 10:16 pm (UTC)
"Blue sky" means "think outside the box".
Mar. 12th, 2006 07:19 pm (UTC)
Ooh. I still want to have mailboxes just be directories in the filesystem.. so with this, you'd just have the financial records directories and the email directories overlap a bit. nice.
Mar. 18th, 2006 05:16 am (UTC)
Using Plan9 everything is like that. You write
filesystems for everything so everything including
servers act as files ;-) Like unix was supposed to
work ;-)
Mar. 18th, 2006 05:49 am (UTC)
Plan9 is spiffy, but I'm not sure they chose the right set of primitives. Something doesn't feel right about it.
Mar. 18th, 2006 05:50 am (UTC)
Yeah. That's been on my mind -- I'd love to see Maildir crossed with MacOS's treatment of some folders as atomic objects, with special viewers the way some files have associated viewers by extension.

Double-click on a folder full of messages? Shows like an inbox.

Control-click, and it opens like a folder and you can move stuff about internally.
Mar. 18th, 2006 05:15 am (UTC)
How about something revolutionary like text files

# account |entry
materials |-500.00
fuel |-54.54
smiths payment| +543.88


Can be parsed and computed with a shell script ;-)

I actually was writing an accounting system like that,
but for your dad i'd say 'if it ain't broke don't fix it' ;-)
Mar. 18th, 2006 05:48 am (UTC)
It's broke, though. Errors are hard to find in such a simple system. Keeping things straight is really hard too.

It's also a problem of distribution -- invoices, tracking, all of that -- it's much easier done in SQL.
Mar. 24th, 2006 12:43 pm (UTC)
UBL, anyone?
Well, some of the UBL-stuff could be used for this, I guess... I wrote some PHP scripts to build simple UBL Invoice XML documents, not that hard. Download that XML from some server (or some local thingie, maybe a command-line app that asks questions, then produces the XML), then put that in your email...
Apr. 27th, 2006 10:00 am (UTC)
accounting packages
In searching to see if our new business accounting package test pages were identified by Google, I came across this debate. Imagine my excitement when I direct you to this website which is not complete but for recruitment purposes. We have built an accounting system that is completely like your opening writer wanted! Where YOU the customer do what you want and the IT peole and accountants have to make it work! Not where they make you do it their cumbersome way! We are close to Alfa User trials. If any of you want to help I would be delighted to send you test versions that you could keep free of charge in return for commenting on the system prior to launch. John Webster UK Tel 01332 799 899 website www.joy.gb.net email ceo@ceogb.co.uk

I have entered this system as Anonymous because I didnt know how else to do so.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )