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July 1991

Macintosh computers in accounting. (includes related articles on Windows 3.0 graphical user interface and Macintosh System 7.0)

by Willenborg, Michael

    Abstract- CPAs can benefit from using Macintosh (Mac) computers in their accounting practice. The benefits of a Mac include lower training costs, improved employee productivity, and more reliable data transfer. Accountants should weigh the benefits of purchasing a Mac against the cost, which may be about $3,000. The types of software available for accountants include spreadsheets, word processing packages, accounting software, and communications software. The disadvantages of purchasing a Mac include the unavailability of some audit-related software, and the unavailability of a Mac version of high-end tax packages for PCs.

In business, Apple Computer's Macintosh computers are well known for their exceptional desktop publishing capabilities and superb graphics presentations. Does this mean that the Macintosh has little else to offer the world of accounting and auditing, or has the Macintosh (hereafter referred to as Mac) simply been under-utilized in accounting?

Graphical User Interface

In 1984, Apple promised a new order in microcomputers in the form of the Mac. The basis for this revolution is the graphical user interface, which is much more than pretty pictures on a computer screen. A graphical user interface has six key characteristics. These characteristics apply to Mac and other graphical user interfaces such as Windows 3.0 for IBM compatible microcomputers. (See sidebar on "The Battle of Graphical User Interfaces.")

A Consistent Format. First, the underlying philosophy, of a graphical user interface is to produce users with a consistent format for accessing and manipulating computer programs. A graphical user interface forces software developers to comply with very rigid standards regarding such program features as menu display, data entry dialogue boxes, and use of peripheral devices such as a mouse. Because a graphical user interface forces all programs to have a similar "look and feel," the time users spend learning additional programs is relatively low, Ideally, once a user understands how one program works, he or she has actually learned how to operate numerous programs.

Graphics are for Real. Second, a graphical user interface is, in fact, graphical. This implies an extensive use of icons (small pictures that represent either computer programs or data files), pull-down menus to display options, and a mouse pointer to highlight and select options. Such an orientation is demonstrated by Mac's System/Finder, its file management program, which presents available files and disks in the form of icons and windows and has a menu bar across the top of the screen. This approach is much more visual than DOS's command line interface, which requires users to type in commands from a keyboard.

The Screen Can be Manipulated. Third, a graphical user interface allows direct manipulation of on-screen elements. Users can widen a program's window simply by grabbing an edge with the mouse/pointer and dragging the window until the desired size is obtained. Mac allows users to move programs into a directory by first opening a "folder" (the directory), grabbing the program's icon, and dragging it over to the opened folder. The spreadsheet Excel, originally developed for the Macintosh, allows users to write formulas by selecting math functions from pull-down menus, rather than typing in function names from the keyboard.

Specify the Object First. Fourth, a graphical user interface supports the systems philosophy that users should first specify the object they want to manipulate, then state the action to be executed. Thus, in a spreadsheet designed for a graphical user interface, the user would first select the range of cells he or she wants to manipulate, then the action, such as deleting. This design feature allows immediate execution of the selected action, without the user specifying additional steps.

Seeing is Believing. Fifth, a graphical user interface offers screen displays of what the printed material will look like: WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get). A word processor designed for a graphical user interface would support simultaneous screen displays of output for several different print fonts and type sizes.

Real Multi-Tasking. Sixth, a graphical user interface supports running multiple programs at the same time. Under sophisticated systems, programs may even exchange data as they are running.

Benefits to Accountants

Reduced Training Costs. Probably the number one benefit the Mac offers accounting professionals is reduced training costs. The ease of learning begins with its System/Finder file management program. When a user turns on a Mac, a graphical view of available options is presented to the user rather than the "C:" prompt waiting for commands to be typed. Finding programs and files on the Mac is very intuitive because related programs and data files are placed into "folders," the equivalent of DOS directories. To execute a program, a user simply points to the picture of the program, double clicks the mouse, and the software begins running. Many applications can also be started by clicking on the data file instead of the program.

Higher Employee Productivity. Due to the consistent format offered by the graphical user interface, staff personnel quickly learn how to use multiple products. For example, printing a report involves similar steps regardless of whether the report was created with a word processor or a spreadsheet. Print options are always selected by pointing to the print menu, pulling down the menu options, and double clicking on the desired option.

Mac users tend to know five or six different software products, rather than the one or two that DOS users know. This increased productivity can represent a substantial savings to accountants and auditors who rely on staff personnel to learn and utilize multiple software products.

Lower Support Costs. Even if a user is not familiar with performing a specific function, it is relatively easy for him or her to figure it out by pulling down menus and viewing available options. In many cases, users are able to train themselves and assist others.

Easy and Reliable Data Transfer. The Mac offers a "clipboard" where data cut from one program is stored until it can be read by another. Editing procedures are standardized, so that once a user has learned how to "cut and paste" text or data in one software product (word processor or spreadsheet), he or she can apply the procedure to all Mac products.

Ease of Transfering and Connecting to Other Systems. A basic system, such as the model SE/30, is fully integrated: the CPU, disk drives, and monitor are built into a single cabinet. This cabinet and its detachable keyboard can be placed in a carrying case and easily transported from one site to another. Even though the SE/30 display screen is smaller than some portable IBM-compatible computers, its resolution is substantially higher.

Connecting the Mac to other systems is as easy as plugging in a phone line and dialing up. Current network technology allows easy networking of Macs to other Macs, DOS computers, minicomputers, and host mainframe computers. Some multi-user accounting software programs support simultaneous access of common data files regardless of whether the files were created on a Mac or a PC.

Relevant Costs

Accountants considering the purchase of Mac computers must weigh the benefits (low training costs, high staff productivity, easy transportability and connectivity) against hardware costs. While prices have continued to drop, Macs are not cheap. The price of the SE/30 is about $3,000 and includes 2 megabytes of random memory (expandable to 8 megabytes), a 1.4 megabyte floppy disk drive, and a 40 megabyte hard disk. An IBM-compatible computer with similar hardware may be purchased for as little as $2,000. However, the real comparison is on price/performance and accountants must consider the Mac's benefits (easy training, high productivity, portability) along with related hardware costs.

A representative analysis is to compare the Mac to IBM-compatible computers running with Windows 3.0. While Windows 3.0 promises a user- friendly graphical interface for IBM-compatible microcomputers, software that will fully utilize the potential benefits of Windows 3.0 is still being developed and is expected to be commercially available sometime this year.

Macintosh Software for


Spreadsheets. Not surprisingly, the number one microcomputer software product used by practitioners is the spreadsheet. How do Mac spreadsheets compare to Lotus 1-2-3, the current standard for IBM- compatibles?

Mac spreadsheets listed in Figure 1 offer accountants power and flexibility beyond simply entering and manipulating numbers. All of these spreadsheets offer integrated graphics, where graphs are displayed in the spreadsheet itself and change if the underlying data values change. Accountants can expect to produce high quality reports with these spreadsheets and have text, data, and graphs integrated into the report.

The dominant Mac spreadsheet (with a 90% market share) is Microsoft Excel. Although this product is now available for IBM-compatible computers, it was originally developed to meet the standards of Mac's graphical user interface, including use of a mouse and pull down menus.

Word Processors. Once again, Mac word processors deliver on power and ease of use. The Mac allows word processors to display text in the format to be printed. The user can quickly and easily select different font types and sizes. These selections are instantly displayed on the screen, allowing quick and easy editing of final reports.

Accounting Software. Most microcomputer accounting systems use IBM- compatible microcomputers as their hardware platform. However, in many cases, Mac computers are a suitable alternative. There are several outstanding accounting software packages, including products originally developed for IBM-compatibles, such as products by Great Plains and Computer Associates. Available accounting packages include relatively inexpensive low-end packages for small businesses and more sophisticated packages that offer multiple accounting modules (inventory, payroll) and customized reporting.

Some Mac accounting software offers interactive training tutorials based on Mac's HyperCard. HyperCard is a unique data manager that stores information in a manner similar to 3" X 5" index cards and can present the information in whatever order is determined by the user. Interactive training tutorials based on HyperCard allow new users of an accounting system to direct their own self-study of the system, asking questions and receiving answers in whatever order they prefer.

Communications Software. The production of accounting and auditing reports can often be expedited by downloading accounting data from other computer systems (such as client mainframe systems). There are a number of products that support linking Mac computers to other microcomputers as well as mainframe systems.


While there are numerous Mac software packages available for accounting and auditing use, some audit-related software simply is not available. Also, many of the high-end tax packages available for the PC simply do not have a Mac version. The auditor considering microcomputer purchases may want to weight these limitations against proven benefits.

Ralph E. Viator, PhD, CPA, Assistant Professor, University of Kentucky, and Michael Willenborg, CPA, Senior Manager, KPMG Peat Marwick


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