Open Source VAT software, would you risk it?

With next Tuesday’s budget just around the corner and my latest VAT return having just landed on my doormat, my thoughts turn (as a software journalist) to what kind of automated tools I could be using to make my life easier.

There’s a good deal of debate in technology circles these days as to what point level source software, or indeed free and open source software, can fulfil our needs – especially when business gets mission critical. For individuals, mission critical status comes along when it comes to our health, our family, our house and our money so Tax and VAT certainly come within radius.

If you set about Googling the subject you’re likely to stumble upon mostly US websites as of course our American cousins have to perform many of their tax-based duties themselves. There is in fact an organisation called the Tax Code Software Foundation that has been trying to develop an open-source platform for tax preparation software.

But US-based or not, what with the source code open to the development community as a whole and with changing tax laws and VAT levels. Would you have enough trust to start sniffing around on the SourceForge open source code repository to look for something snazzy looking that seems like it might do the job?

I myself, in this instance, would not.

What we need is software specifically presented for the UK small business owner (or freelance self employed person such as myself) that will a) be able to cope with the rumoured VAT increase and b) automatically adjusts calculations so that we don’t get HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) breathing down our necks in the wrong way. NB: I’m not sure that there is a right way!

So I’ve opted to step outside my open source world in this instance and am currently testing Intuit’s QuickBooks product. So just to put the product into context and help question whether this is the kind of software that you DON’T get from open source, I will mention some of the more salient features.

There’s a VAT Exception Report that helps build a transparent audit trail. A one step VAT returns feature that allows me to automatically populate my quarterly VAT returns and to file them securely online with HMRC.

I’m quite fond of the “QuickBooks coach” and the short video demonstrations. I also like the company snapshot real-time cash flow feature and there’s multicurrency tools, invoicing functions as well as sales and expenses tracking.

So my question is, will we always turn to proprietary vendors such as Intuit for software of this nature? For the time being I think the answer has to be yes, but could this change in the future if the open source “community” approach provides social media opportunities and discussion forums that bring small business users together?

Well not in this case. It might be a case of life imitating art or proprietary vendors imitating open source communities, but QuickBooks also has (surprise, surprise) a professional online network option for us “like-minded” small business owners to ask questions and engage with one another.

So is it useful software and worth the price? Yes. Do I feel happier about my tax situation and VAT returns now? No, but thanks for asking.