Going Mobile: TurboTax App for EZ Tax Filing is Latest Example of Intuit’s Broader Smartphone Initiative

2/1/11Follow @bvbigelow

Shortly after Brad Smith took over in January, 2008, as president and CEO of Intuit (NASDAQ: INTU), he embarked on a “listening tour” to identify the Mountain View, CA, company’s biggest opportunities and challenges. In developing what he called the “case for change,” Smith combined what he heard with some broader trends, such as shifting demographics and changing technology platforms, to develop a new strategy for the 28-year-old software company.

Smith laid out his case in a company-wide presentation on April 2, 2008, setting a new course for Intuit and its global workforce of 7,700. He declared that “connected services,” which Intuit defines as software-as-a-service or online services connected to desktop software, would be a core competency going forward—with development for mobile platforms a priority.

“At that time, nearly half of our revenue was coming from connected services,” Intuit spokeswoman Colleen Gatlin told me. “We had zero mobile apps.”

Barry Saik

Today, Intuit has more than 15 mobile offerings targeting its core market of small businesses and consumers. While connected services is at the hub of many platform channels, the initiative has Intuit developers asking, “Why not think first about mobile?” says Barry Saik, vice president of product management at Intuit’s San Diego-based TurboTax division

“The great thing about mobile is that you have to do the connected services and software-as-a-service to support it,” Saik says. “It’s essential that you develop a connected services strategy first, so you can leverage your core platforms rapidly.”

I met recently with Saik and Gatlin after TurboTax announced the nationwide launch of SnapTax, the first mobile application that enables customers to file their entire individual tax returns from an iPhone or Android-based smartphone. (TurboTax introduced the app last year as a pilot program that was limited to iPhone users in California, and used customer feedback to refine the software and online tutorial.)

Since Intuit’s 1993 acquisition of San Diego-based Chipsoft, which first developed the tax preparation software in the early 1980s, TurboTax has emerged as a significant presence in San Diego, with about 900 full-time employees (and more than 1,000 during the tax season) at the company’s serene campus in San Diego’s Fairbanks Ranch neighborhood. Two months ago, the Connect non-profit group gave TurboTax its William W. Otterson Award, which recognizes technologies or products developed in San Diego that have demonstrated a significant positive impact on society or on our quality of life.

SnapTax screen shot

Taxpayers download the SnapTax app for free (from the Apple App Store, Android Market, or SnapTax.com), and pay $15 when they use Intuit’s connected services to electronically file their federal and state tax return with the Internal Revenue Service. The app includes optical character recognition technology that enables users to simplify the process by taking pictures of their W-2 wage and tax statements— Intuit’s system automatically extracts data from the form and enters it on the user’s tax return.

Using a smartphone camera to capture, store, and eliminate the need for paper receipts, checks, and statements is part of a growing trend in the mobile space, which also is exemplified in technology developed by San Diego-based Mitek, and Mountain View, CA-based Evernote.

So how many people would use their phone to file their taxes?

More than you might think, Saik said. Although the app was designed to process only 1040EZ filings, Saik says that covers about 60 percent of U.S. taxpayers, or some 22 million people. “The younger crowd and tech-savvy crowd use their phones quite a lot,” Saik said. “It’s about balancing an easy experience, which is what TurboTax is all about, with the convenience of using a mobile device.”

In the 10 days after TurboTax announced the nationwide launch of SnapTax, more than 30,000 people downloaded the app, Gatlin said. In comparison, there were about 2,000 total downloads last year, when the app was only available for iPhones in California.

In addition to SnapTax, Gatlin says Intuit’s line of mobile apps includes:

—TaxCaster: Helps taxpayers estimate what their refund will be.

—MyTaxRefund: Enables any taxpayer who has e-filed to check the status of their federal tax refund.

—Mint: A personal financial management service that Intuit acquired in 2009. Gatlin says Mint now has more active mobile users today than total users a year ago.

—GoPayment: Enables small business owners to accept credit card payments on a mobile phone. Gatlin says the app helps entrepreneurs and small businesses to get paid any time and on the go.

—QuickReceipts: Provides online access to digital receipts from participating retailers.

It’s an expanding trend, and Gatlin says Intuit is looking at tablets and other platforms to develop additional mobile apps. While the complexities of foreign tax codes pose a challenge for TurboTax, in terms of expanding internationally, Gaitlin says Intuit is looking for other ways to help individuals manage their personal finances and address the needs of small businesses around the world.

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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