Intuit Inc. took the wraps off the latest version of its Quicken software this week, preparing for retail store sales beginning Oct. 24.
It is the latest play in an intensifying game of one-upmanship between the Mountain View, Calif., company and its chief rival in the personal finance software market, Microsoft Corp. of Redmond, Wash.
In 1994, Microsoft announced an agreement to acquire Intuit, the market leader. But the deal unraveled last year, and in its aftermath the two companies have been jousting furiously.
In the latest round, both sides are touting new versions of their flagship home banking and personal finance software: Microsoft unveiled Money 97 in September, three weeks before Intuit trotted out Quicken version 6 (for Windows) and Quicken version 7 (for Macintosh computers).
Each company says its product is simpler and more useful than the competition's - and more attractive to banks.
"Basically, Money is where we were last year," said Brian Ascher, a product manager for Quicken.
Richard Bray, Mr. Ascher's counterpart at Microsoft, said: "We're here today with a lot of what Quicken is announcing they'll have a year from now."
Intuit bases its claim on new Quicken product features, like Internet connectivity, audio and video boxes that guide users through tasks, and extra help for investors. For example, when Quicken is accessed, a "price alert" can let investors know when a stock or mutual fund rises above or falls below a targeted price.
Microsoft bases its claim on "Open Financial Connectivity," a technical standard built into Money 97 that enables banks to offer the product to customers more easily.
Banks can connect to Money 97 through the Microsoft standard, Visa Interactive, or Intuit Services Corp. Banks can offer Quicken only through Intuit Services Corp., which is under agreement to be sold to Checkfree Corp.
Intuit has announced its own connectivity standard, Open Exchange, which is to be built into next fall's release of Quicken and will offer banker more connectivity choices.
"The fact that financial instiutitons know that there's going to be a choice a year from now has prompted a very positive reaction," said Daniel N. Rudolph, vice president of banking services at Intuit.
But Gary R. Craft, an electronic-commerce analyst at Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Co. of Arlington, Va., said Quicken is "still a closed product" and predicted Microsoft's up-and-running open connectivity standard would be "a big positive for Money in the overall battle for market share."
One advantage of an open standard is that other technology vendors can connect their wares to Money. "I think having the open model, the open standard, and getting the endorsement of other technology players is biasing success toward Money," Mr. Craft said.
Paul D. Harrison, chief executive of Meca Software, agreed that Money's openness was a plus and called the new Quicken "a transition release."
Meca also sells personal financial management software, called Managing Your Money, though its business is moving "more toward delivering customized home banking software," Mr. Harrison said.
Quicken is being offered by 37 banks and two "consolidators," M&I Data Services Inc. and Electronic Payment Services Inc., which offer the product to their 1,900 bank customers at group rates. Money will be offered by at least 60 banks by yearend, Microsoft has said.
So far, the retail marketplace has voted for Quicken, which gained a million customers in the last year to bring its total user base to 10 million.
Intuit executives say the technological enhancements in the new release of Quicken will broaden its appeal.
"The software is intelligent about intercepting mistakes and setting people back on track," Mr. Ascher said.
The average user of Quicken is male, married, a homeowner, college- educated, well-off, and in his late 30s. The company hopes to draw in more women and single people.
"We're getting more toward average incomes, and we're seeing some younger customers as well," Mr. Ascher said. "We've got features that appeal to investors who are watching their stocks every day, as well as a loan reduction plan that helps you keep track of your student loans."
In September, Intuit introduced a product called BankNOW for people it dubs "transactors" - those who want to do only nuts-and-bolts bill payments and account manipulations.
Microsoft has taken a different approach, trying to capture transactors by making Money 97 easy to use.
"Our strategy is to have two product lines," Mr. Ascher said. "Microsoft is attempting to appeal to both segments with Money."
Mr. Ascher said Intuit's market research indicated that a single product would not suit both segments.
Quicken is more expensive than Microsoft's Money: the basic version will cost $39.95 (less a $10 rebate for existing users who are upgrading) and the deluxe version will cost $59.95 (less a $20 rebate for upgraders).
The Microsoft software retails for $34.95 - $24.95 for Quicken users - and trial versions are available from the company's Web site.
Microsoft reports its software is being downloaded at the rate of one copy every 30 seconds, with a third of the downloads by Quicken users.
Each company is armed with testimonials from users who prefer its product to the other's, or have switched. And each offers a similar critique of the rival product.
"We didn't see a lot of change in Money," Mr. Rudolph said. "Last year's 96 version, we felt, was one of their better ones, and this year we think they didn't make a lot of significant changes."
Matthew Cone, a Microsoft spokesman, said the company has not "had a chance to road test" the new Quicken. But "the feedback we've heard is that its very Money-like," he said. "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."
Bankers say they want to be able to offer both products to customers with minimal fuss. Chase Manhattan Corp. is among those that offer both, and that wish the companies would adopt common connectivity standards.
Intuit's Open Exchange "includes a bigger range of transactions than (Microsoft's) OFC," said Michael Papantoniou, a vice president in the electronic commerce area at Chase. "I hope that these two specifications will converge. That would benefit all banks."