Ray Richards is founder of Mindspan Consultants and a technology journalist hailing from Ottawa, Canada

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FreeBalance Financials

Over the last few issues, we have been investigating various Enterprise Resource Planning packages available to the public sector, concentrating on the weighty offerings of  SAP and PeopleSoft. This month I thought we'd examine a rapidly growing Canadian vendor, FreeBalance, and their product FreeBalance Financials.

Who are they?

FreeBalance is a leading developer of client/server administrative systems specifically targeted at the public sector. Founded in 1984 under the original corporate moniker of "Linktek", FreeBalance's products have evolved from early DOS based applications written in Clipper, to the currently available incarnation: an extremely robust, Windows based client/server financial management system built in Uniface. This time last year, FreeBalance unveiled a bold initiative designed to significantly enhance their market position in the public sector. They audaciously announced their intention to give away 4 billion dollars worth of software. What's the catch? There is none. The company is distributing 5-user licenses of their core financial suite, FreeBalance Foundation, previously sold at $52,000 — free.

There is no time limit... no disabled features... no nag screens... none of the annoyances usually associated with this software distribution model. They even include a free relational database and toll-free hotline support! So the next question is obviously "why?!".  FreeBalance is positioning itself to become a market leader in public sector financial systems by circumventing the lengthy procurement cycles prevalent in enterprise system acquisitions. They give you the core software to try, let the product stand on it's own merit and allow the user to decide. Once they're hooked, they may purchase additional licenses, add-on modules and so on. Of course, if the freeware adequately addresses their requirements, they may simply continue using the 5-user license indefinitely. This unprecedented strategy has obviously generated a tremendous response and will surely sustain the company's rapid growth for some time.

Year 2000

Additional concepts successfully pioneered by FreeBalance are the Year 2000 Safety Net and Y2K Contingency System. As FreeBalance is 100% Y2K compliant, many organisations whose systems are not, or those who are uncertain of their Year 2000 position are deploying Foundation as a means of ensuring business continuity. Others who are in the process of implementing a competitor's product and are concerned about meeting the January 1st target for project completion have decided to play it safe and install FreeBalance software as a contingency plan. The most prominent example of this strategy is Revenue Canada's adoption of FreeBalance in this capacity. Revenue Canada has been involved in an enormous, multi-million dollar SAP implementation for years and had serious concerns that they wouldn't be ready in time. As a result, they purchased FreeBalance to mitigate their Y2K exposures. At a cost of less than $350,000, FreeBalance implemented their solution in only 22 days.

Shorter Implementation Cycles

How was FreeBalance able to accomplish this feat in such a short time? The answer lies in its dedication to the public sector. FreeBalance Financials is designed solely for this market and the company pursues no other. As the this segment only accounts for a tiny portion of the current ERP market, most software vendors must substantially customise their applications to accommodate the public sector's unique requirements, while FreeBalance fits... right out of the box. It's flexible chart of accounts structure can support even the most complex requirements, as is evidenced by the numerous high profile organisations which have embraced this solution. FreeBalance counts Statistics Canada, National Defence, District of Columbia Government,  National Energy Board, US Department of Defense, University of Manitoba and scores of other prominent organisations among its client base. In September of 1998, a deal was struck between the company and the new Territory of Nunavut by which any public sector entity within its bounds would be licensed to use FreeBalance Financials. In essence, a site license for the entire territory! The company bested industry giant Oracle in a David and Goliath style competition to win this important contract.

Features

While FreeBalance Financials is fully GAAP compliant and supports double entry, accrual based accounting, the package is not designed to solely meet the needs of those who understand such things. FreeBalance is based on the premise that budget managers require accurate, real time information relating to their particular area of concern and needn't be accountants to obtain it. The product has therefore been designed from the budget management screens in vs. the General Ledger out. With one click of the mouse, users can get an indispensable budget summary including: original budget, current budget, year to date actuals, commitments, obligations, forecast, surplus / deficit, and free balance (current budget minus commitments and obligations), the company's namesake. If required, the user can drill down through numerous levels of detail until they have the information they are seeking directly from this summary level screen. It's new web style interface facilitates navigation through the system and incorporates familiar features such as "favourites". This function enables the definition of key screens the user wishes to access and takes them directly there, without having to navigate through a complex system. This results in a considerable reduction in training time and associated costs. As a detailed feature list is clearly well beyond the scope of this article, I encourage you to take a look at their website, www.FreeBalance.com, where you may even order the freeware package online.

FreeBalance is definitely a company to watch. The recent unveiling of the FreeBalance Public Framework, a set of tools designed to enable ancillary systems to easily integrate with FreeBalance Financials, surely marks a huge step in their quest for public sector market dominance. With rumours of an imminent public offering abounding, it will unquestionably be very interesting to see how the rest of the story unfolds.

Originally published in Government Computer Magazine column, IT Awareness, March, 1999, by technology columnist, Ray Richards.

Sidebar

The 'gushing neck wound' (as described by erstwhile FreeBalance CEO, Bruce Lazenby) of Y2K that had to be addressed immediately, and was to be responsible for the wide adoption of FreeBalance Financials, unfortunately didn't have the anticipated result. Public sector entities instead fixed their existing systems rather than purchasing new ones. At the end of 1999, FreeBalance laid off approximately 50% of its employees and retooled for a leaner future. They are currently enjoying considerable success in emerging markets where monies invested from sources such as the IMF need to be strictly accounted for.

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