Ina Fried

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Intuit Aims to Expand Quickly Into Tablets, Phones

Intuit is hoping its iPhone tax-filing app is just the beginning of what will be a large and rapid expansion into the world of phones and tablets.

That program, dubbed SnapTax, is off to a quick start, having notched 350,000 downloads in less than a month.

However, CEO Brad Smith said he knows that Intuit has a huge opportunity–and challenge–in the shift from a desktop-centered world to one ruled by mobile devices.

Over the last year and a half, the company has gone from essentially no mobile presence to one with more than a dozen initiatives, including a number of iPhone and Android apps as well as an SMS-based service in India that provides small-business owners ways to easily connect with their customers via mobile phone. Intuit’s SMS products in India also allow farmers to compare the prices nearby markets are offering for their crops, a feature that the company says has enabled small farmers to get, on average, 20 percent higher prices.

On Tuesday, the company is announcing its latest move–an expansion of its iPhone app to allow for accounts to be created and fully updated from the phone (see screenshot).

It’s part of what CEO Brad Smith said is a recognition that the company not only needs to create mobile counterparts to its desktop and Web products, but in many cases also needs to offer the younger generation a mobile-only option. On Mint, for example, half of all interactions are already happening on the phone, as opposed to via the Web.

“We never would have guessed,” Smith said. However, the company has been spending a lot of time both interviewing consumers in Mountain View and meeting them on the go at places like Starbucks. Those meetings and other conversations have led Smith to shift the company’s focus. Initially, he was focused on a world where customers needed to enter their information only once. Now he is focused on creating apps that, in some cases, means a user will never type in information. SnapTax, for example, uses a smartphone’s camera to digitize tax forms and then uses character recognition to enter the text, with a customer having only to make sure the information is accurate and then answer a few questions.

“That mobile-only world is out there,” Smith said. “We’ll have to think differently.”

The opportunity is also a challenge. After forcing out competitors like Microsoft on the desktop and then acquiring–a top Web-based finance rival–the company now sees challenges from smaller, mobile-only rivals like Square. The key, Intuit said, is the fact that it isn’t relying on the phone to do the heavy lifting. Instead, it’s using the iPhone and other devices to tie into its vast existing Web services. That, say Smith and others, gives the company a scale that its competitors can’t match. Intuit’s QuickBooks, for example, already handles one in 12 U.S. payroll accounts.

Intuit also offers services to community banks and credit unions, which in turn enable their customers to access their accounts over any phone or carrier.

Still, Smith said the company knows it needs to gain new skills and gain them rapidly. The result is that nearly every team is working on something mobile, with many of them comparing notes on what is clicking with early users. In addition to full products like SnapTax, the company also has a number of public apps on a labs site that handle everything from tracking mileage and timesheets, to Lasso–a tool for businesses to create mobile deals and promote them using Facebook.

On the horizon is a feature that will allow small businesses using its GoPayment service to process checks by taking a picture of them with a phone–much like USAA and Chase customers are able to do with their personal accounts. In response to Square, Intuit has also been giving out free credit card readers and offering a service with no up-front or monthly fees, albeit with a slightly higher transaction charge than its service for larger-volume customers. That offer is scheduled to end this month, but is likely to be extended.

The company is also trying to make sense of the opportunity created by tablets like the iPad and devices based on Android. Last week, for example, it showed how GoPayment running on the Honeycomb version of Android can take advantage of the larger-screen real estate to allow users to do more than just process payments on mobile, turning the tablet into something akin to a visual cash register.

Intuit’s employees also have been doing a lot of mobile stuff in their spare time. Intuit, much like Google, allows workers to spend a fraction of their time on pet projects. Some are potential new businesses, while a bunch are internal tools, including one notable app that calculates the cost of a meeting by adding up the salaries of all the people scheduled to attend.

But despite its progress, Smith and team aren’t satisfied.

“We’ve scratched the surface,” says CTO Tayloe Stansbury. “We’ve got a long journey in front of us.”

Indeed. Smith said that if he were grading the company on the progress it has made based on where it started, he said it might merit a 7 on a scale of one to 10. But that, he said, is not the scale he is using.

“If I score us where we need to be, I’d give us a three,” he said.

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus