The Australian Tax Office Hates Macs

Well it’s August, high time I should be getting down to doing my tax return. And thanks to the Australian Taxation Office this doesn’t need to be a daunting venture involving paper, pencils, a calculator and about nine spare tax forms. Y’see the ATO have a product called eTax. It’s a piece of software that automates much of the grueling process. You also get your refund much, much quicker. Combined with online tools, doing your tax almost becomes tolerable. All this is a service provided by the tax office for the tax-paying computer-users of Australia.

Well not quite.

eTax is a stand alone program and will only run on Windows, not Macs.

Don’t worry, say the folks at the ATO, Mac users just need to fork over a bit of cash for Microsoft’s emulation software and they’re set. Emulation software runs about $150 – for that kind of money, I might as well get myself a tax agent and save the trouble. Oh, and Linux users – you have no hope.

Just to demonstrate how out of touch the ATO is, their website (here) claims that eTax has been tested on a Mac running (Microsoft’s) Virtual PC 7. The trouble with that is Virtual PC has not worked on any Mac built since August 2006. Microsoft discontinued Virtual PC for Mac when Apple switched to Intel more than two years ago. A conspiracy theorist would have a field day with the reasons behind ATO’s persistent and misleading advertising campaign for the Microsoft Corporation. Personally I’m of the belief never to attribute to conspiracy that which can be adequately explained by incompetence.

I first used eTax back in 2004, and at the time I remember thinking that they were a bit behind the times in only offering it for the PC. Fortunately, I was able to install the software on one of the University of Newcastle lab computers. Never mind, I thought, they’ll probably get it fixed for next year. But 2005 brought no such innovation. I was able to get my 2005 tax done one weekend at my parents’ house. And in 2006 and 2007, I was able to stay back at work and complete it there. Apart from distributing my financial records about the state, this is hardly “from the comfort of your own home” stuff.

According to the ATO’s website (here), last year 1.9 Million people used eTax. We know that the number of people using Macs is roughly between 2% and 8% (here), so somewhere between 40 000 and 150 000 competent tax-paying computer users with perfectly decent machines (by most usual technology standards) are being discriminated against by a myopic, out-of-touch government department.

In the ATO’s Taxpayers’ Charter (here and here) they claim that they will:

  • “act impartially” [Nope, totally partial towards PC users]
  • “respect and be sensitive to the diversity of the Australian community” [Nope, disrespectfully insensitive to diversity among computer users]
  • “act fairly and without either perceived or actual bias” [Nope, unfair bias towards PC users]
  • “not discriminate against or favour any taxpayer” [Nope, discriminate against Mac users, favour PC users]
  • “act with due care and diligence” [Nope, carelessly produce a flawed piece of software]

Why shouldn’t I, as a Mac user, be entitled to the same rights as a PC user. People choose to use Apple computers for a variety of reasons, and given the degree to which computers play a role in our lives, surely using a Mac or PC computer platform could be considered a lifestyle choice. This is discrimination and should not be permitted. Do you think I’m drawing a long bow? Maybe you’re right. Okay, let’s consider it from a government/commercial conflict perspective. Suppose the ABC was only available to people who purchased a Sony TV, or the RTA (or equivalent) only permitted registration of cars made by Ford. How is the ATO doing anything different? Whatever way you look at it, it is unethical and unacceptable.

Although I can’t find any direct quote from the ATO, many commentators agree that the reason behind the ATO insisting on restricting the availability of this public service to Microsoft customers, is that the job of allowing anybody with a computer to  access eTax would be too difficult for such a small minority.

Are Mac users a small minority? and would it be too hard to make the service available to Mac users? Firstly, no, and secondly, even if it were, that would be no excuse. There are between 40 000 and 150 000 potential Mac eTax users. When even the smallest building society can provide internet banking facilities to its Mac, PC and Linux members, why can’t the ATO pull this together? They are not a business that has to worry about profit, eTax is a public service that should not just cater for 92% of potential users.

Back in the 90s, most computer programs were individual applications (“stand-alone apps”) that would be individually launched and perform specific tasks. These days most applications are available as web-pages (“web apps”). Email, games, word processors, photo managers and many other types of software are available through the browser (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, etc). Things like Gmail, Facebook or your Internet Banking system are accessed as web-pages. Certainly most internet specific programs are now web apps. This keeps things secure, universal and user friendly. eTax is not a web app, it is an individual program that is downloaded and launched separate from your browser. This is a fundamental flaw of eTax. It should never have been produced as a stand-alone app, and it has no future as one.

Last year, the tax commissioner had this to say about eTax development (from here): “…we will redevelop e-tax to make it compatible with any computer system that has internet access. We will test this with a small group of users in 2008, aiming to make it available more broadly in future years – pending the success of the trials.”

Future years? Pending the success? This is a cop-out from a government department who are ignoring their responsibilities.

eTax may be modern and innovative to the suits working for the ATO, but as a piece of software it is stuffy, antiquated and fundamentally flawed. The ATO are embarrassing themselves by producing such an ugly, inefficient and old-fashioned stand-alone program, and they are arrogantly discriminating against Mac and Linux users by making it only available to Microsoft customers.