The Basics of Computer Software Depreciation – Common Q’s Answered

Some parts of GAAP accounting rules can be more tricky, and software and how it is depreciated can be one of those.

Most software is depreciated over a useful life, but there can be a type of software which is not depreciated (if it is considered R&D software).

First let’s talk about depreciation and amortization, and then fixed and intangible assets– and how it all fits into software as an asset.

What is Depreciation? Amortization?

Depreciation, in its most simplest explanation, is the spreading out of the cost of a big expense for a business.

You may also hear the word depreciation incorporated with amortization, which is essentially the same thing as depreciation but for intangible assets.

The deprecation of an asset does two things:

  • Represents the (real) depreciation (or loss) in value of an asset over time
  • Gives a more consistent representation of a company’s financials from year to year

Assets can lose value over time for a variety of reasons.

A more traditional physical asset, such as a piece of equipment or machinery used to manufacture products, breaks down over time as its parts get old—and must eventually be replaced.

Even a non-physical, or intangible asset, can lose value over time—a brand may become less popular with younger consumers, or a proprietary technology may lose value as emerging tech takes its place.

As such, companies need to reflect this reality in their financials, and so they depreciate the asset on the balance sheet over time. This reduces its value on the balance sheet as years goes on.

Is Software a Fixed Asset?

There’s many types of assets that get depreciated over the years, and they can be defined either as a long term fixed asset such as Plant, Property, and Equipment, or as an intangible asset / Goodwill.

These can include assets such as:

  • Plant, Property, Equipment
    • Land
    • Buildings
    • Machinery and Equipment
    • Software
    • Information Technology Assets
  • Intangible Assets
    • Brand power
    • Intellectual property
    • Patents

The accounting for intangible assets and goodwill is a little tricky as it relates to acquisitions, and its treatment for depreciation (amortization) is different than for fixed assets.

However, in the case of computer software, most companies report that as part of their fixed Plant, Property, and Equipment assets. Therefore most companies consider software as a fixed asset.

Is Software Depreciated or Amortized?

Because software nowadays has become an integral part of business, it is now included as a fixed asset on most company’s balance sheets and is depreciated over a useful life. The depreciation is expensed in the income statement over time.

Other long term assets such as intangibles can be amortized, unless those assets are considered to be “indefinite-lived”. Since software is considered to be like a physical fixed asset with most companies, it is depreciated instead of amortized.

That said, companies like Apple have indicated that they amortize their internal use software (over 5-7 years), so it can really depend on how management decides to categorize the asset.

Caveat: R&D Software Is NOT Depreciated

However, if software is purchased for R&D (research & development) it is not allowed to be depreciated or amortized, since R&D expenses aren’t depreciated either. However, if the software can be proved to have other uses outside of R&D, then it can placed as a fixed asset and depreciated like previously discussed.

Acquisitions throw another wrench into the R&D capitalization conversation if a product was in the middle of being developed (In-Process R&D Expenses), but in general it’s good to know this important distinction between R&D software and “long term asset” software.

GAAP Useful Life Table for Software (Examples)

Because there’s no GAAP standard for software depreciation, there’s also little in the way of clean datasets to filter metrics such as “useful life” or tangible vs intangible asset classification.

Taking some of the biggest companies in the S&P 500, and sifting through their annual reports (10-k’s) for 2021, I found the following “useful life” categorizations for software:

CompanySoftware “Useful Life” (2021)
Apple5-7 years
Microsoft3-7 years
Johnson & Johnson3-8 years
Procter and Gamble3-5 years
Home Depot3-7 years

Note that not every company will disclose the useful life of their software assets, or may not depreciate them at all, even if they seem to obviously drive a lot of value from it.

Companies like Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and even Google and NVIDIA have no disclosure in their 2021 annual reports about software depreciation useful lives, and either say that they don’t capitalize any software development costs, or don’t disclose any specifics at all.

Investor Takeaway

GAAP accounting can get confusing when you go past the general metrics and dive into the specifics. But much of the mystery and ambiguities can be found right inside the Notes to the Financial Statements, which really emphasizes their importance.

When it comes to computer software depreciation, it seems like the business world is becoming more and more digitized every single day.

And with these encompassing greater portions of business models, the accounting rules around software will become that much more critical in evaluating the fundamentals.

Like with many other key details of reading a company 10-k, understanding software depreciation is one of those things that’s important when it’s important.

Meaning, applying your knowledge about the topic won’t make a difference most of the time. But when it does come time to either spot irregularities, or evaluate real earnings power on large depreciation charges, the information here can be priceless.

Or, you could even say, intangible.

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