Online accounting and tax giant Intuit (NASDAQ:INTU) reported fiscal Q3 2015 earnings Thursday of $1.81 per share versus $3.47 in the comparable prior-year quarter. The company posted $2.19 billion in sales, an 8% decline over the prior year's mark of $2.39 billion. Below, we review highlights from the report, and discuss key themes of interest to investors that are emerging in fiscal 2015.

Earnings decline propelled by an impairment charge
The company's earnings this quarter took a palpable hit, with net income of $501 million decreasing nearly 50% from Q3 2014's mark of $984 million. The most significant driver of this difference was a charge of $263 million against goodwill, taken within the company's Consumer Ecosystem Group, which management attributed to a "bill payment strategy shift."

Intuit has changed the way it books sales for certain software products in 2015, recognizing revenue over time as services are performed rather than upfront when payment is made. Products in the "Consumer Ecosystem Group" include the company's popular consumer-based "TurboTax" software, as well as the commercial "ProSeries" software for tax professionals. While the write-off of $263 million isn't tiny, it was likely needed to complete the transition to the new revenue recognition model.

Full-year outlook revised
Intuit provided revised revenue and earnings guidance for the full year in today's report. The company increased its top-line outlook from a range of $4.275 billion-$4.375 billion to a new band between $4.395 billion-$4.420 billion. Yet management lowered its full-year operating income outlook to $555 million-$575 million from a previous range of $800 million-$830 million. 

Expanding revenue guidance while lowering profit expectations may seem paradoxical, but the entire 2015 fiscal year for Intuit has been one of transition, in which changes to accounting for revenue have made comparisons with prior periods difficult.

Without going into detail overload, Intuit is evolving its accounting to more closely mirror the income and expenses tied to its monthly subscriptions for customer services. To do this, it has to make some adjustments for legacy products, i.e. software installed on desktops, as it transitions to a fully cloud-based company. The impairment charge mentioned above is one outcome of this transition year, and is also one of the components driving the full-year income outlook lower.

Subscriber growth still exhibits admirable momentum
The third-quarter report showed, once again, that the primary growth in Intuit's business will come from online services. QuickBooks Online subscribers grew by 55% versus 2014, and are now approaching the 1 million mark, ending the quarter at a total of 965 million. International QuickBooks Online purchasers also continued to scale rapidly, ballooning by 140%, to approximately 150,000 by quarter-end.

Intuit's new "QuickBooks Self-Employed" is geared toward a growing army of freelancers and entrepreneurs. Image: Intuit,

While shareholders of Intuit may be at risk of becoming jaded by the high rate of online customer acquisition that the company seems to achieve quarter after quarter, management isn't pausing for breath. Last quarter, Intuit launched "QuickBooks Online Self-Employed," a version of its flagship online accounting product aimed at the increasing numbers of freelance and contract entrepreneurs in the current economy.

For a solo entrepreneur who files a "Schedule C" on his or her tax return at the end of the year, QuickBooks Online, which can run between $12.95 and $39.95, may be overkill. For as little as $7.99 a month, QuickBooks Online Self-Employed provides basic income and expense tracking, with support for quarterly estimated tax filing, as well as summary reporting for year-end income tax purposes, as the graphic above indicates.

The company reported that the subscriber base for this new product tripled last quarter, from 5,000 to 15,000. QuickBooks Online Self-Employed provides a glimpse into management's opportunism. The burgeoning freelance economy, as exemplified by the rise of independent contractor platforms such as Upwork, and crafts marketplace Etsy (NASDAQ:ETSY), presents numerous avenues to revenue for a provider of online accounting services like Intuit. The product is just the latest example of Intuit's determination to transition into a cloud-based, subscription-oriented service company.

Cash flow remains strong
The recurring revenues from the subscription model of QuickBooks Online continues to favor Intuit's cash flow. Through the first three quarters of this year, cash flow from operations increased to $1.72 billion versus $1.53 billion in the same period last year. Management is bent on putting some of that robust cash generation to work for shareholders.

During the quarter, Intuit repurchased $568 million worth of its own shares. The company also authorized another $2 billion of share repurchases, for a total authorization of $2.6 billion.

Intuit is also returning more dollars to shareholders via dividends. The company board authorized a 32% quarterly dividend increase versus 2014, to $0.25 per share, to be paid out in the fourth quarter. Management cited "more recurring and predictable revenue streams" as a rationale for the dividend increase, as it has in prior quarters this year.

Shareholders will likely tolerate the transitions of fiscal 2015 as Intuit ramps up its cloud-based subscription services, especially if the results continue to manifest in such shareholder-friendly actions in 2016.