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|ERIC E. COHEN, CPA, heads Cohen Computer Consulting in Rochester, New York. His e-mail address is eric@computer cpa.com . He also has a home page: www.computercpa.com .|
ccountants are on the move—literally. Whether they're in public practice or in management accounting, CPAs are likely to be out of the office a lot visiting divisions, corporate customers, suppliers or clients.
Just a few years ago CPAs who traveled and needed their records had to heft 30-pound "portable" computers—nicknamed "luggables." But with today's advanced technology tools the virtual office is light, convenient and easily accessible.
However, finding the right tools—software and hardware—to stay in touch can be difficult because there are so many high-tech products screaming for attention. Even worse: The rapid pace of new product introductions, most of which are described in unintelligible high-tech jargon, adds another obstacle when searching for a solution.
I've sifted through hundreds of technology tools and tested scores of them in an effort to come up with a collection that works well for me and may well suit the needs of many CPAs. All the prices listed here are street prices.
While laptops continue to shed pounds and girth, for some travelers they're still not portable enough. Enter the world of subnotebooks, which are so compact they even run on a slimmed-down Windows operating system called CE. Although they have some limitations—mostly sluggish speed, cramped keyboards, lack of internal floppy disk drive and miniature viewing screens—they have offsetting advantages: instant boot-ups and the ability to run without a hard drive and to operate for as long as 10 hours before needing a recharge. For the traveler who doesn't need to load software on the road and who can transfer files via the Internet, the trade-off may be well worth it.
Two models that are popular among accountants are the Philips Velo and LG Electronics Phenom. The $509 Velo 500 Handheld PC ( www.velo.pilips.com ) comes with 24 megabytes (Mb) of RAM, weighs less than a pound and operates at 75 megahertz. It runs pocket-size versions of the Microsoft Office applications and functions well as both an Internet and a presenter's tool.
The $600 Phenom Express Handheld PC ( www.lge.ca ) weighs 1.65 pounds and comes with 32 Mb of RAM, a 56K modem, a keyboard larger than the Velo and standard-size VGA and parallel ports so it can be easily plugged into a display unit for presentations and printing.
E-MAIL ON THE RUN
When you're on the move and you've got to send or receive e-mail, you can spend 10 minutes loo king for a pay phone that has a modem port and another few minutes setting up your laptop. Or you can pull out a device no bigger than an electric razor, dial into your Internet connection from any phone, hold the device to the handset and, presto, download or upload all your messages.
If you want to get your e-mail that easily, purchase either a $150 Sharp Tel-Mail TM-200 ( www.sharp-usa.com/products/telmail/ ) or a $130 JVC HC-E100 ( www. jvc-america.com/pocketmail/pocketmail. html ). Then subscribe to PocketMail's ( www. pocketmail.com ) e-mail service, which starts at $10 a month. Caution: The PocketMail service handles messages up to 4,000 characters but doesn't support attachments, which limits sending and receiving spreadsheets and word processing documents.
DATA AT YOUR FINGERTIPS
If you want a convenient way to carry phone numbers, addresses, calendar appointments and a to-do list without having to tote a laptop to every meeting—and yet be sure the data are synchronized with what's stored in your office computer—think data organizer or personal digital assistant (PDA). These handy electronic devices are, in effect, mini-minicomputers even though they don't look like computers. One, in fact, does double-duty as a wristwatch and two others are small enough to fit inconspicuously in a shirt pocket or purse.
What makes them particularly handy for the highly mobile accountant is that all three can be linked to your office computer or a laptop so your calendar and contact-management data can remain synchronized. No longer do you have to worry whether an appointment or a contact entered in one device has failed to be copied into another. Costing less than $200, data organizers have limited functionality. But if all you want to do is maintain an address book, calendar, memos and a to-do list, consider it.
One of the smallest is a Timex wristwatch called the Data Link ( www.timex.com ). While not very stylish, the $63 watch, in addition to keeping time and providing an alarm to alert you to appointments, stores anniversary dates, phone numbers and a to-do list. Those tasks by themselves aren't particularly remarkable; what is remarkable is that you can download this information from any computer just by flashing the face of the watch in front of your computer's screen—no wires to plug in. Files with the latest information are transferred automatically between the two to keep your information synchronized. Although data storage on the watch is limited to 150 contact entries and only 31 characters can fit on a screen at any one time, those limitations are offset by having all that information at your fingertips—or just a few inches away, on your wrist.
The watch can handle two Microsoft calendar programs—Schedule+ and Outlook ( www.microsoft.com )—and Netmanage's ECCO Pro 4.0. To work with a laptop, which has a liquid-crystal screen rather than the cathode-ray tube of a conventional display, you need an $18 adapter from Timex.
Moving up one step in size is the Franklin REX-Pro5 ( www.franklin.com/rex ), a credit-card-size device that sells for $168. The REX has a somewhat larger screen than the Timex and stores up to 6,000 entries. It links with calendar/contact manager Starfish Sidekick, which is bundled with the device and can be loaded into your computer to maintain synchronization. It also links with Symantec's Act!, Lotus Organizer ( www.lotus.com/home.nsf/ tabs/organizer ), Schedule+ and Outlook. To synchronize files, just slip the REX into your computer's PC-card slot. If your computer lacks such a slot, REX comes with a docking station that connects to a computer port. REX stores your calendar, phone numbers, to-do list, memos and a large body of downloadable reference texts. Unlike an earlier version, the REX-Pro5 has input buttons so you can add new data when you're away from your computer.
Up a step from REX are PDAs. Although several types are on the market, the model that has captured the hearts of many CPAs is 3Com's Palm III ( www.palm.com ). With all its irritating shortcomings (hard-to-read small screen, clumsy manual data input), it can perform more functions better than any similar device. It weighs only six ounces, fits in the palm of your hand (4.7" by 6") and costs about $229.
You can enter data into it in multiple ways: writing on the screen with a stylus and using an easy-to-learn shorthand called Graffiti; typing into a plug-in third-party keyboard; or, best of all, downloading Internet data or e-mail from your computer. The Palm comes with a cradle that plugs into your computer: Place the Palm in the cradle, tap a button and data between the two devices are synchronized automatically. The Palm also comes with basic software for keeping track of your calendar, address book, expenses, to-do items and notes. For about $100, you can add a wired or a wireless modem and pager unit.
In addition, dozens of third-party programs are available to do many different things—from playing chess to synchronizing with a variety of sophisticated contact-management applications such as Goldmine ( www.goldminesw. com ), Act!, Outlook and Lotus Organizer.
Unlike the REX, where data entry is an excruciatingly slow process, the Palm is designed for easy data entry and the implications of this synchronization capability are vast. For example, while on a client visit you can enter data into the Palm and it will automatically update your office systems.
Whether you're collecting paperwork for a tax return, documenting physical inventory counts, gathering images for Web site development or creating a newsletter, a digital camera may be the perfect tool. Instead of using film, digital cameras record images in digital form on a memory card. Once recorded, the images can be printed directly or transferred to a computer, where they can be manipulated (because they are digital) and easily stored.
My favorite is the Kodak Digital Science DC260 ( www.kodak.com ). The $716 zoom camera produces high-resolution images and features a two- and three-times zoom, a flash, a time-lapse mode and audio record and playback. In addition, it's able to transfer images out of the camera in several ways—(for the technical minded) via the universal serial bus (USB), serial port, PC card, IRDA and video out.
Another way for the mobile CPA to copy documents is with a scanner. Hewlett-Packard's CapShare 910 Information Appliance is a $700 portable device ( www.capshare.com ) that scans without being connected to a computer. CapShare stores about 50 images; they can be reviewed on-screen or transferred to a printer, a computer or even to a Nokia 9000 cell phone via an infrared connection for transmission to another location. The CapShare also can transfer files by the more conventional serial cable connection. It creates easy-to-view Adobe Acrobat-formatted files.
The device scans almost anything—no matter whether it's flat and bound in a book or is a document with an unusual size (as long as the original is not too glossy). You can even put together irregular but connected areas such as the continuation of an article across several columns.
Many CPAs who travel a lot find their laptops' pointing devices, which substitute for mice, difficult to work with. Trackballs were the first substitute design; then came touch pads and devices that look like erasers stuck in the keyboards. Here are three other ways to replace the mouse.
- Write (or click) on. Handwriter Manta ( www.cic.com ), which costs about $300, is an invaluable tool if most of your computer work involves clicking a mouse, not typing, and such tasks as doing a PowerPoint presentation or reading e-mail. Handwriter Manta comprises two units: a tablet about the size of a mouse pad that attaches to your computer's serial port and a cordless, battery-powered "pen" that performs mouse functions when it's tapped on the tablet and operates like a pen if you use it to write on the tablet; the output of the writing appears on the computer screen. If you block print with the pen, Handwriter Manta will optical-character-read (OCR) the printed letters and transform it in a file that can be edited. The OCR function is not very accurate, but if all you want to do is save sketches or just a few notes, that's not a problem.
- An alternative to the Manta is the Crosspad Portable Digital Notepad ( www.cross.com ) from the makers of the Cross pen. The $338 Crosspad is similar to the Manta except it's totally portable: It functions without being connected to the computer—storing from 50 to 100 pages of handwritten notes or drawings. Later you can transfer those notes and drawings to your PC. In addition, it lets you identify key words to be turned into text and indexed for easy retrieval and can do limited handwriting-to-text translations on demand.
- How about a keyboard that fits in your hand? The $100 Twiddler ( www.handykey.com ), about the size of an electric razor, contains all the essential buttons (Alt, Control, Shift, NumLock and cursor controls) under your thumb and 12 other keys under your other fingers. By holding down various key combinations—similar to chords on a piano—you can create from those 12 keys enough combinations to type every letter and number on a computer keyboard—plus some left over for special assignment macros.
Since you need only one hand (either the right or left) to run it and it attaches to the hand with a Velcro strap, your other hand is free to perform any other function—a helpful feature when making a computer presentation.
WHERE AM I?
If your work requires driving to places you've never been to before, you know how irritating it is to pull off the road and unfold a map to figure out where you're going. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have a navigator at your side?
For about $134 you can buy a device that lets you know exactly where you are and displays a map to show you where you're going. The Delorme Earthmate GPS Receiver With Street Atlas 6.0 ( www.delorme.com ) comes packaged with a global positioning system (GPS) and a CD-ROM roadmap. The GPS is an electronic unit that communicates with a satellite in space. Once it determines your location, it feeds that information into your laptop computer, which runs the roadmap software. As you travel, the device tracks your progress on the map.
A FEW GOOD CONNECTIONS
Most older and some new laptop computers and mobile peripheral equipment connect with each other only if they're linked by special cable. Peripatetic CPAs must carry the required cables, and each time they want to connect their laptops to printers they face a few frustrating minutes making the hook-up.
There's got to be a better way, and that way is spelled IrDA or USB. IrDA stands for Infrared Data Association, an organization that developed a standard for a tiny infrared device that fits inside some computers and peripherals. Point the computer at the printer—without a cable linking them—give a print order and the file data will be carried on the infrared beam to the printer. The technology is similar to that of a television's remote channel selector.
But what if your laptop or printer, say, lacks an IrDA unit? No problem. Extended Systems ( www.extendedsystems.com ) sells the $110 IrDA-equipped JetEye, which lets laptops, printers and scanners talk to each other without cables.
A related headache for traveling CPAs is the shortage of ports on their laptops for plug-in peripherals. The more tech-savvy travelers, ironically, face the biggest problem because they use many peripherals—modems, mice, scanners, speakers and printers. A USB solves the problem, but most older laptops lack them. Plug Ads Technologies Cardbus ( www.adstech.com ) into the laptop and for $55 you add two new USB ports ready for a connection.
In carrying around such valuable equipment, CPAs have to be concerned about security—protecting both the hardware and the proprietary data they contain.
A typical laptop comes with a hole in the case designed especially for attaching a lock. Cables can be hooked to this security port to lock the unit to a hotel desk or table. However, if someone has a cable cutter, the cable will be only a small deterrent. Port Inc. has a line of computer burglar alarms that solves that problem. Its $37 Port Defcon 1 ( www.portinc.com ) is a computer security device that comes with a cable and personal alarm; they can be used together or separately. The device resembles a cellular phone, complete with antenna. The antenna, however, is at one end of a 41Ž2-foot cable that retracts into the unit. Once the alarm is set, any attempt to cut the cable or manipulate the lock generates a very loud sound. A built-in motion alarm can be set to work without the cable. The Defcon 1 also can protect your bags at the airport, in a meeting room or in your hotel room. In addition, it can serve as a personal alarm when it's hung on a hotel room door.
Today's technology lets you keep your personal information with you at all times, fit a complete office in a briefcase and communicate anywhere anytime. But you've got to have the right tools.