The iPad Decision

What CPAs should consider when weighing a purchase of Apple's popular tablet as a business tool

Ask one CPA, the managing partner of a 160-employee firm, what he thinks of using the iPad in his work, and he tells you “there’s no other way to practice right now.” Ask another, the IT head of a 400-employee firm, and he tells you that his iPad is no more useful than a paperweight.

Such is the range of opinions on the iPad as a tool for CPAs. There’s no doubt the iPad can be a useful weapon in the CPA’s tech arsenal, in the right situations. There’s also no denying that the device, as currently designed, has limitations and isn’t right for everyone.

Is the iPad right for you? This article looks at what the iPad does well, what it doesn’t do well, which apps iPad users absolutely have to have, and what factors CPAs should consider when weighing whether to buy an iPad for professional use.

Numerous companies have come out—or are coming out—with tablet computers to compete with Apple, but this article focuses on the iPad because it is by far the dominant player in the space and is expected to remain so through at least next year (see sidebar “Apple Dominant in Tablet Space”).

The first thing to understand about the iPad is that it’s not simply a smaller version of your laptop.

“It is an appliance, not a computer,” said Greg LaFollette, CPA/CITP, director of product strategy for CPA2Biz, the for-profit arm of the AICPA.

LaFollette has been teaching a CPE session this year for CPAs called “iPad for Practice.” During the course, he emphasizes that the iPad is “a wonderful tool that can be used in your practice. It is not a tool that you say, ‘I have this problem in practice, and I’m going to go out and buy this tool to solve it.’ ”

That’s because the iPad and other tablets are designed for consuming content, not creating it. For the CPA, that means the iPad is good for tasks such as reading PDFs, reviewing financial statements, going over material with clients at meetings, sending email and synchronizing Microsoft Outlook through services such as Microsoft Exchange.

What you aren’t going to be able to do easily on an iPad are tasks that require heavy data input.

“Tablets are pretty pathetic for data entry,” said Randy Johnston, a technical consultant to CPAs and executive vice president of K2 Enterprises and Network Management Group Inc. “You can do a little casual email, but the types of tasks where you do data entry for audit work or data entry for tax work or for accounting work, it’s probably not going to do those well.”

Despite its limitations, the iPad has gained some traction among CPAs. Literally hundreds of the devices were spotted at the AICPA’s Practitioners Symposium and Tech+ Conference in June, and consultants such as Jim Boomer, CPA/CITP, MBA, the CIO of Boomer Consulting, are seeing more and more of their clients carrying the tablets.

Boomer tells a story regarding a pair of annual meetings with 100 members of his firm’s Boomer Technology Circles. At last year’s meeting, held soon after the iPad’s debut, attendees were asked if they owned one. Only two did. This year, at least half of the members at the meeting had an iPad or another tablet with them—an impressive showing, Boomer notes, given that CPAs generally are not considered early adopters of new technology.

Early evidence indicates the number of accountants using tablets for work is small but growing. A survey of 1,377 AICPA members completed in January found that 10% owned an iPad or another tablet for personal use, while 6% owned one for business use. A Thomson Reuters survey completed in May found that, among 1,951 users of the company’s UltraTax CS software, 7% already use tablets, with another 5% planning to use them and nearly 20% planning to investigate their use.

What can an iPad do for you and your business? As with almost everything with the iPad, it all starts with the apps and the accessories.

As this article runs through the types of tasks the iPad handles well, you’ll notice the critical role played by a number of applications and accessories. The key accessory is a wireless keyboard case, such as the Logitech Keyboard Case by ZAGG. The keyboard case houses the tablet while also providing a keyboard to users who are not comfortable typing directly on the iPad screen.

Numerous apps can add to the iPad experience. Apple reports that there are more than 100,000 apps for the iPad alone, and that doesn’t count the more than 425,000 apps for the iPhone—most of which will work on the iPad because the devices use the same operating system. So how do you sort through all the apps to find the ones you need? This section on what the iPad does well touches on numerous key apps. Also, you’ll find a list in Exhibit 1.

Let’s take a look at the strengths of the iPad. Note: The details in this article are based on the iPad 2.

The iPad travels well. Even with a keyboard case, an iPad can fit easily into a briefcase for a quick jaunt to a client meeting or sit comfortably on your lap as you are reading on a plane.

“I can just throw it in my bag and take it with me,” said N. Mark Freedman, CPA, who has been practicing for more than 40 years and uses an iPad 2. A user of Citrix, which makes his desktop files available remotely, he uses the free Citrix Receiver app, which allows him to view his entire desktop on his iPad. “Which allows me, in turn, to get into tax returns, tax return preparation, all my PDF files, Excel, Word,” he said. “Everything that I would have in my office on my desktop is available now on the iPad when I’m out in the field, so long as I have a Wi-Fi connection.”

The iPad is great for meetings. Client meetings are a huge reason Lou Grassi, CPA, swears by his iPad. As managing partner of Grassi & Co., a 160-employee firm based in Jericho, N.Y., Grassi spends much of his time meeting with clients and going over information with them.

Grassi has downloaded all of his clients’ notes, in secure files, directly onto his iPad. The iPad has remote-wipe capabilities—which means that users can erase all the files remotely if they lose the device. Grassi’s assistant backs up his files daily on the firm’s servers.

Having all of the notes on his iPad allowed Grassi to respond quickly to an urgent client call recently.

“So last week I get a call at 5 o’clock in the afternoon where a client says to me, ‘Lou, I need to see you,’” Grassi said. “So on the way to the meeting, I’m looking at all the information that I already have on file. I’m looking at the financial statement to refresh my memory. I went right into the guy’s office. I was totally updated on everything that I needed to be. And it was a very, very great, productive meeting.

“You know what, it’s just the only way to go. I don’t walk around with a briefcase anymore. I walk around with my iPad to everything I go to.”

The iPad’s design also helps to improve the dynamics of face-to-face client meetings. “Because of its lay-flat attributes, you immediately eliminate what would be the barrier, the screen if you will, between you and the client,” Johnston said.

Apple increased the capabilities of the original iPad by adding front and back cameras with the iPad 2. This allows for the use of video-calling applications such as Apple’s FaceTime or Skype. FaceTime makes video calls with other Apple products, such as iPhones and Macs, while Skype also can connect to PCs and non-Apple smartphones. For CPAs, video calling allows for face-to-face meetings no matter how far away the client or colleague is.

The iPad works as a second monitor. The iPad also functions well as a second monitor, which is especially useful when out of the office. A number of apps—Air Display, MaxiVista and DisplayLink—allow users to access their desktop remotely on their iPad. Boomer prefers DisplayLink, which uses a password system to make sure that the desktop you are seeing is actually yours—which can be a problem if you are working beside someone who also is using a remote desktop access device.

“Sometimes the signals get crossed,” said Boomer, and you can end up seeing the other person’s desktop.

For Boomer, DisplayLink allows him to create a more familiar—and productive—working environment. “When I’m on the road, because I’ve become so used to having two monitors in my home office, I really struggle with working on one screen now,” he said.

Debbie Lambert, CPA, founder and managing partner of Falls Church, Va.-based Johnson Lambert & Co., a 140-employee firm, uses her iPad as a second screen while doing audits. As she performs the audit on her laptop, she also has a copy of the financial statement open on her iPad, allowing her to cross-check figures that are on different pages in the document.

“One of the problems with reviewing financial statements is trying to get used to flipping back and forth electronically rather than on paper,” Lambert said. “You know (auditors) like to make sure that things match up from footnotes to financial statements and stuff like that. What I will do is I will get the financial statements on my iPad from the cloud and also have them sitting on my laptop, so I can be on page 3 on my iPad and page 7 on my computer (on) the same set of financials.”

A side benefit for Lambert, who averages three days a week on the road, is that using the iPad saves her a lot of printing.

“I’ve found that to be particularly handy,” she said. “Because before, I would have to print the financials and, when you are on the road … (printing) is a pain.”

The iPad works well with documents. As a content-consumption device, the iPad is well suited for reading documents—business or otherwise. In the case of business files, the premium version of Documents To Go, one of the most important iPad apps, allows the device’s users to read, edit and create Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint) documents on their iPad.

iPads also are well suited for dealing with PDF documents. Apps such as GoodReader and PDF Expert allow you to read PDF files and also mark them up—adding comments and the like.

You can also use services such as Dropbox or SugarSync to access your documents through the cloud. Apple is planning to introduce a cloud offering of its own, iCloud, this fall.

iPads are good communicators. As mentioned, iPads synchronize nicely with Microsoft Exchange, as well as other email services. In addition, other apps allow you to use online meeting services such as WebEx and GoToMeeting.

Grassi uses his system’s email capabilities to send updates on client meetings to partners and other interested parties in his firm. “It’s just a great way to communicate to your partner group, sets the example that they should all follow about everyone updating everyone else in the organization,” he said.

Other partners are following Grassi’s lead. He estimates that 25% to 35% of the firm’s partners are using the iPad, and he plans to push for more widespread adoption.

iPads are ideal for taking notes. A number of apps—most notably Evernote, but also including MobileNoter—give iPad users the ability to create cloud-based notes that are searchable and easy to access from other devices, such as a desktop computer or a smartphone. Note-taking tools rank among the most popular and essential iPad features. An app called Penultimate provides another way to take notes. This app allows you to use your stylus to jot notes by hand and also do sketches and the like.

The iPad turns on instantly. Have you ever gone to a meeting, then had to wait while your laptop booted up? That’s not a problem with the iPad.

“You turn it on, it’s on,” Freedman said. “You don’t have to wait for boot-up time when you are sitting with a client.”

Over time, the iPad’s speed adds up. “This is one of the greatest things in the world,” Grassi said. “I can’t tell you how much time I believe it saves me.”

Even its proponents admit that the iPad has its drawbacks. Here are a few of them.

Security. The No. 1 issue with the iPad is security. The establishment of a new device connecting remotely to all kinds of company data from numerous apps creates the need for new policies and security measures to ensure that sensitive data doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.

How do you ensure security? Boomer asserts that firms should approach mobile device security as its own initiative and that the key to success is passwords.

“Passwords should not be optional if you’re using this device for business purposes and accessing client information,” he said.

Also critical is the ability to wipe files remotely off lost or stolen iPads—or other mobile devices containing, or connected to, sensitive client data. The iPad comes with a built-in remote-wipe feature.

“I think … a formal policy where you have the employee sign it and understand that if they are connecting to any of the business systems and they lose their phone, they risk everything being wiped off of that,” Boomer said. “It’s important that they back it up someplace else on a regular basis.”

There’s no mouse. The iPad’s touchscreen interaction poses problems for many CPAs. While it’s easy to add a keyboard, there currently is no corresponding wireless mouse option. That means you have to touch the screen to execute commands that you would do with your mouse on your computer.

“The lack of having a mouse to move around makes it … much more cumbersome,” Freedman said. “You really have to get used to, without a mouse, being able to touch the cell you want to get into.”

For example, to simply save a file, you have to use your finger to hit the save button on the screen itself. Sometimes, you have to expand the screen with your fingertips so you can make the save box big enough to tap, Freedman said.

No Flash. The iPad does not support Adobe Flash applications. That can be frustrating if you want to view content such as Flash-based videos and games. However, an app called Skyfire converts Flash videos to HTML5, a new Web standard that the iPad supports. That allows you to see Flash videos on the iPad.

Accounting software. While there are myriad iPad apps, there are relatively few accounting-specific applications. This hamstrings the CPA’s ability to do a lot of heavy lifting on the iPad.

“The problem that I have is that the large vendors that provide us with our tax application, engagement management application, document management, portal, time and billing, etc. … have not created the ability to utilize an iPad to access their applications/data,” said Jim Bourke, CPA/CITP/CFF, partner-in-charge of firm technology at WithumSmith+Brown, a 13-office firm with more than 400 employees. “Without this ability, my iPad acts like a desk weight, as I still need my laptop and I definitely still need my BlackBerry.”

Large software publishers CCH, Intuit and Thomson Reuters have limited offerings for the iPad. Most of those apps provide access to content but limited-to-no data entry. Thomson Reuters’ Mobile CS recently added the ability to do time and expense entry on the iPhone and iPad. Intuit Online Payroll Mobile is a free iPhone app that also works on the iPad and allows accountants to enter employee hours, review, approve and pay staff. To use the app, users must already subscribe to Intuit Online Payroll, QuickBooks Payroll for Mac, Intuit QuickBooks Online Payroll or Intuit Online Payroll for Accounting Professionals. Other vendors, including ADP, also offer online payroll apps.

But robust tax preparation, auditing and accounting apps? Those are not yet available.

The growth of the iPad as a tool for CPAs will depend on the development of core accounting software, Boomer said.

So, should you embrace the iPad? That depends on what you are going to use it for and whether it makes sense for you to spend the money.

And you need to understand that there’s more cost to buying an iPad than just purchasing the device. You also have to decide which accessories and apps you want. That pushes up the cost of ownership.

“Right now, my best iPad estimate is that you are going to spend $900 to $1,000 per iPad to deploy,” Johnston said. “If you purchase an iPad, you will need accessories like the BoxWave stylus, covers, stands and keyboards to get the most of your investment.”

Among the buying decisions you have to make with the iPad is whether you want your machine to connect only through Wi-Fi or to also have its own 3G cellular connection. The Wi-Fi version is cheaper and doesn’t require monthly fees, but being dependent on finding a Wi-Fi connection can hurt your ability to work on the road.

If you decide to go with 3G, then you have to pick a data plan from either Verizon or AT&T, adding another layer of cost to the equation. Those subscriptions run from $15 to $80 per month, or more, depending on how much data you consume.

One way to mitigate your data plan costs is by buying a mobile hotspot, or MiFi, which is a device about the size of a pack of cigarettes that allows you to connect multiple Wi-Fi-enabled devices through one data plan. In other words, you can cover your laptop and iPad through one subscription instead of needing one for each device. The downside is that you have to carry another device with you.

The iPhone can act as a mobile hotspot, but such use quickly drains the battery, said David Cieslak, CPA/CITP, a principal with Arxis Technology Inc.

Then there’s the question of how much memory you need on your iPad. Options range from 16 to 64 gigabytes, and the prices span a wide range as well. You can pay as little as $499 for a 16GB, Wi-Fi iPad 2 or as much as $829 for an iPad 2 with 64GB and 3G service.

The array of choices can paralyze some prospective iPad buyers, said LaFollette, who advises his CPE students not to sweat too much over the decision.

“So I just tell them, ‘Look, go out and buy the 16 gig, Wi-Fi only and you’ll be happy,’ ” he said. “And maybe move up to the 32 gig, but don’t drive yourself nuts trying to do all of these other things. It’s not so much which one as it is if. It’s really a binary choice. It’s yes or no.”

In the end, if you are a partner in a CPA firm, or another financial professional who reviews documents but does little data entry, the iPad might be a great choice.

“If you only use the iPad for consumption, not for data entry,” Johnston said, “you’ve got something that’s pretty usable. Interesting thought … for most partners, that’s all they need.”

To access a chart with details on more than 50 iPad applications and information on browser-based applications from major accounting-software publishers, click here.

To read capsule profiles of selected tablets, click here.

Exhibit 1: Essential Apps

There are more than 100,000 apps just for the iPad. Here are nearly two dozen you should consider to optimize your iPad. The selections are divided by function. In most cases, you can choose just one app for each function.

To access a chart with more information on these apps—plus more than 30 others—click here.

  • Cloud-based notes: Evernote, MobileNoter. Note: The iPhone version of Microsoft OneNote can be used on the iPad, but there is not a OneNote designed specifically for the larger iPad screen.
  • Handwritten notes, sketching: Adobe Ideas, Penultimate, PaperDesk
  • Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint) document creation, editing: Documents To Go Premium
  • PDF readers, editors: GoodReader, PDF Expert
  • Remote access to desktop applications: Citrix Receiver, LogMeIn Ignition, Remote Desktop Lite, VMware View
  • Social app reader: Flipboard
  • Storage: Dropbox, SharePlus, SugarSync
  • Video calls: FaceTime, Skype
  • Use of iPad as second monitor: Air Display, DisplayLink, MaxiVista
  • Web meetings: GoToMeeting, WebEx

Apple Dominant in Tablet Space

The iPad, introduced by Apple last year, is the front-runner among tablet computers, which rank on the tech gadget scale somewhere between smartphones and laptop computers. That is, tablets are bigger than smartphones but smaller than laptops. The iPad 2, for example, has a 9.7-inch screen and weighs only 1.3 pounds. Laptops weigh from 2 to 7 pounds.

Tablets also differ from laptops in that they are touch-screen devices that don’t come with a keyboard or mouse. Their design calls for users to type or do mouse-like selections directly on the screen.

Apple broke into the lead in the tablet space with the introduction of the iPad in April 2010 and sold 14.8 million of the devices by the end of the year. Competitors rushed to respond but have struggled to gain much traction, even with recent price cuts.

Apple’s sales, meanwhile, have surged. The company sold 9.25 million iPads during its fiscal third quarter, which ended June 25. That’s up from 4.7 million sold during the company’s second fiscal quarter. The introduction in March of the iPad 2 fueled the near doubling in sales.

Increased competition over the past year has chipped away at Apple’s market share, which once hovered over 90%, but the company remains the dominant player, with the iPad and iPad 2 combining to control 66% of the market in the first quarter of calendar 2011, according to a report released in July by research firm IDC. Devices running on versions of Google’s Android operating system claimed 34% of the market, but of the swarm of iPad rivals that have been released, only the Samsung Galaxy Tab can claim a double-digit market share, at 12%, said Bob O’Donnell, IDC vice president–Clients and Displays.

“The rest is just noise,” he said.

Look for the rapid growth of the tablet market to continue, with the iPad leading the way. IDC on July 8 bumped its projection of 2012 tablet sales to 53 million, from a previous prediction of 50 million, despite a slightly slower than expected first quarter. As for next year, IDC projects that consumers will buy 80 million tablets.

Neither Apple nor IDC provided a sales breakdown between the original iPad and the iPad 2. O’Donnell did confirm, however, that the iPad 2 has emerged as the No. 1 selling tablet.

The operating system Apple uses on the iPads, iOS, did lose 8 points of market share to Android devices from the fourth quarter of 2010 to the first quarter of 2011. So, does IDC foresee Apple losing its market share lead as the tablet market continues to expand in 2012?

“No, we don’t,” O’Donnell said. “We see (competitors) will continue to challenge Apple as a share of the total, but iOS will remain larger than Android.”

For more on the tablet market, including capsule profiles of selected tablets, click here.


  Tablet computers such as the iPad are content-consumption devices, not production devices. As such, CPAs have varying opinions on the iPad’s usefulness as a work tool.

  Accessories and apps are key to success with the iPad. Keyboard cases top the list of accessories, while there are a number of crucial applications, among them Documents To Go Premium, which allows you to edit and create Microsoft Office documents on the iPad, and cloud-based, note-taking apps such as Evernote.

  iPads, because of their size and design, travel well and are best suited for use away from the office. Among the tasks they handle well are note taking, accessing and reading documents, making presentations to clients and serving as a second monitor. The devices also turn on instantly with no waiting for boot-up.

  The remote access of client data with numerous applications through a new device raises security concerns. IT departments need to establish security protocols for the device, with a focus on passwords, data-access policies and remote-wipe procedures.

  Limitations of the iPad include the lack of a mouse, which can make navigation cumbersome; the device’s incompatibility with Adobe Flash; and the relative scarcity of applications that handle data-heavy CPA tasks such as audits and tax returns.

  CPAs considering whether to buy an iPad should factor in the total cost of the device (including apps, accessories and any data plans) and what tasks the CPA wants to perform.

Jeff Drew is a JofA senior editor. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact him at or 919-402-4056.


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