A CPA Trendlines survey by Bay Street Group LLC conducted for the AICPA during the summer and still open to respondents, posed the open-ended question, “What’s your favorite tech gizmo, gadget, toy or tool at the moment? And why?”
Running down the list, the glaring trend was in mobile devices and other tools for working remotely. Some items listed: various BlackBerry devices including the Bold, Storm and World Edition; iPhone, iPod touch, Kindle (electronic books); netbooks; and other PDAs and smartphones, in general.
Respondents who listed these tools acknowledged that they use them not only for e-mail access and other work-related tasks but also for the occasional crossword puzzle or sports update. However, most highlighted the ability to connect with clients and colleagues, as well as to schedule appointments on the road. They also have begun using certain applications on these devices for a variety of work-related tasks, such as time tracking and invoicing while working with clients outside the office.
The bottom line is that mobile technology is saving CPAs time. And time is money.
“The smartphone/PDA continues to revolutionize business. As companies continue to find new and productive uses of their phones, you have to ensure your company is able to connect anytime from anywhere,” said Bob Davis, IT manager for Ohio-based accountants and business consultants Rea &Associates, which allows all partners and principals to have their own phone connected to the corporate e-mail service. “Right now, primary use of the smartphone is just e-mail, but we’re seeing more and more apps being built that will allow us to do even more.”
Communication is an obvious benefit of mobile connectivity, but many CPAs have tapped into additional functionality of these devices. Many of them quoted the phrase from the popular iPhone commercial, “There’s an app for that.”
Bruce Tharel, who owns a small CPA firm in Clinton, Okla., uses his BlackBerry Bold to manage multiple e-mail accounts and occasionally uses it to pull up and edit client Word documents and Excel spreadsheets using an application called Documents to Go by DataViz. He acknowledges most people likely wouldn’t want to use such functionality too often on such a small screen, however.
Chastity Hooks owns a small CPA firm in Lafayette, La., and has been using two features on her BlackBerry Bold lately—a local search application called Poynt, and Vlingo, which lets users speak what they want the phone to do, such as dial a client’s number or search the Web for an address while driving. Both are free downloads. Vlingo offers an upgrade for $17.99 that has additional features such as the ability to send e-mails and text messages.
Extras like these are the reason sole practitioner Michele Peace favors the iPod touch, which she purchased about a year ago after she had dropped her Palm Pilot for the fourth time and needed to replace it—again. Peace’s family uses Verizon, and she didn’t want to switch carriers to get the iPhone, which in the U.S. is only available to AT&T subscribers. The iPod touch requires WiFi for Internet connectivity instead of running on a cellular plan.
Now, she’s a proponent of all the apps—especially the free or low-cost ones (some cost between $1 and $10.) Several of them are accessible even without Internet access.
One of the biggest benefits for the CPA is timekeeping through an application called TimeWerks, which allows Peace to track, invoice and e-mail billable time through a built-in stopwatch called Task Timer. The application costs $9.99 to download. It is a one-time fee. Before finding the app, Peace, who travels to many clients’ offices in her role as a consultant for Chardon, Ohio-based MJMK Solutions LLC, carried a calendar in her purse and wrote down how much time she spent with each client.
Because she is on the road a lot, she also downloaded a password keeper called SplashID, which costs a one-time fee of $9.95 to download, but she keeps limited information on it.
Some other items accountants may take for granted when working in the office now live in Peace’s iPod touch. For example, she keeps a dictionary that comes in handy if she comes across a term she’s unfamiliar with, say, in a client’s financial statements, or when she’s writing a memo.
A high-powered business calculator (10BII Calc) provides access to stocks, bonds, depreciation and conversions and can be downloaded from Apple’s App Store for a one-time fee of $5.99. Similar physical financial calculators, by comparison, cost from $30 to $100.
Peace provides outsourced accounting work to some publicly traded companies and frequently works at those clients’ offices instead of her own. To accommodate this routine, she stores Excel and Outlook reference guides and business networking and productivity books on her iPod touch instead of purchasing a separate electronic reading device like a Kindle, which some CPAs said they use as well. Podcasts also help her learn on the go. She can listen to them while driving. One of her personal favorites is from Stever Robbins, the “Get-It-Done Guy Quick and Dirty Tips to Work Less and Do More.” His segments are short (typically less than six minutes) and funny, Peace says, so she can listen to a few in one trip. Plus, if he mentions a certain Web site or resource for more information, the transcript is available on her iPod touch, so she doesn’t have to stop driving to write it down.
NOTEBOOKS SHRINK, MARKET GROWS
Another device gaining popularity among CPAs, and in general, is the netbook or mini-notebook PC. The DisplaySearch Q3 ’09 Quarterly Notebook PC Shipment and Forecast Report found the mini-note PC—or netbook—market grew 40% quarter over quarter and experienced nearly twice the 22% growth rate of larger notebooks. DisplaySearch highlighted the fact that in North America, telecom providers are aggressively marketing netbooks when customers sign up for two-year contracts for cellular data packages. They cost anywhere from $300 down to a penny, depending on the deal.
Tier 1 brands of netbooks gaining popularity include Acer, HP, Dell, Lenovo and Toshiba, while Asus, the pioneer in mini-note PCs, has steadily been losing share, according to the DisplaySearch report.
Abbie Watters, a CPA in Dallas, came across a deal with Best Buy and Sprint to get a Compaq Mini 110c-1040DX netbook for 99 cents when contracting for two-year wireless access, which costs her about $60 a month. She also likes the fact that the wireless card is built into the machine so she doesn’t have to worry about losing a physical card, like the Merlin s620 PCMCIA card she used to have.
Those who cited netbooks as their favorite tech toy in the CPA Trendlines survey listed portability as the primary reason. Most netbooks weigh between 2 and 3 pounds, with screens ranging from 8 to 10 inches, keyboards about 90% the size of those on full-size notebooks and batteries lasting from five to 10 hours, according to industry consultants.
Watters said her netbook weighs less than the power supply on her son’s laptop, and it is small enough to fit in her purse.
One word of caution Davis and others give is to password-protect the devices. This will prevent client data from being exposed if a device is lost or stolen.
“Data security is always a concern,” Davis said. “We have a policy that says you should have a four-digit password to have access to it.”
Others in the industry recommend much stronger passwords with at least eight characters containing symbols and numbers as well as uppercase and lowercase letters. On the iPhone, the only option is four digits. However, the device can be set to erase all data after 10 failed login attempts. BlackBerry also lets you set maximum failed attempts, which can be a critical security component. (For tips and resources on this topic, see “Password Management Strategies for Safer Systems,” JofA, July 09, page 54, and “Protect Your Portable Data—Always and Everywhere,” JofA, June 09, page 30)
Tech Talk is a column by JofA Senior Editor Alexandra DeFelice about how accountants are using technology to improve their businesses. To comment on this article or to suggest a column idea, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 212-596-6122.
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