Mobile computing takes accountants to a new level of productivity

By: Matt Jagst, Product Manager, Thomson Reuters
 
Mobile computing is one of the hottest trends in the consumer sector today. Driven largely by video, web-browsing, gaming, and other just-for-fun applications, it has quickly moved from gadget status to a must-have for consumers.
 
With that must-have status has come an increasing acceptance of mobile devices as business tools – even in the sometimes change-averse tax and accounting profession. Tax and accounting firms now have access to an expanding number of mobile devices and applications that can help them conduct daily business from outside the office. Forward-thinking firms are already connecting to their colleagues and clients with mobile devices, their staff are bringing them into the office, and it's only a matter of time before mobile connectivity is as indispensable as the telephone.
 
This rise is especially evident in the services area, where traditional services are becoming a commodity and Generation X and Y customers expect anytime, anywhere service. In this environment, the portability and anytime-anywhere access of mobile computing can be a firm differentiator – and a key tool for attracting both new clients and prospective new hires.
 
Over the last 18 months, it has become clear that mobile computing is here to stay. So what can it do for your firm?
 
A 24/7 connection to the office
 
The first steps for many firms who adopt mobile computing are mobile connections between employees and the company network, allowing key employees to work from outside the office. This has a number of obvious benefits, including:
 
  • Positioning your firm as tech-savvy practice that utilizes cool technology. This can help attract new clients and attract or retain employment talent.
  • Accessing real-time information – whenever you want, from wherever you are – allows you to service your clients faster and more effectively.
  • Conveniently using a mobile device with instant-on capability (rather than a laptop) helps you make better use of your time – with time at a premium, this is a key consideration, especially when mobile access frees staff from the burden of always being in their office.
  • Performing brief tasks outside of the office (time entry, project status updates, etc.) allows you to be more efficient with your time and stay up to date on relevant projects so deadlines aren't missed. This flexibility can also help professionals in their continuing battle to strike a balance between life and work.
 
A 24/7 connection for your customers
 
Once your key employees are connected to mobile computing, the next logical step is to offer similar connectivity to clients with branded mobile applications that your clients can use to access all of their financial information and your services. Not only will this help drive your firm's tech savvy image by way of new, sophisticated client communication channels, it will help differentiate your firm from the one down the street.
 
  • Offering the same level of service that your clients already get from banks and other large institutions can be a major differentiator.
  • Providing your clients with 24/7 access to tax returns, financial statements, and other key documents makes it more likely that they'll access their financial data from their mobile devices, which cuts down on office appointments and phone calls and improves client service and convenience.
  • Firm-branded apps and mobile applications tie your clients more closely to your firm and offer a variety of next-generation marketing opportunities.
 
This type of connectivity is especially important given the new generation of customers that have lived their entire lives in a digital world; it's how they live, work, and interact. When these individuals are looking for a tax and accounting job or professional services, they will expect their accounting firm to embrace technology and communicate with them in the manner to which they're accustomed.          
 
Mobile Computing Devices
 
Apple's market dominance
 
It's nearly impossible to discuss mobile computing without mentioning Apple, Inc. While Apple did not create the mobile computing space, it has brought it to the mainstream, racking up bullish sales of the iPod Touch, iPhone, and iPad tablet. The iPad Tablet product launch was the most successful product launch in recent history, with 2 million units sold in the first 60 days on the market and an estimated 16 to 18 million sold in 2010. These successes, plus the look and feel, the ease of use, the huge universe of apps, and the "cool factor" associated with Apple devices has helped to drive many people toward technology they might not otherwise have considered. It is also driving much greater acceptance of Apple products as business tools.
 
The laptop and beyond
 
For some time now, tax and accounting professionals have been using laptops/netbooks with remote access technology (MS Terminal Server, Citrix, etc.) to give field staff mobility and access to their network environment. This migration toward laptops speaks to a move to mobility in and of itself. Recent data shows that sales growth of laptop computers is still strong and that laptops overtook the sales of traditional desktop PCs in 2009. In fact, IDC Worldwide quarterly PC Tracker estimates that by 2012, portables will make up 65% of all PC sales.
 
 
Figure 1: Percent of PC Shipments – Desktop vs. Portable
Source: IDC Worldwide quarterly PC Tracker
 
 
Smartphones
 
Smartphones have also been adopted quickly by the tax and accounting profession. A perception still persists with many that smartphones are just mobile phones with additional functions for texting and accessing the web. While at a basic level this is true, advancements in the capabilities of smartphones have come very quickly. The more accurate assessment for today is that smartphones are computers that also make phone calls. And this "computer" is the major driver in the world of mobile computing today, with IDC reporting that worldwide sales of the smartphone had a 74% year-over-year growth from 2009 to 2010, from 173.5 million to 302.6 million.
 
Tablet computers
 
Alongside the smartphone, a significant game changer for the tax and accounting profession will be the adoption of the tablet computer. The Apple iPad is a great example. In comparison to the laptop, the benefits of the iPad include instant-on capability, ease of mobility, and the other conveniences inherent in a smaller device. Certainly, laptops will continue to be a key part of the tax and accounting practice of the future. But as we can see in Figure 2, the tablet computer will begin to become a much bigger part of the computing environment, especially with web access becoming more ubiquitous. In fact, NPD and Morgan Stanley Research estimate that by the year 2014, more users will access the Internet via a mobile device than a traditional desktop PC.
 
Figure 2: Consumer sales of PCs and tablets
Source: NPD, Morgan Stanley Research
 
In the near term, the iPad will remain as the leader for tablets because of its huge library of apps, the continuous stream of newly developed apps, and the first-mover advantage that Apple enjoys. Although the iPad is hardly the first tablet PC to market, it is the first to enjoy broad acceptance propelled by Apple's proven user interface and touch technology, as well as its marketing dominance. Having witnessed the success of the iPad, other vendors are in the process of releasing competing tablets. The consumer will surely benefit from this strong competition, and where it will all end up is hard to predict.

 

iPAD BUSINESS APPS
Application Name
Purpose
Uses
Free/Paid?
RDP clients (WinAdmin, Remote Desktop Lite, iTap, Jump, Teamviewer, etc.)
Allows you to connect remotely to your office Windows desktop/network
Connect easily and quickly to your work desktop to access data while working remotely; monitor and administer network settings
Both – although you'll be charged for the more popular apps
GoodReader, PDF Pro, ReaddleDocs, Air Sharing HD
PDF viewer - Gives you the ability to display any PDF while working remotely
Display tax returns and other documents at a client site
Paid
Dropbox
Lets you sync and share your files online across computers and devices
View documents from your network on your iPad while out in the field
Free
Evernote
Gives you the ability to enter, categorize and review notes from any device.
Enter client notes from anywhere with the iPad; print any notes to your document management or CRM system when you return to the office
Free
Flight Track Pro, KAYAK Flights
Provides live flight tracking
Track all flight information when you're traveling
Paid, (Flight Track Pro) Free (KAYAK Flights)
Apple's iWork Suite
Includes word processing, spreadsheets, etc.
Use essential business tools available on the iPad
Paid
WebEx for iPad
Enables Web meetings
Attend CPE sessions and other web meetings while out of the office
Free
 
Figure 3: Available right now, these iPad apps are useful for businesses and tax and accounting professionals.
 
What's next?
 
The world of mobile computing in 2011 will continue to be white-hot with the possibilities for the tax and accounting profession further developing. Capabilities and applications are improving on a daily basis with receipt scanning and expense entry, full document viewing and editing in the field, tax return status viewable by clients on their mobile devices, firm-branded mobile applications, and many more in the works. Primary vendors are also making plans to roll out mobile applications.
 
In 2010, Thomson Reuters released Mobile CS – the first application of its kind for the tax and accounting profession. Mobile CS ties into Thomson Reuters's practice management product in order to provide firms with real-time access to key firm metrics, client information including all notes and project status, and staff-related data. Additional functionality is planned for 2011 that will tie into other Thomson Reuters tax and accounting applications. In the meantime, other vendors including CCH, Sure Payroll, ADP, and BNA are following with plans to develop their own mobile apps, and thousands of tax and accounting professionals have already downloaded Mobile CS.
 
"Mobile technology has really helped our firm stick out in the minds of our clients. Now when I visit client offices, I carry a small mobile device that gives me access to all the information I need. As a result, I can answer client questions on the spot without having to look up the answer and get back to them. This simple, time-saving addition has allowed us to provide more timely client service overall." Bruce Feinberg, CPA, Lathrup Village, MI
 
Moving forward, the next generation of clients and employees will be looking for the ability to access real-time information and interact with the firm from portable mobile devices 24/7 from anywhere; and the future looks very promising for time-saving mobile devices and applications that will help tax and accounting professionals support their clients and staff. For practitioners, the only question left is whether to walk or run.
 
About the Author
Matt Jagst is a Pragmatic Marketing Certified product manager for practice management, SaaS and mobile offerings at the Tax & Accounting business of Thomson Reuters. Matt has held a number of positions in his 17+ years with the organization, including product support representative, product development analyst, trainer/consultant, and manager of the training & consulting group.
 
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