There seems to be a new hardware development almost every couple of months. Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel, came up with what's known as "Moore's law" -- the number of transistors in a computer CPU doubles every two years.
While few of us have the know-how (or inclination) to count transistors that now number over a billion on the latest CPU chips, Moore's Law does illustrate that the pace of technology is continuously developing.
That presents many accountants with a quandary -- how much hardware is enough? And how new does hardware have to be to keep an accounting practice effective, efficient and competitive?
ONE SIZE HAS NEVER FIT ALL
Different practices take different approaches to technology acquisition and implementation. In larger firms, there is often a formal plan in place that lays out what technologies are going to be implemented, how they are to be used, and where the particular technology is to be obtained.
With the explosion in available and affordable devices, even those practices with a formal technology plan have been forced to recognize the reality of BYOD -- "bring your own device" -- where staff want to access firm data and software using their own hardware.
But deciding what devices your practice should have has never been an easy one. And with new technology coming at what sometimes seems like an exponential rate, that decision is not likely to get easier.
There are, however, technologies that your practice really needs to employ, as well as some that you need to consider seriously. While every practice is different and has different needs, here's our take on the must-haves and should-haves. We've left smartphones out of the discussion - that one's a no-brainer.
STICKING TO THE BASICS
For some strange reason, the trend seems to be that you should only have one computer - be it a desktop, laptop or one of the extremely lightweight notebook computers known as ultrabooks. That might have been true several years ago, when a decent desktop cost almost a thousand dollars and a good laptop as much or more.
But it no longer makes financial sense, given the prices of current technology. And it certainly doesn't make sense from a productivity point of view. A laptop is fine when you're on the road. Today's laptops are powerful enough for almost any application, and you can get a pretty decent one for $500 or so. If you do a lot of traveling, you can go more expensive with an ultrabook, or less expensive with a Chromebook. Both weigh in under three pounds, making them a lot easier to schlep when you're traveling for weeks or even just the day.
One piece of hardware that many accountants simply don't think about is a numeric keypad. Few notebooks have an actual keypad, something that's instantly missed when you're working with any number-oriented application, be it a spreadsheet, financial modeling, or just making adjustments to a client's general ledger. Considering that a typical keypad, like the Targus Numeric Keypad with USB hub, costs less than $35, and there are even less expensive models available, having one in your laptop case is a must.
For many users, a laptop was purchased as a replacement for a desktop. When you're in the office, though, it doesn't make any sense to strain your eyes with a 14-inch or 15-inch notebook screen, especially if you're doing anything with numbers. There are plenty of small form-factor desktops with nicely sized hard drives that still leave plenty of room on your desktop for a large monitor. With 24-inch displays available in the $200 range, your productivity is likely to be considerably better than having to deal with a small laptop screen. The newest versions of Windows allow more than one open window on a monitor, so getting the largest monitor your desk can hold makes excellent sense.
Even a sole proprietorship these days has a network. And if you have a network, you should have a server. It doesn't have to be rack-mounted, though even a half-size rack is nice to have, letting you put a server, patch panel, switch, and even an uninterruptible power source in a single, neatly organized place. Someone with a heavy technology background will give you a much different definition of what constitutes a server than the salesperson at Best Buy, but even just a dedicated PC that's used to store shared files and backups can serve as the centerpiece of a network. A true server, with redundant power supplies and multiple RAIDed disk storage, is a must-have for a larger office. HP, Dell and Lenovo all offer true servers for $2,000 or less that will serve the average smaller practice well.
Along with a network server, another must-have is Network Attached Storage. While it's not difficult to share hard disk space on the drives within the PCs on your network, or external USB hard disks attached to various workstations, a drive that plugs directly into the network and has hard drives with hot-swap and RAID capability (you can remove a failing drive and rebuild the RAID array with a new drive installed), is the best choice for storage that's going to be shared by multiple network users. Some examples of NAS units are Seagate's new business-oriented four-bay and eight-bay rack-mount NAS Storage Units, and D-Link's DNS-345 four-bay NAS. Both of these can be purchased empty, and you can install your own drives, or with drives already installed in capacities up to 16 terabytes for the four-bay models or 32TB for Seagate's eight-bay NAS.
Finally, the last must-have on our list is a scanner. Regardless of whether you do full-blown document management, or simply want to scan receipts and correspondence, no accounting practice should be without one. Stand-alone scanners are inexpensive, and most scanners now have the capability of scanning to e-mail and the cloud. If you don't already have a scanner, consider a new multi-function printer, which will give you both scan capability and another printer.
MAKE A WISH LIST
All of the above are hardware and technologies that are justifiable and necessary, even for most small practices. Then, there are goodies that can make you more productive if you can fit them into your budget.
One thing that more accountants should give serious thought to is the security of their and their clients' records. While not every document, financial record, or client file is highly sensitive, with the possibility of being hacked, spied on, or just plain losing files to theft, there are probably some files and records that could use another layer of security. Biometric access is one approach, but if the physical media is removed, the actual files may be accessible. If your budget allows, consider purchasing one or more drives that perform hardware encryption on the files before they are written to disk. Apricorn makes several models of this type of drive, with some using a fingerprint reader for access to the drive and others using a keypad. The files themselves are encrypted in hardware and written in encrypted format on the drive, so if the disk is removed from the drive enclosure, the files cannot be recovered. They are likewise decrypted in hardware when they are read.
Another addition to your wish list should be a second screen. This can be a standard video monitor (most PCs and laptops have a second video output) or a USB-powered display. AOC, Toshiba and other vendors offer these and they let you monitor one application while working full-screen on another.
Adding a new printer or MFP to your office inventory is another place to step up your technology. Hewlett Packard's latest Officejet Pro X models come in printer-only and MFP models, and can spit out pages as fast as 70 a minute, making it the world's fastest desktop inkjet printer.
A wide-format MFP, like Epson's WP-7520, let's you print large spreadsheets without having to tape pages together and throws in a scanner with the ability to scan originals up to 11x17 inches.
If you haven't exhausted your budget yet, there are plenty of mobile productivity enhancers. A tablet is an obvious choice, and a case with a Bluetooth keyboard not only protects your iPad or Android tablet, but makes it much easier to use when you need to type a document or e-mail, or work with a spreadsheet.
Oversize smartphones -- nicknamed "phablets" -- offer some users a hybrid with a screen smaller than a typical mini-tablet but larger than most smartphones. Not every phone manufacturer offers a model, but an increasing number of them are bringing a version to market.
Another piece of hardware to consider is a mobile hotspot. These use your cellular carrier's 3G or 4G network to provide Wi-Fi so you can connect your laptop or tablet to the Internet pretty much anywhere your cell phone can receive a signal. Some smartphones have the ability to be used as a mobile hotspot, so check if yours has this functionality before buying an external unit.
Finally, while it makes most people look somewhat ridiculous, a Bluetooth headset really does prove useful if you spend a lot of time on your cell phone. The latest models, like Plantronics' new Voyager Edge, have excellent clarity and circuitry that makes your side of the conversation easier for your caller to understand.
WHERE DOES THE CLOUD FIT?
No discussion of new technology would be complete without including the "cloud." From a systems viewpoint, cloud-based services and storage can be simply thought of as servers. They just aren't your servers, nor are they physically under your control.
That, in itself, doesn't mean that cloud storage or hosted applications don't have a place in your technology plan. As a place to share files and collaborate, cloud-based storage providers such as Dropbox, iCloud and others may be a very viable alternative or adjunct to network-based storage.
Still, at the moment, there are some situations where server and network-based storage, such as NAS, present a better choice. These include instances where large files frequently need to be written or read (using the cloud for these files can be considerably constrained by Internet bandwidth and speed), and sensitive material that needs to be encrypted.
You can encrypt files locally before transferring them to cloud-based servers, and decrypt them after they are downloaded locally for use, but it's generally faster and easier to just use locally attached encrypted drives for this purpose.
ON THE HORIZON
It's never easy to guess what will be the "next big thing" -- that's what makes technology so exciting. Several years ago, social media was something your teenager did. Today, it's a vital part of doing business.
So any projection of where technology will hit next is, at best, a guess. 3D printing is an exploding technology, but where it fits in a professional office is difficult to foresee. So is ultra-high-definition (4K) video - spreadsheets need to be crisp and clear, but they're not something that requires a $1,000-plus monitor to view.
However, an interesting aspect of technology is that some technologies first developed for big companies have found their way into common use, while other technologies, initially developed for personal use, have become business staples.
One such technology that you might want to keep your eye on is videoconferencing. Videoconferencing has always been a useful technology in the business world, and with the increasing expense and inconvenience of travel, the technology is becoming ever more popular. But videoconferencing has, until very lately, been expensive, requiring elaborate equipment and large amounts of bandwidth.
High-speed Internet and 3G and 4G cellular data services have changed the paradigm. Skype, FaceTime and cloud-based videoconferencing services are all relatively inexpensive. Large companies and practices are unlikely to give up their Cisco Telepresence systems anytime soon, but few smaller practices have the resources to invest in this type of system, nor do many of these practices' clients.
Fortunately, true videoconferencing system prices are falling. An example is the Logitech ConferenceCam CC3000e. This $999 system provides a tilt-and-pan camera and hands-free speakerphone audio. Add a large-screen flat panel monitor or TV, and you have a very workable videoconferencing system perfect for use in practices with offices in multiple locations.
EXPERIENCE, NOT EXTRAVAGANCE
When it comes to technology, it's really difficult for most people to travel in the middle of the road. Users tend to be either technophobic, restricting themselves to only those devices they feel they absolutely must have to be productive, or go completely over the top, riding the bleeding edge, with VIP status at Best Buy or the local technology shop.
Of the two, you're probably best off leaning toward going over the top. When you're running a practice, you have to look at the bottom line, and every dollar that you spend on technology that doesn't have an immediate positive effect on increasing revenue needs to be justified.
But the justification of investing in technology, even if you are unsure if it will ever have a direct effect on revenue, is that you have to know about the potential a new technology or device offers. Not only to you and your firm, but to the clients that will be looking to you for guidance and advice.
Earlier, we stated that it might be difficult to imagine how 3D printing could be used in your practice. But if you have a diverse set of clients, investing $2,000 in a Makerbot printer, or even $300 in a Printrbot Simple 3D printer, might give you a better understanding of how 3D printing could possibly benefit a smaller client who has to test out prototypes, or perhaps needs to frequently order customized small parts.
The true key in using 21st century technology is being open-minded. When Commodore, Tandy and Apple first introduced their personal computers, none of them had any inkling of the uses the technology would eventually be put to.
The same is true with PDAs and smartphones. As technology comes into existence and evolves, it's the people who embrace the technology that have the vision to see how the technology can be put to actual use. When the Apple II was initially introduced, the main use was playing games -- Space Shuttle Simulator, Space Invaders, and Asteroids. That is, until Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston developed VisiCalc.
No one knows where the next VisiCalc or 1-2-3 will come from. But it will come, and if you're not engaged and investing in technology, you may just miss it.
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