The accounting profession relies heavily on the latest software applications to run their practices and everyday tasks, but the increasingly mobile accounting workforce has also created a greater need for devices that allow CPAs to work outside the office as efficiently and securely as they do at their own firms.
There are, of course, key hardware tools that CPAs require in the office as well, but overall the trend is clearly moving outside, with mobility and usability at the core of their must-have hardware requirements.
In February, the American Institute of CPAs released the results of its annual Top Technology Initiatives report, which found that increased use of mobile devices had emerged as the top business technology for CPAs and financial executives.
The institute report stated that mobile devices are receiving more attention as advancing technologies shift productivity tools from desktops to pockets amid increasing reliance on mobile applications.
The recent study stands to reason, according to technology analyst Randy Johnston, who indicated that devices such as smartphones, laptops and even portable scanners are "must-haves" for today's CPA. He also noted that the movement towards tablet PCs and iPads is becoming more popular with CPAs, but they may not entirely replace laptops or mobile phones.
"If you are checking your e-mail, browsing the Web and maybe reading online publications, the tablets and iPads are great, and you do see more CPAs using them for that. But iPads in particular are still expensive and can't do as much as you can on a laptop or eventually your smartphone," said Johnston. "Tablets are consumption devices, and not ideal for data entry over today's laptops. The new generation of ThinkPads are very cool. Even Macs are showing up - the MacBook Air, in particular, because of its small size and weight, and instant on and off. These are showing up in lots of CPAs' hands."
Johnston also predicted that in the not-too-distant future, a cell phone or smartphone device will be all a mobile professional needs. He specifically pointed to Droid competitors such as the Samsung Galaxy, which has multi-screen capabilities, and the Motorola Atrix, a 4G phone with two docking stations that can act as a phone and mini-laptop, effectively turning your phone into a computer. (For more of Johnston's picks, see the box at the bottom of this page.)
WANING PC DEMAND
Many CPAs can recall not so long ago when they had to transition to using PCs. Now it appears that the PC may be dwindling in the workplace, thanks largely to the increasing popularity of tablet computers.
Researcher Gartner said that it expects worldwide PC shipments to grow only 10.5 percent in 2011 to 387.8 million units, down from an earlier growth forecast of roughly 16 percent. Competition from the iPad is partly to blame, as many estimates call for upwards of 40 million tablet sales in 2011, an amount that would more than compensate for the drop-off in PC sales. Still, as Johnston and many CPAs indicated, the devices of choice for the mobile CPA remain the laptop, smartphones and BlackBerries.
At Princeton, N.J.-based CPA and business advisory firm WithumSmith+Brown, mobility, security and working as paperlessly as possible are the key components to their everyday work life. For one, everyone on its staff gets a BlackBerry, though a handful still operate on other smartphones. Every staffer also has at least two monitors on their desk, as well as a scanner.
Outside the office is no different. "So much of what we do here is Web-based and paperless, and much of our staff are often out of the office on an engagement, so what we use is a reflection of how we work," said WS+B partner Jim Bourke. "We go into the field, we have our BlackBerries, portable scanners, and we're also looking into more portable monitors, too. Having two or more of those is essential."
Bourke also stressed that although staff are free to use a Droid or iPhone or their choice of mobile device, standardization is most important - especially at a larger firm. "Everyone here is welcome to use what they want, but we feel from a security perspective that our clients will be better served [if everyone uses BlackBerries]. If [a BlackBerry] is lost, we can do a remote wipe and replace. It's easy and makes sense."
Bourke also added that while tablet PCs and iPads are gaining popularity with CPAs, laptops are still the preferred choice, as they are comparatively cheaper, more powerful and fairly light.
He also noted that another hardware essential for his staff, as well as the CPA profession in general, are encrypted hard drives.
DRAWING UP A LIST
At San Ramon, Calif.-based Armanino McKenna, standardization has become difficult as more staff prefer to work with iPhones and iPads, but laptop computers and BlackBerries remain the essential items.
"So many applications are available through our portal, with the cloud it doesn't have to be local, so we can use any device as long as you can access the Web," said Armanino McKenna chief operating officer Matt Armanino. "As we ordered new laptops, half want the small devices and the other half demand a built in ten-key."
Armanino also noted that no one in the firm operates with less than two monitors, portable or stationary, as well as portable scanners and encrypted hard drives.
Jericho, N.Y.-based Grassi & Co. has also seen increased demand from staff and clients to be more mobile, so partners Bill Fischer and David Warshauer see any devices that allow them and the rest of the staff to stay connected, travel light, and still handle their workload as essential.
They do, however, offer up specific suggestions. "A BlackBerry is must-have hardware other than an actual computer, only because today, clients require instant response, and many of those actions can be done either remotely or via the PDA," said Fischer.
"Fast, light notebooks with a long battery life to be able to take what you need to the field are must-haves," added Warshauer. "I would also say at least dual screens for the office, a wireless keyboard and mouse to stop the tangles, and a secure zip drive to get larger files from clients."
Using multiple devices is becoming more common among CPAs. Depending on the need, today's CPA may very likely leave the office with less paper, but they will have a laptop, iPad, BlackBerry or smartphone, a portable scanner, and an extra monitor or keyboard.
"Laptops aren't really the 'grab and go' for a meeting - that's your tablet or smartphone - but if you are looking for a 'grab and go' device to visit a client, the laptop is the ideal machine," said technology consultant Dave Cieslak, principal and co-founder of Simi Valley, Calif.-based Arxis Technology. "It has horsepower and a big screen, but the tablets are cool and they are very much about reading a document, browsing, light e-mail. They can be expensive, though."
"There's lots of stuff coming up saying laptops and Netbooks are going away," he added, "but it's not going to be one or the other. People are going with multiple devices, and you will be able to work on your laptop and when you go out the door, your tablet or smartphone will sync that content you had been looking at on your laptop. The Palm 3 and HP TouchPad can now do this." Cieslak also suggested that other essential hardware devices for today's CPA include solid-state hard drives, a USB-to-DVI/VGA connector for multiple monitors, encrypted drives, and wireless data stations like the Iomega iConnect.
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