In a venue where fantasy can often trump reality, some 500-plus attendees at Tech+, the American Institute of CPAs’ Information Technology Conference, were mostly all business as they crammed into sessions and various keynotes in hopes of profitably applying any and all takeaways to their practices and their clients.Throughout this year’s sessions, conference-goers were exposed to current and future technology developments, and some new vendors, as well as perpetual must-do projects and strategies such as document management and IT security.

This year, conference organizers saved attendees from lugging bulky three-ringed binders by opting instead to feature downloadable session presentations via a Web site.

Simplicity and virtualization will headline emerging trends over the coming year as technology providers will focus on intelligent design, rather than previous business models where one size fits all.

“The features wars are over and most of us lost,” said noted technology consultant Randy Johnston of Network Management Group and K2 Enterprises during the opening keynote. “The newer applications will be simpler with fewer features.”

“The average life of a server is five years,” he explained. “Now there are virtual PCs and fully functional desktops delivered across the networks.” Johnston said that virtualization reduces power usage, pointing out that operating 25 desktops at an average of 14 cents a kilowatt-hour can run into the thousands of dollars.

Extending the virtualization concept to the firm level, he reported that several CPA firms have re-created their firms in “Second Life,” while last year the Maryland Association of CPAs created its virtual “CPA Island.”

Johnston advised attendees that IT projects should be separated into two categories — those that should be completed and those that are in process. To remain current, implemented technologies should be projects such as Voice over Internet Protocol, remote access, broadband cellular and paperless. Those that should be in process include virtualization, business analytics, search engine optimization and portals.

Other tech trends for 2008 and beyond include cell phones with video projection capabilities, carbon nanotubes that will eventually replace silicon chips, a new wave of ultra-mobile PCs, and mobile wireless devices with external display controls.

FAST-RISING ACRONYMS

The meteoric rise of Software as a Service, or on-demand hosted software, has prompted a paradigm shift that poses challenges not just to a firm’s traditional IT infrastructure, but also to vendors who must now counter the trend with low-cost, high-performance solutions to retain their user bases.

“In the next few years, most accounting software will migrate into this space,” predicted Michael Bodnar of Quantum Information Technologies. “Customers are literally one click away from leaving [their current software package], so it’s up to the vendors to improve their functions and performance.”

Bodnar pointed to the rapid proliferation of SaaS CRM and business software providers such as Salesforce.com, which now has a base of 2 million users, as well as the offerings of Google Apps.

“It’s a new model for knowledge workers,” he explained. “With SaaS, your staffing and IT needs will go down and your IT spending will drop. In a traditional set-up, you have to buy enough servers to handle peak periods. But a recent survey showed that the average server use in most businesses is about 15 percent. So you’re paying for storage you don’t use.”

That has given the impetus for the influx of pay-as-you-go server farms, such as the N1 grid from Sun and EC2 Rent from Amazon, which can charge anywhere from 10 cents to $1 an hour for server space, or “storage clouds,” a model of networked data storage in which data is stored on multiple virtual servers and hosted by third parties such as Amazon’s S3 or AT&T.

“In the next five years, this will be the future of computing,” Bodnar predicted.

Meanwhile, as corporate demand for analytics and business intelligence keeps rising, CPAs need to play a major role in helping drive BI projects, providing both analysis and expertise, as well as determining the critical metrics needed to ensure the success of the enterprise-wide initiative.

“[BI] will fundamentally change the way your organization works,” said Donny Shimamoto, CPA, CITP, of Intraprise TechKnowlogies. “CPAs should take the lead in enabling BI within companies. They can provide analysis and expertise, and need to work with the other business units to identify the information needed.”

Business intelligence, which this year ranked No. 8 on the Top 10 Technologies roster as determined by the institute, can be a risky undertaking, however, as studies have shown that 50 percent of data warehouse initiatives will fail. A company’s operations people have to be trained on what to do with the resulting data — to understand what the numbers mean and the actions that should be taken.

“The endpoint should enable your people to make informed and proactive — rather than reactive — decisions,” Shimamoto said.

Though small CPA firms may not blessed with the IT budgets of their larger counterparts, with proper training they can still maintain an efficient IT department.

“Untrained workers consume three to six times more IT support and it takes two to six times longer to get the same level of productivity,” said Roman Kepczyk, CPA, CITP and president of Info Tech Partners. “IT professionals spend 50 to 75 percent of their time educating people on things they should have known.”

He suggested that firms should design an ongoing training curriculum, but keep it to less than four hours a day so people can continue to do their jobs and don’t get overwhelmed. You should also document best practices and procedures. Include words and screen shots to walk people through the process.

He advised firms to have a redundant Internet connection. At a minimum, firms should have a backup DSL cable.

DON’T FIGHT THE FUTURE

With two and sometimes three different generations working together in a firm, diverse attitudes about work/life balance and goals will undoubtedly emerge, and understanding that divide may help blend the gaps between these groups and help retain younger workers.

Sandra Wiley and Jim Boomer from Boomer Consulting helped outline for attendees a number of different ways that generations think about authority and management, and outlined strategies to help integrate an age-diverse workforce — from seniors through Baby Boomers to Gen X and Gen Y.

Suggestions included establishing yourself and your firm online; leveraging new technologies, rather than fighting them; talking to younger employees about their ideas; and creating task forces and placing the younger employees in charge.

For the 28th consecutive year, technology consultant Dana “Rick” Richardson, principal of Richardson Media & Technologies and a long-time partner at Big Four firm Ernst & Young, gave attendees his traditional overview of technology trends and prognostications.

Richardson projected explosive growth both in the use of WiMax, a standards-based technology enabling the delivery of “last mile” wireless broadband access as an alternative to wired broadband like cable and DSL, and a 60 percent annual growth rate of smartphones between 2009 and 2011. Richardson said that smartphones will soon have the ability to offers users access to shopping, ticket purchasing and airline check-in.

Also at the conference, CPA2Biz, the marketing portal of the American Institute of CPAs, unveiled a new partnership with Bill.com, a provider of online accounts payable software, to provide Bill.com’s products and services to accountants.

As part of the joint effort, CPA2Biz becomes the exclusive provider of Bill.com to accountants and their clients, and will launch an Accountant’s Program — a free enrollment plan.

With additional reporting from Jeff Stimpson and Alexandra DeFelice.

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