[IMGCAP(1)]Each January more than 100,000 people flock to the premier technology show in the U.S., the Consumer Electronics Show, held in Las Vegas.

And this year was no different.

The Consumer Electronics Show covers a lot of territory. Some of it, such as the big hit of the show, 3D television, as well as home theaters and car audio, had little professional application to most accountants (other than possibly enjoying them after work).

However, other technology unveilings carried the potential for possibly making accountants' professional lives more productive. At the show, numerous new phones based on Google’s Android operating system were on exhibit, including Google’s own NX1 cell phone.

Android offers the two major advantages that have made Apple’s iPhone so popular—a multi-touch screen and lots of applications that extend the handset’s capabilities.

While not anywhere near as numerous as the 100,000-plus apps offered for the iPhone, the Android operating system already has thousands of apps available, with more introduced every day. Many of these applications on both the iPhone and Android-equipped handsets are of little value in the business environment, but the increasing popularity and utility of these handsets bode well for the increasing adoption by accounting vendors, many of which already provide iPhone support. Along with multi-touch and applications, the NX1 and other Android-based smartphones are very tightly integrated with Google, making it easier than ever to find answers and URLs.

Cell Phones and Laptops
Many accountants are turning to cell phones as their primary communications medium. Several CES vendors were showing devices that boost cell phone usability, allowing a cell phone to be used in an area with marginal signal strength or while traveling through many "dead" zones.

These boosters also reduce the number of dropped calls due to poor signal strength. Wi-Ex was showing both fixed boosters, designed to cover an office or a home, and a portable booster to increase cell phone capability in your car. Wilson Electronics, which has also been making fixed and portable boosters, was showing its new Sleek cradle for car use. Looking very much like a cell phone cradle, the Sleek was scheduled for availability in February with a retail price of under $130. For accountants who spend a lot of time in their car, a cell phone booster is almost a necessity.

CES has also become one of the premier platforms for computer vendors introducing new equipment. Laptops were everywhere you looked, and most of the well-known brands, such as Dell, Lenovo, HP, ASUS and MSI, were showing new models based on the newest CPUs from Intel.

Netbooks using the newly announced more powerful Atom N570 processor should provide accountants with longer battery life while being better able to handle multiple tasks. Numerous laptops with the new Core i3 and i5 CPUs, and dual-core CPUs from AMD, offer accountants a step up from Netbooks while still providing an affordable and very power-efficient solution to portable computing. Along with more powerful Netbooks, there were also models with larger 11-inch and 12-inch screens, as well as ultra-thin and ultra-portable laptops.

Given how many CPAs use laptops as their primary PC, the larger screens and lighter weights will be welcome enhancements.

While tablet PCs have been available for several years, especially models with pivoting screens that reverse to cover the keyboard, 2010 promises to be the year of the slate. These keyboard-less laptops offer multi-touch screens similar to those found on the newest crop of desktop all-in-one PCs and the Apple iPhone.

Almost every major laptop vendor has announced a slate, and in his keynote speech, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer showed a prototype slate from Hewlett-Packard that is supposed to be available later in the year. Just how applicable most accountants will find these depends on how software vendors support this approach with applications that take advantage of the new platform.

Lenovo’s IdeaPad U1 hybrid, announced at CES, hedges their bet. Available in June, the $999 laptop has two processors, one in the bottom keyboard and another in the top screen, which actually pops out of the unit to become a slate.

The Road to Less Paper
Document management is an application more and more accountants are finding not only a productivity enhancer, but also a necessity. New cost-effective scanners, such as the ScanSnap S1500 from Fujitsu, were scattered along the floor. The ScanSnap S1500 is a duplex color scanner that can scan at 20 pages per minute. The 50-page automatic document feed allows you to mix different-sized documents without having to sort them according to size.

Portable scanners, such as Canon’s imageFormula P-150, are also becoming increasingly available. The P-150, which weighs just over two pounds, fits easily most laptop cases, has a 20-page document feeder, and scans at 15 simplex pages per minute, so an accountant can easily capture documents at the source. Introduced at CES, the $129 portable Doxie scanner from Apparent Corp. can scan directly to the Web, making it easy to put documents where staff can access them. The Doxie is expected to begin shipping in February.

Cloud-based applications were also very much in evidence at CES, though most of those exhibited shown were personal, not business, oriented. With many of the accountant-oriented software vendors, including Thomson Reuters, CCH, and AccountantsWorld, offering SaaS (Software as a Service) versions of their applications, expect this trend, which separates the process from the platform, to become increasing popular in 2010.

Showcased at CES were an increasing number of NAS (network attached storage) drives. Available from numerous vendors including Hewlett-Packard, Seagate Technologies, Western Digital, Buffalo Technology, and Iomega, these drives make adding additional disk storage to your staff as easy as plugging the box into an Ethernet jack.

Also demonstrated at CES were several interesting devices that allow a practice to share disk storage over the Internet. The PogoPlug and Seagate’s FreeAgent DockStar (which licenses PogoPlug technology) simply plug into your router (or a network jack), automatically install themselves, and make up to four USB storage devices, including a thumb drive, instantly available over the Internet.

While the PogoPlug and DockStar are being marketed for file sharing at home, they are also very useful in an office environment, though really sensitive files should probably be shared in another manner that offers a higher level of security. Both the PogoPlug and DockStar do offer encryption when accessed through the Web or desktop client. If you have several large USB hard drives, these devices are an easy way to turn them into an Internet-accessible NAS.

Solid state drives, or SSDs, were also just about everywhere you looked. While Western Digital and Seagate don’t offer a retail SSD, other vendors including Kingston, Crucial and Intel do. And an increasing number of laptop vendors are offering SSD drives as an option. SSDs are a bit faster and more power efficient than rotating hard disk memory, and they are also less subject to being damaged by an impact, which is sometimes a concern with a laptop that is used on the go. But they are also much more expensive than a standard hard disk. Expect prices on SSDs to come down substantially during 2010, making them ever more attractive as a laptop storage device.

While not in the spotlight, HP and Lenovo were showing their Windows Home Server hardware. The HP MediaSmart EX495 and Lenovo IdeaCentre D400 come with the Windows Home Server operating system installed, and are primarily targeted at media sharing in the home or small business.

Both of these devices have four drive bays, so at the moment, they support up to 8 terabytes of storage and can be easily upgraded when higher-capacity drives become available. Don’t be misled by the “Home Server” moniker. The Windows Home Server operating system was derived from the popular Windows Server 2003 code base, though it has a much more user-friendly interface, and lacks the Active Directory support contained in Server 2003. Home Server is limited to 10 users, which makes it an attractive alternative for networking in a small practice or smaller client.

Finally, energy-efficient “green” products were in abundance, with vendors all eager to tout their environmentally friendly approach. While this is laudable, and many practices and their clients are trying to be more ecologically responsible, “green” products are still usually more expensive than those that don’t carry a “green” or Energy Star label. Hopefully, this will change in 2010, with more environmentally friendly products dropping in price so they also become more economically friendly as well.

It’s still very early in the year, and many accountants and their clients have had to deal with a harsh economy. Hopefully, some of the new technology being demonstrated at CES will make this an easier task.

Ted Needleman is senior director of the Technical Services Division of Industry Analysts Inc., an independent market research firm and testing laboratory, as well as a contributing editor to Accounting Today.


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