CES 2011 Gadget Round Up for Accountants

Column: Technology in Practice

From the April/May 2011 Issue

At the beginning of each year, we make our annual trek to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas to look specifically at computer hardware, peripherals and trends that could impact the accounting profession in the year ahead. If the volume of people and buzz generated this past January is any indication of the economy turning around, it is definitely going to be a good year. Some of the major themes I experienced were mobility, enhanced connectivity and integration of devices that will allow users better access to firm resources and information, in addition to the regular slew of gadgets that were both practical and just plain fun.

In consideration of the large number of tablet PCs and derivative products, the most significant business trend I noted was promoting mobile access to your data — think about reviewing your tax returns or audit reports on a tablet or smartphone while you are out of the office and when it was convenient to you. Adoption of these devices at the consumer level will get firm personnel more comfortable with working via digital images, which in turn will further drive paperless adoption. With more applications going to the “cloud” every day and data residing only in an onscreen, digital format, a tablet PC will be a very convenient way of accessing this data without having to carry a full-blown PC. While the Apple iPad started the revolution, providers such as Motorola, BlackBerry and Samsung are delivering versions more functional to business users whose primary applications are on the Microsoft platform (i.e. accounting firms).

The Motorola Xoom was one of the most impressive products rolled out and earned the Best Gadget of CES moniker for 2011. The Xoom is roughly the same size as the iPad, runs the next generation of the Android operating system (v 3.0-Honeycomb), has a dual-core processor, and supports Adobe Flash Player (which is one of the noted shortfalls of the iPad at the time this article was written). This product is expected to be available right after the busy season, where it will have to compete with the probable rollout of Apple’s next version of the iPad, which will further heat up the discussions and awareness of these tools within firms.

For organizations already on BlackBerry’s smartphone platform, the vendor’s PlayBook tablet provides an enhanced view into their smartphone and synchronizes information seamlessly, so accounting firms and other business users are sure to be early adopters. The PlayBook comes in a smaller seven-inch form factor, which is about the size of a Kindle eReader and runs its own BlackBerry Tablet OS. The other seven-inch tablet that is doing well is Samsung’s Galaxy, which has spanned a lot of interest across all industries because it is available through all the major communications providers including Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, T-Mobile and US Cellular. Some vendors even put two smaller screens together into a book format to create an entirely new eReader and tablet combination that piqued our interest. I played with the Entourage Pocket eDGe Dualbook, as well as the NEC Cloud Communicator, which I see as being prototypes for the next generation of educational devices that combine both content with note-taking. For those of you still taking notes on paper, I saw the APen A2, a small device with handwriting capturing technology (similar to last year’s LiveScribe Smartpen) that works with regular paper to capture your notes in a digital format that you can then import into your PC.

On the laptop front, I was impressed by Samsung’s Sliding PC 7 laptop. This device is a Windows 7 Premium PC with a slide out keyboard, so it can act as both a tablet and a netbook combining and switching between both features seamlessly. Not to be left out of the sliding PC mix, accounting industry favorite Dell showed off its Inspiron Duo, which had a cool “flip” feature that allowed the screen to flip quickly so you could use it as either a tablet or netbook (again, relying on your data and applications residing in the “cloud”).

We have all said that today’s smartphones are becoming as powerful as PCs, which leads to one of the most innovative designs I noticed: the Motorola Atrix 4G. This is an Android smartphone that can serve as the processor and communications conduit to run multiple formats depending on what it is docked to. Plug it into the back of your netbook and you have a laptop experience; plug it into your desktop dock and you have a full size keyboard and monitor; plug it into your car for satellite navigation on the way home. Once you get home, you can plug it into Motorola’s HD Multimedia dock and feed movies to your TV. And then, when you are finally ready to call it a day, you can plug it into the bedside dock where it becomes your alarm clock. Oh, and by the way, it is also works as a smartphone with a fingerprint reader (for enhanced security) if you actually need to make a phone call. While most of the smartphone buzz was on Android communication devices, Microsoft pushed out its Windows 7 Phone, which finally added usable “cut and paste” capabilities that we have all become accustomed to on our desktops along with an innovative “hub” feature that allows users to quickly access their business or personal tools in their own hub areas. So it will be interesting to see if this is enough to make their phones competitive within the accounting profession.

On the subject of mobility, Verizon promoted its 4G LTE network, which rolled out in 38 markets this past fall, allowing data to be downloaded “ten times faster with half the latency.” The advent of 4G technologies will promote access to applications through the Internet at much higher speeds and reliability, so firms should regularly re-evaluate the different service providers’ offerings in their areas of operations as this will lead to “anytime, anywhere” access to the firm’s applications and data.

With all this bandwidth available and devices that have front and back facing cameras, video calling is poised to become a common occurrence on the consumer side of the market. Skype announced that it now accounts for 25 percent of the world’s international calling traffic and that 40 percent of those users are actually using video capabilities. The company announced a Group Video Calling feature that can simultaneously connect up to 10 video sessions for one $8.99/month fee, which should definitely be of interest to firms, even if just for training and multi-office partner discussions.

A number of other “innovative” devices got my attention, if only to make us all think about what could be feasible. Acer demonstrated its Iconia Windows 7 laptop, but instead of a keyboard there was a second 14-inch screen on the bottom that could be used for images or a digital keyboard! Microsoft demonstrated its new Surface 2.0 computing platform, which I believe is a precursor to “paperless” conference room tables where we can interact freely with digital files “on the desktop.” This device is now a 4-inch thick table top instead of the old video box console in the first version. While there is not much new in all-in-one printing devices, Lexmark had an innovative form factor with its futuristic looking Genesis device, which they referred to as “Now in One” as it was a wireless connection with very fast imaging times. Well, that wraps up my Gadget lineup for 2010; I hope you had a wonderful busy season!

Roman H. Kepczyk, CPA.CITP is president of InfoTech Partners North America, Inc. and works exclusively with CPA firms to implement today’s leading best practices and technologies. Roman authored “Quantum of Paperless, a Partner’s Guide to Accounting Firm Optimization” which is available at Amazon.com.

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