From the Sept. 2006 Issue
I recently spent a very enjoyable three hours previewing some of the features
and benefits of Microsoft’s soon to be released OS, Vista. One of the
most prominent changes you’ll see is called Aero. In addition to being
visually stunning, this new graphical interface and visual style will enable
developers to quickly and easily exploit the desktop by hooking to the Internet
or locally installed applications (or both) and displaying specific information
to the user. As we’ve grown accustomed to with Microsoft, this isn’t
at all a new concept. Apple’s been doing it for years. On the PC side,
you can go back to the early ’90s and a program called PointCast, which
utilized a conceptually similar technology (albeit “push,” rather
than “pull”) to populate users’ desktops with highly personalized
information. Unfortunately, both the product and its owners were greedy. The
product gobbled up huge portions of bandwidth, and network administrators were
quick to ban its use. At the same time, its owners spurned a $450 million buyout
from Rupert Murdoch. Eventually, both the product and the company died in the
dot-com bust of 2000. But “push” has given way to “pull.”
Fast forward, and note that Yahoo! recently bought a company called Konfabulator
and mercifully renamed its product Yahoo! Widgets. Then Google got into the
act with its “Google Gadgets,” which are a part of the Google Desktop.
But it’s the advent of Vista that will again prove that Microsoft’s
prowess isn’t as a technological innovator, but rather as a marketing
one. Vista, and Aero specifically, will open the eyes of the world to the concept
of “gadgets.” I submit that, as a technological advisor to your
partners, staff and clients, you’d better have a solid idea of what this
“new” technology is and an even better understanding of what it
will eventually mean for the way we each interact with important data and the
computing devices in our lives.
What are Gadgets?
Gadgets are a sort of mini-application designed specifically to directly report
personalized information to the user and thus enhance an application on your
computer or on the Web. A generalized example would be a weather gadget to report
the temperature, while a more specific professional example would be a gadget
that pulls information from a business application and provides an always-up-to-date
status report on some chosen metric of your practice. These little mini-applications
are very, very specific in what they do. Consequently, they are both very small
and very numerous. Today, there are literally tens of thousands available, and
many, if not most, are FREE! Until Vista rolls out, you’ll have to download
either the Google Desktop or the Yahoo! Widgets “engine” to utilize
gadgets or widgets (as they’re called in the Yahoo! world). Unfortunately,
the two current “flavors” are not interchangeable, but you CAN run
the two platforms concurrently.
These “gizmos” (my term designed to encompass both camps) are
important to portal and application developers. They bring users to their services
seamlessly from their desktops without having to open a program or even a browser.
This more direct route allows increased use of their services.
So what, you ask, might this have to do with the practice of public accounting?
Let’s first think about their application on YOUR desktop. A current example
of the concept lies with CCH@Hand, the service that brings specific parts of
the CCH research library directly to your desktop. While not technically a widget
or a gadget, the service most definitely portends the concept’s usage.
And Thomson has rolled out its Practice CS product that highlights the “dashboard”
concept. Again, this is not technically a widget or a gadget, but it’s
certainly another portender. Intuit’s wiki-powered Tax Almanac service
is available via RSS, and many handy gadgets can pull that feed directly to
your desktop. (Note that each of these products has won an Innovation Award
or an Honorable Mention in The CPA Technology Advisor’s Annual
Tax & Accounting Technology Innovation competition.)
These early indicators are a glimpse into the future. For this future to completely
unfold, we need both platform and data format uniformity. Once the Vista platform
provides developers the ubiquity they need to insure usage and XML becomes the
storage format for virtually all data, we’ll see these highly customizable
“gizmos” coming to us from every front. Imagine the practitioner
of tomorrow (this is NOT far off!) loading a customizable gizmo with what he
or she considers the firms’ most critical success indicators. At a glance,
anytime and all the time, they’d see, for example, their cash, A/R and
WIP balances. During busy season, they might monitor the number of returns in
process and their average days in the office. Another partner might monitor
staff hours for the previous day while others will pull data directly from their
clients’ systems and, perhaps on an exception basis, notify them of their
CLIENTS’ critical success indicators. Every morning you might, at a glance,
see last night’s table turn at your restaurant client, yesterday’s
production at your manufacturing client, and today’s scheduled closings
for your mortgage broker client. This sort of immediate, always-up-to-date information
will make it possible to provide highly personalized and highly valued management
advice to your clients.
There are client-to-accountant applications also. You may well develop a firm
gizmo to distribute to your clients. That gizmo would poll your website and
push specific updates back to your clients. For example, you might choose to
report targeted tax news or an upcoming deposit deadline. All of this development,
starting with PointCast, then e-mail notifications, then RSS feeds, now gizmos,
dashboards and portals, has been evolutionary. The future, and the full benefit,
requires “machine-to-machine” communication. Now that we’ve
nearly achieved broadband ubiquity, we’re starting to see what that future
might hold — that the change to our business processes and professional
interactions will be revolutionary.
For now, Yahoo! Widgets and Google Gadgets are little more than toys with
some passing value. Forward thinking practitioners are beginning to understand
that the confluence of broadband, Vista and XML will bring about a significant
change in how we communicate with the data upon which we depend. Let the future
Mr. LaFollette is Executive Editor of The CPA Technology Advisor.
He was a Tax & Technology partner in a large local firm for 23 years, and
VP of Product Strategy for a major tax and accounting software developer for
five years. He is the President and CEO of Accounting Technology Resource Network,
LLC and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
He also publishes the tax and accounting blog at www.TheTechGap.com.