From the Oct. 2006 Issue
Are you one of the majority of CPAs who still are without a handheld computer
or PDA (personal digital assistant)? Perhaps you tried one in the past but never
really clicked with it, and so it found its way into the pile of antiquated
tech devices in your office, or perhaps the junk drawer at home. As public accountants
increasingly find themselves outside of the office for client visits or travel,
the real benefits to PDA usage have become ever
more tangible, from wireless remote access for communications to digital phone
capabilities to maintaining client contact information to utilizing applications
that sync with in-office programs.
A Primer on PDAs
Of course, PDAs have been around for about a decade now, from the Apple Newton,
Psion, Wizard and the original Palm Pilot, to today’s advanced Treo and
BlackBerry models. The earliest devices can even be traced back to the mid-1970s
as evolving out of advanced calculators, although the devices in use now generally
sprung from digital address books and wireless phones, while gradually adding
various new capabilities, including integration with e-mail and contact management
utilities, the ability to create and work on documents and spreadsheets, mobile
web browsing, instant messaging, infrared functions, Bluetooth IR technology,
cameras, handwriting recognition, GPS, greater processing capabilities, and
more advanced data management.
Currently, the most popular devices include the BlackBerry, Dell Axim, iPAQ,
Sony Clie and Vaio, Motorola, and several models from Palm, including the Pilot,
Tungsten, LifeDrive, Treo and Zire. Just as most computing systems run on Windows,
Macintosh or Linux operating systems, operating systems were developed for these
handheld systems. Many have come and gone, but currently the major PDA operating
systems include Palm OS, Pocket PC (a.k.a. Windows Mobile), and BlackBerry.
The operating system is a determining factor in available functions and integration
capabilities. An interesting article on the early history of the PDA (1975 to
1995) is available at www.snarc.net/pda/pda-treatise.htm.
The initial widespread use of PDAs was centered around day planning and contact
management, both of which provided a better and more portable means of keeping
track of schedules and phone numbers. But the major productivity-enhancing additions
of wireless Internet capabilities and increased processing (computing) power
changed the PDA into a real workhorse that offers direct benefit to the accounting
Scheduling & Contact Management
To start with, electronic scheduling systems are inherently more reliable than
paper-based systems, especially for offices with multiple professionals since
the calendars of all of the professionals can be accessed. Ditto the advantages
for contact management, since remotely edited client data can be synced back
into the master contact management system upon return to the office, or uploaded
via remote Internet access. Since the information stored on a PDA is also stored
on the main system, if a handheld device is lost it is also much less disturbing
to the practice than losing the only copy of a paper-based system. The electronic
nature of the systems also enables the portability of much more data than paper
methods, along with query capabilities that ease the process of searching through
Remote Internet Access
Most news websites are now offering WAP (wireless access protocol) and other
PDA-friendly versions of their sites, and free or per-use Hot Spots are popping
up seemingly everywhere that allow users to quickly check e-mail, catch up on
the news or perform other tasks such as entering time data into billing systems,
filing expense reports, or synching contact management edits. The built-in cameras
on some of the systems can also be used to support asset management and other
Choosing a PDA
PDAs range from less than $100 to more than $700, depending upon their capabilities.
Service contracts for smart phones that combine advanced handheld functions
with a wireless phone are similar to contracts for wireless phones and can substantially
reduce the upfront cost of the device. Also similar to selecting a wireless
phone, if you wish to have wireless functions on your handheld, you should first
determine the service providers in the areas you need coverage.
Of course, the right PDA depends upon the needs of the user. For road warriors,
the more functions the better, since they will inevitably find value in virtually
any function that enables them to perform even a minute part of their job while
on the road. These airport and truck stop regulars likely already have their
handheld device strapped snugly to their belt. But for those who are out of
the office less frequently, the first step is determining the features that
can be cost-benefit justified. At the lower end, systems provide basic personal
information manager (PIM) capabilities with no remote access or web functionality.
More capable business-ready models start in the $250 to $400 range. If you or
a staff member visit clients at their offices more than an hour or two per week,
the ability to enter client data, notes, time and expenses, and then sync that
information back into the primary system is essential. If you or a staff member
a considerably long commute, telecommute occasionally or are otherwise away
from the office during working hours, then wireless Internet access may be valuable.
(If your staff or clients regularly have to contact you on your wireless phone,
then this is you and you might want to look at a “Smart Phone” model.)
Similarly, if you feel the need to take your library of MP3s or videos on the
road with you, a model with more memory and processing speed will be necessary.
Although PDAs can be a very personal appliance that users grow loyal to (much
like Mac users love those crazy computers), there should be a standard when
selecting handheld devices for an office. At the very least, the devices should
be on the same platform (Palm OS, Pocket PC or BlackBerry). This will aid in
ensuring compatibility and integration with server applications. If you’ve
never had a PDA or haven’t had one in several years, you’re missing
a lot, from enhanced contact management at the least to dramatically increased
productivity while out of the office. Handheld devices are offered in models
and with capabilities to suit almost every business and individual need and
I Think This Is Cool!
# The Optimizer Keyboard (www.OptimizerKeyboard.com)
was designed specifically for accountants and the vendor claims that its testing
shows an average time savings of 10 to 15 minutes per work day for users working
extensively with spreadsheets and databases. This can amount to as much as one
workweek per year. Essentially, the keyboard places the most commonly used commands
closer to the primary hand positions of the user, enabling the user to save
fractions of a second with each command used, such as switching between number
and arrow keys on the 10-key area; common spreadsheet tasks; as well as cutting,
copying, pasting and editing. Tick, tick, tick. It adds up.
# You’ve probably heard of CNET, but you should also
know about BNET (www.bnet.com). Run by the
same company, BNET is focused on small and midsize businesses, offering an extensive
collection of classic and current business white papers, case studies, webcasts
and interactive content created and categorized for business decision-makers.
Regardless of industry type or job function, the website provides business leaders
with a trusted source for problem solving and the tools to get smarter about
what’s working at work.
Mr. O’Bannon is the technology editor for The CPA Technology Advisor.
He can be reached at email@example.com.