Co-Editors: Steven F. Holub, CPA, and Mary Cathryn Green, CPA, M. Acc.
Practioners can work more efficiently through mobile access to an office with a smartphone. For instance, tax practitioners may receive an e-mail from a client or colleague with a tax question that requires research and often a computational analysis when they are not in the office. They may then need to access and examine client documents that contain vital information needed to provide appropriate tax advice. Advisers may also need to look up a client’s phone number or check calendar appointments for the day. A smartphone allows practitioners to complete these tasks while not at the office.
Tax practitioners can also use a smart-phone to keep track of billable time for services rendered to clients, often in quarter-hour time intervals. In addition, with smartphones, practitioners who are out of the office can keep up to date on tax developments using the time between appointments. However, the primary benefit of the smartphone is the capacity to receive and respond to e-mails without delay.
There are no specific criteria for a phone to be called a smartphone, but generally a smartphone has functionality, such as e-mail and internet access, beyond basic telephone features. Which is the best smartphone for a user depends on which applications and features he or she intends to use and how often, as different phones excel at different applications and uses. This column provides a synopsis of the latest smartphones and their ability to make the daily job-related tasks of tax professionals more convenient and efficient.
Many professionals were first introduced to smartphones with the BlackBerry, which is popular in the business community. Other smartphones include the Palm Treo, various phones that use the Micro-soft Windows Mobile operating system, and Apple’s iPhone. These products enabled users to check e-mail, keep track of appointments, and maintain a calendar.
In 2009, several new generations of smartphones were released that have transformed the environment from the standpoints of speed, functionality, and applications. These new products enable users to handle numerous tasks more efficiently and effectively.
But What About My Keyboard?
As seasoned number crunchers, practitioners have become attached to the physical keyboard as the way to enter data. Nevertheless, the newer generation of smartphones is moving away from the physical keyboard to virtual keyboards using touchscreen technology. Many still offer consumers both options; however, the refinement of touchscreens will ultimately move many users away from a dependence on a physical keyboard.
One of the major factors a user will need to consider when evaluating smartphones is the breadth of available third-party applications. The iPhone has the largest pool of applications (over 100,000), while Windows Mobile units, Android units, and Palm smartphones offer a smaller—but growing—number of applications. The BlackBerry has a limited number of applications because its focus is on e-mail and phone service.
Another issue is access to applications. Apple, Google, and Palm have dedicated websites to retrieve various applications. Users will also find that some of their current vendors have made smartphone-friendly versions of their products available.
An additional consideration is the amount of memory available for applications on each device. For example, iPhones provide a large amount of built-in memory (up to 32 GB on 3GS models) for application storage. Android devices currently have a fairly small amount (often as low as 512 MB), and the new Palm Pre Plus has 16 GB. However, the memory in Android devices is expandable with the use of Micro SD cards, which are not available for the iPhone or the Palm Pre Plus. Clearly, processing speed and ease of use, which vary considerably on smartphones, are also crucial factors to evaluate.
Linking Devices to Share Information
Smartphone users can link to their company’s Microsoft Exchange server, which enables them to share and update their e-mail, calendar, and address book simultaneously. This access is one of the most valuable functions of a smartphone; it is critical in today’s fast-paced environment, where instant availability is often expected.
Smartphone users should consider investing in a communications exchange utility (with the establishment of their own domain name through companies such as Go Daddy) if they do not have access to a Microsoft Exchange server. This subscription will allow users to share and update their data at the same time on their various devices. There are also some free services, such as Google Sync, that work with a limited number of devices. There are even products (such as Evernote) that can be accessed from all these devices that allow entries made in any of a user’s devices to be automatically ported to the others.
Time and Billing
Most smartphones have utilities to assemble time records on an “as you go” basis. While some applications are not as comprehensive as others, the key considerations for tax practitioners should be based on the size of their practice and what primary system they are using. Naturally, the choice is easier in smaller practices because a lower degree of information integration is needed.
Many timekeeping utilities can be accessed through an internet link rather than via applications installed directly on the device. Now that smartphones can access the internet quickly, users can enter time records directly into their main timekeeping applications. One of the key features tax practitioners should look for is the ability to enter explanations of time charges in addition to the appropriate numeric coding. Using a smartphone makes this exercise effortless. These applications generally also permit the expeditious processing and transmittal of bills to clients using e-mail.
With the enhanced screen technology available on smartphones combined with fast internet access, most online tax research products can be accessed on a smartphone. Members of the AICPA’s Tax Section have access to the section’s resources on its website. Practitioners can use smartphones to access and download information from the IRS and state web-sites. They can also access tax forms on government and service websites that permit downloads in PDF file format.
Virtual financial calculators: Users no longer need to carry around calculators. Many smartphones have dedicated applications designed to perform mortgage analysis and address typical financial planning issues.
Sophisticated tickler systems and to-do lists: Many operating environments have applications that can serve as personal reminder systems.
Continuing professional education: Smartphones allow users to register and access podcasts and other versions of continuing education from websites, enabling professionals to complete necessary courses while away from the office.
Printing: Many smartphones have applications available that permit users to print directly from a phone to their printers using a wireless router or a network printer.
Other features: Many smartphones now include features such as voice dictation and recording software as well as conference calling, video conferencing, and scanning capabilities.
The latest line of BlackBerry smart-phones with a physical keyboard includes the Curve, the Tour, and the Bold. There is also now a touchscreen BlackBerry, the Storm.
Many professionals are dedicated Palm Treo users. Palm has created webOS, a new operating system that has added more diverse functionality and is being used on Palm’s new smartphones, the Pre and the Pixi.
Phones using the Windows Mobile operating system have been available for several years. The latest version is Windows Mobile 6.5, which includes several enhancements over previous generations. Smartphones from Samsung and HTC use this operating system.
Nokia and the Symbian Operating System
Internationally, Nokia smartphones are the leading product group. They use a version of the Symbian open-source operating system.
The iPhone operating system is now in its third generation and can be found on the iPhone 3GS and the iPod Touch. Many users especially value the intuitive functionality of the iPhone.
Google has released a second generation of its Android operating system. The newest phones in this product group include the Motorola Droid and Motorola Eris and the recently released Google phone, the Nexus One.
Many phone companies that have phones with internet connectivity offer a relatively fast broadband technology known as 3G. Broadband technology is slowly moving to its next generation, known as WiMAX or 4G.
In addition to broadband access, many of the latest phones are adding WiFi (wireless) hotspot internet access.
While phones can provide access to the internet using direct broadband or hot-spot internet access, one major concern is security. More secure environments can be found with a direct broadband subscription or secure access to WiFi technology using MiFi, Novatel’s pocket-sized wireless router that can connect up to five devices simultaneously. Professionals who are currently paying for broadband access on their personal notebooks can replace their broadband card with a MiFi device that will increase the number of internet connections for approximately the same price as just one.
Choosing a Smartphone
Shopping for the right smartphone is in many ways similar to choosing a computer. Smartphones can be used to address a myriad of the tax practitioner’s professional needs. The first question should be, what do I intend to use the smartphone for? Another decision users need to make is whether they want to use an actual keyboard or can function comfortably with a virtual one. The technology is making it an easier choice because navigating and typing on a touchscreen phone are becoming easier and more comfortable.
Visual and speed considerations are also important. A user can choose a larger and brighter screen size and resolution. Smartphones that users have recently purchased will likely be replaced within the next six months with newer and faster operating systems and enhanced screen resolution. In addition, second-generation processors touting more speed and better graphics capability will soon be available.
Nevertheless, the technology has already reached the stage necessary for the phone to be an invaluable business tool. While cost is a consideration, if a user makes the right choice a smartphone will more than pay for itself over time.
As with computers, users should carefully consider security issues and take all precautions that are recommended for computers and other vulnerable devices.
Users also should confirm compatibility with their office’s existing systems and computers. Practitioners in a larger firm should work with their IT department, and those in smaller firms should select the smartphones they are comfortable using.
Making a Change
Tax practitioners should consider the various advantages smartphones provide to improve efficiency while away from the office. The first step is to examine and test various smartphones. Practitioners can then decide what their priorities are in terms of functionality and features. Finally, they need to ensure that the applications they are interested in are available with their smartphone choice.
Steven Holub is a partner in Cherry Bekaert & Holland, LLP in Tampa, FL, and is former chair of the AICPA Tax Division’s Tax Practice Management Committee. Mary Cathryn Green is with Marcum, LLP, in Bala Cynwyd, PA, and is chair of the Tax Practice Improvement Committee. Stephen Valenti is chair of the Business Studies Department and clinical professor of accounting at New York University in New York, NY. For information about this column, contact Mr. Valenti at firstname.lastname@example.org. The editors would like to thank Danny Burke at Cherry, Bekaert & Holland LLP in Tampa and Brett Torgan at Marcum, LLP, in Bala Cynwyd for their assistance in the preparation of this article.