Smartphones: An accountant’s guide

When an AccountingWEB member recently wondered whether the time had come to replace his 10-year-old Nokia, he got a huge and surprising response. John Stokdyk summarises the resulting debate.

Aside from direct debt recovery, the most intense debate on AccountingWEB this summer was triggered by Marting’s Any Answers query at the end of July, Do I need a smartphone?

Martin relies mainly on a landline and for the past 10 years has kept a pay-as-you-go Nokia in the car for emergencies. The phone coverage in his area is still 2G and though he only envisages using a mobile for calls and occasional texts, he is contemplating switching to a contract smartphone. His question was: “How many of you with smartphones use the extra functions regularly, especially if you are mostly home based - is it worth it?”

Welcome to the mobile revolution!

For marting - and anyone else asking the same question - it really IS all about you. Dnicholson captured the essence of the underlying challenge: “If your current phone is 10 years old and you're asking the question, the answer has to be that you don't need one. Whether you could change your life and make use of one is a whole other question, but a much bigger one than you asked.”

Thanks to the miracle of miniaturisation, if the PC you’re using is more than a couple of years old, the smartphone you might get on typical deal is probably faster and packs more memory than your desktop or laptop.

But exchanging a 10-year-old Nokia for a superfast smartphone is a bit like going straight from a moped to a 900cc BMW motorcycle, as seems so popular among many 60+ men. Using a smartphone is a lot less physically dangerous, but will you be able to handle all that extra power? And more importantly, do you know where you want to go with it?

The answer boils down to your inner desires and technological habits. If you are comfortable with the bigger screens and physical keyboards attached to PCs and don’t need 24/7 access to the net, what’s the point of changing?

Yet smartphones offer unimaginable possibilities. You’ve got to be able to imagine them. As our community editor Rachael Power explained, “The tool is what you make it, that's the beauty of technology nowadays.”

A good smartphone could transform your working life - but as often happens with tech, changing one element may demand a major rethink about a lot of other aspects of your set up. The best 3G/4G coverage or long-term plan might be available from a different supplier than your current landline provider. Or the glitzy smartphone that everyone tells you to get will create incompatibilities and niggles with the software you work with on a daily basis.

Need a smartphone?

A sceptic’s view from Andrew Hyde - of course you need one, otherwise you will find yourself:

● actually listening to people you are having dinner with

● sleeping through the night instead of being woken up by the arrival of yet another unwanted message

● concentrating on the road when driving

● having to find other ways of annoying people on public transport

● thinking about things, instead of replying instantly to an email/text with a misspelt, rude, half-witted, ungrammatical, stream-of-consciousness, knee-jerk reply

● rejoining the human race.

You’ve also got to have the aptitude, enthusiasm and commitment to make the investment in a smartphone worthwhile - and you may well need a bit of training and advice before you set off down that road. Fortunately, scores of AccountingWEB members were on hand to share their thoughts.

One of the biggest surprises about the summer smartphone debate on AccountingWEB was that the comments ran roughly 2:1 against getting one. Dnicholson nailed the practical point of view, while others fretted about the psychological impacts of smartphone use (see right) and the spectre of commercial brainwashing. Mikhael commented: “A lot of new gadgets are just variations on a theme, people trying to sell you something you don’t really need, and you feel stupid not buying into it... because everyone else seems to be.”

What do you need it for?

Apart from identifying whether you really want one and will know how to use it effectively, the next most important consideration is to work out what you might actually use the thing for. Paying £40 a month to make a few calls and send some texts does not make a sensible business case.

But what are the possibilities for someone like marting? AccountingWEB member AS painted a convincing picture: “If you regularly travel to clients… then a smartphone makes life very easy and, if properly set up, you have your emails, contacts, diary etc to hand, this data is backed up and amendments in one device get replicated elsewhere.” 

Several sceptics in our smartphone debate confessed they owned one, including Old Greying Accountant who admitted, “The camera alone is the only reason I have kept the phone because it is invaluable as a portable scanner/copier to collect information when at a client.”

Several people including Stepurhan pointed out that you don’t actually need a smartphone if you do most of your job on a PC. But Happy liked the flexibility a handheld device brought to his working life: “I can take a day off or half day, go out, and no one knows I reply to emails on my phone just as if I'm in the office. Brilliant for school hols. It was also invaluable when my broadband was out of service earlier this week.”

However the always-available nature of the smartphone can be disruptive and distracting. Some seasoned accountants said that they liked using their smartphones, but hardly ever for making calls and some withheld their mobile number from clients. Like children or pets, mobiles need regular feeding; managing battery life and keeping track of the device can bring a new layer of stress to your life.

Technical constraints and considerations

Having taken all those personal factors into account, then consider the technical issues. One of the most important concerns the local mobile signal. If you get out a lot and are looking forward to all that flexible functionality, Captainblack warned: “No smartphone will work too well (other than for calls) on 2G. Browsing the web, downloading etc will be hopelessly slow. Emails will work, but very slowly.”

But, our sci-fi hero continued, “If you have broadband (even a modest connection speed) the phone's data-based functions should work fine over Wi-Fi.”

Even if you are blighted by poor mobile signals, free Wi-Fi is now available in lots of locations including coffee shops, pubs, trains and stations. If you’re a BT Broadband customer, the BT Openworld network lets you piggyback on other customers’ routers in all sorts of places. Other customers will be also able to use your access point, as long as you leave the setting open on your Home Hub.

However, you’ll have to be prepared to accept the security risks of hooking up to public contact points. In such settings, you should be more cautious about sending/uploading confidential client documents, entering passwords or accessing bank and other sensitive services.

There’s also your “legacy” technology to consider, starting with your existing landline supplier, who is also likely to be your internet service provider. They will be just itching to add mobile services to your contract (not to mention the smartphone itself and TV/sports subscriptions). At least see what they are offering and use the price difference for adding a smartphone and mobile broadband to your package as a benchmark for price comparisons.

Going with your existing supplier would be the path of least resistance, but there are some good arguments for looking at a separate mobile supplier. As Happy pointed out, relying on a different network gives you a back-up system if your main line goes down - and if you do have a 3G signal, you can tether your PC to the mobile (which will also keep it charged) and use it to connect to the net.

Not all mobile companies are the same when it comes to coverage. Where you think you’ve got a poor mobile signal, users of other companies might not. Ask friends in the area about how satisfied they are with their providers, and consult coverage maps before making your choice. Here are some of the main providers, with typical rates for SIM-only services, with and without landline calls:

Supplier

Mins

Data limit

Notes

Cost

BT

500+up

10Gb+up

Mobiles separate to broadband

 £17-£46

EE

250+up

250Mb+up

 

    £8-17

giffgaff

60+up

20Gb+up

Low cost “No contract” service

  £5-£20

O2

100+up

100Mb-8Gb

 

  £8-£25

Vodafone

300+up

250Mb-10Gb

 

  £8-£35

Compatibility: which operating system?

The next technical question is about the software you currently use for other tasks. One argument doing the rounds now is that there’s so little to choose between the physical devices that your fundamental choice boils down to the smartphone’s operating system. Each of the options will consign you to a world where the smartphone and its masters want to ensnare you in their digital universe, known in the tech business as “lock in”.

You’ve just got to accept that as a fact of technological life and be aware of the implications as you choose from the following options:

  • Android - While it lags behind Apple’s iOS, Google’s system is growing fast, thanks to its open development philosophy and more recently its presence on a lot of Samsung’s devices. Android phones are designed from the ground up to integrate with Google’s apps including Gmail, Drive, Calendar, YouTube and so on. It may not be as slick as the Appleverse, but Android can probably handle most of the typical small business person’s needs for less cost.
  • Apple iOS - Still the clear smartphone market leader among AccountingWEB users and buoyed by the wealth of third party apps and the media facilities available through iTunes. Apple’s simple, user-centric interface is easy to use - in spite of a few niggles - but Apple’s secretive, closed development philosophy is a weakness. The company’s pioneering gleam might be fading now without the visionary design guidance of Steve Jobs.
  • BlackBerry - You may not hear much about BlackBerrys, but they are still around. Touchscreens are de rigeur in the smartphone world, but many BB addicts still vouch for the superiority of their physical QWERTY keyboards. In development terms, BlackBerrys are Android-like, but are not gaining as much support from third-party developers.
  • Windows - Nestled alongside BlackBerry at the less fashionable end of the smartphone market is good old Windows, the program you may have used for the past 20 years. But don’t overlook it. Windows 8 is ahead of the game when it comes to unifying mobile and desktop systems and is getting a lot of positive feedback for the quality of the user interface. More importantly, it’s compatible out of the box with Office 365 and SkyDrive. That means it offers the best mobile Excel experience (if you’re minded to view or work on spreadsheets on your phone)and should make for an easier transition to remote working for die-hard Windows users.

The possibilities are in the apps

Accounting-as-you-go, being permanently connected to clients and family wherever you are and being able to synchronise your files and calendar at all times can greatly increase your efficiency, and open up new avenues for personal and business networking and development through social media and innovative apps.

Marlinman also advocates the mobile internet as a security precaution: “I initially look at all my emails and do all my surfing on my smartphone to avoid viruses on my PCs.”

The key to this expanding universe is in the software, referred to as apps. As the compiler of AccountingWEB’s app directory, Rachael Power explained that the phone can become a powerful working tool by downloading the “most useful apps and staying away from the distracting, annoying ones”. 

Smartphone enthusiast Carnmores made a very convincing case by listing all the different things his device let him do when out and about, including:

  • Read AccountingWEB (we liked that one - other online publications are available)
  • Use cloud accounting applications such as Clear Books and Xero
  • Take notes at client meetings that automatically synchronise with office computer
  • Scan business cards and automatically import them into Google contacts
  • Shop at Tesco
  • Get the weather forecast
  • Read books on the go - for free if they are out of copyright
  • Find out the name of music he hears playing.

A host of other useful professional tools and utilities emerged during the smartphone discussion including:

  • Dropbox - Document cloud storage app (but don’t forget the need to encrypt sensitive data, as MattG does)
  • Logmein - Remote access to office systems
  • Handyscan -  Mobile document scaning and optical character recognition (OCR), available for Android, iPhone and Windows smartphones
  • Companies House - “If you havent tried it folks then pull your fingers out and do so,” urged Carnmores
  • Your app here - “You'll need it to show off your firm's app to your clients and prospects,” said - Kent Accountant

Drawbacks

Having made it this far, cost is going to the be the next hurdle between you and your smartphone nirvana. A rough estimate suggests that in the first year it might cost you £250 to get going - assuming a budget device such as a Samsung Galaxy SIII Mini or Nokia Lumia 635 (c£130) plus £120/year for a business contract. And you probably pay double that for an all-you-can-eat tariff and a top-of-the-line iPhone.

And did the salesperson mention insurance? The trouble with such slippery little devices is that it’s very easy to drop or forget them, as Mikhael warned:  “I'm always losing my phones or breaking them, so it would be expensive.”

Old Greying Accountant was more concerned about the psychological impacts of mobile use, quoting a story from the Huffington Post that the smartness of the phone has an inverse correlation to that of the user.

“Over-use of smart phones is the mental equivalent of driving rather than walking - and there WILL be pay-back!” he warned.

In response, AS stirred up a hornet’s nest  by suggesting some smartphone sceptics were putting forward such strong opinions of a technology about which they professed to have little experience. We won’t replay that battle here, but do think there’s some merit in his subsequent statement: “My advice is that they are not very expensive now so try using one for a few weeks and then decide if they are for you or not, and then report back on your experience.”

Separates or integrated?

If you’re ready to go smartphone shopping, it’s time to set a budget and to define your performance and ergonomic requirements. For a tentative user such as marting, it might be worth sticking to the a 125cc equivalent of a small, cheap device that won’t cost too much if he doesn’t get on with it.

To switch consumer metaphors for a minute from motorbikes to music and invoke an analogy that may go over the heads of our younger readers, tom123 made the point that will be familiar to those who choose to buy separate speakers, amplifiers and sound sources for their hi-fi systems.

As someone using the tools in a similar environment, he advised Marting to “stick with a dumb phone and go for a tablet instead.” Tesco Hudl, a similar size to Apple’s Ipad mini, was very handy for checking emails when within reach of a Wi-Fi signal.

But convergence is what technology is all about, and at the other end of the scale from separates is the integrated phone and tablet combo known as a “phablet”. After using one recently to take part in an online webinar  on the Finance Act 2014, Rebecca Benneyworth gave a glowing endorsement for her Samsung Galaxy Note 3. Effectively packing the power of a mid-range laptop in a device that fit in the palm of your hand, the Note has a very good 5.7in screen and is ready for 4G (not really relevant for martin, sadly).

To help readers find their place on that price/functionality spectrum, here are some specs and sample prices for some of the most popular smartphone models currently used to access AccountingWEB:

Top smartphone models (all 4G compatible)

Model

Notes

From

iPhone 5S

Nice phone: how much have you got?

£525

iPhone 5C

Latest iPhone with a few compromises

£373

Samsung Galaxy S4

Smooth Android challenger to Apple

£319

Samsung Galaxy Note 3

Hi-spec widescreen Android phablet

£439

Samsung Galaxy S III Mini

Budget option with good battery life

£129

HTC One Mini

Not the fastest but does the job

£300

LG Nexus 5

Good all-round Android performer

£290

Nokia Lumia 635

Fantastic value Windows mobile

£130

Motorola Moto G

Big screen and good call quality

£135

BlackBerry Z10

On screen keyboard

£189

Sources: Apple; giffgaff; Carphone Warehouse; Vodafone; PC World. NB for purposes of comparison this article looked at contract and phone costs separately. The combinations available via contracts are endless, so you will need to assess your needs and likely useage carefully to make that choice.

Comments
stevedpearce's picture

YOLO You Only Live Once

stevedpearce | | Permalink

Get one! ......Embracing technology keeps you young!   Even 3 year olds are using smartphones and tablets like they were born to it.......actually, they were.

Old Greying Accountant's picture

They are a useful tool ...    1 thanks

Old Greying Acc... | | Permalink

... but as an accountant they are far too small and slow for the meat of my job.

It is like watching a 72" TV through a letter box, so much time is wasted expanding and contracting the view, scrolling up and down back and forth, where with a decent monitor on a PC it is all viewable at once, and as a result they are diminishing our brains capacity to look at big pictures, those who rely on smartphones are growing to only be able to deal with things in bite size chunks!

Perfect....for me.    1 thanks

meatm4tax.com | | Permalink

HTC One Max...fantastic piece of kit.  My eyes ain't what they used to be but I don't want to carry a tablet (not to work on anyway!).  The HTC is an ideal size

Smart phones    1 thanks

brownbuchanan | | Permalink

Your comment re 60 year olds buying big BMW bikes is fundamentally wrong.mid forties guys trying to relive their youth are the culprits and they favour Harley or Japanese machines!also you later mention the health risk of driving such machines.yes but at least you control your destiny.the health risk of carrying a spunky smartphone is significant.you can get mugged or stabbed when some dacoit tries to take it from you.you did not mention this significant downside

Old Greying Accountant's picture

There are two issues I think ...

Old Greying Acc... | | Permalink

... I have a Moto G, it has a much better screen than an i-phone and is very clear and sharp, but doing accountantcy work is fiddly. If I am out I am driving and hen seeing people, unless I am working away in which case a lap top to use in the hotel room is best for me.

The two issues are

  1. Using to do your accountancy work - to me they are the least effective medium for say enetering a carrier bag of receipts in to a spreadsheet, writing records in to SAGE/Openbooks/Xero whatever. They are slow and cumbersome and frankly boring to use.
  2. Life in general - all the various apps etc. are general to life, not specific to accountants, so having a sat nav, syncing to a calendar, reading e-mails etc. are general things and becoming part of life, so they may be essential to managing a business, but are not the most effectivive tools for "doing" the business!

Any old iPhones?

Stalytax | | Permalink

I bought an old iPhone 3GS on the Bay for £71.01, and got a tenner a month SIM only contract from Vodafone. 2 years down the line its still going strong, is full of photos, and also plays my music when I'm on holiday.

A client showed me Turboscan, which photos documents 3 times and makes a best picture, then emails it to you. I bought it the next day.

Old Greying Accountant's picture

Dacoit! ...    1 thanks

Old Greying Acc... | | Permalink

... I found a picture of one - now tell me there is no such thing as synchronicity!

 

Smartphones

Evergreen | | Permalink

Interestingly no one here seems to have noticed that according to the UK Office for national statistics in 2014, 87% the 16-24 year old's use their smartphone to access the Internet while the 25-34 group are at 86%.   Even 35-44 yr old's are at 78% and 55-64 stand at 41% so the age problem is beginning to show at this end of the spectrum

As to the sizing of information on mobile's, then the clever owners of websites use a responsive style which adapts to the device screen size automatically so making the experience so much better for the viewer.

Truth be told you have only to look around at people on the street, the buses and trains to realise that mobiles are often the first port of call for people looking for local services and that may well be an Accountant.

Even if its just to find your clients using GPS you might think to reconsider having and using an internet enabled mobile phone - and check your own web site on a mobile and see what the impression is that your firm leaves.

"Chinaphones"

brown-yuk | | Permalink

Why pay hundreds when you can get all you need in a £100 or less device?

I use one of these

 

http://www.amazon.co.uk/capacitive-SmartPhone-Android-camera-white/dp/B0...

Only thing I fault it on is only 512MB RAM which gets congested, but still works.

Dual SIM is great.

If replacing I would look for 4G capability and at least 1GB RAM; probably 2.

 

Rearguard action needed    4 thanks

Rubster | | Permalink

Am I alone in wishing for a return to the 'good old days' of hand-written ledgers, common sense auditing and  proper pub lunches mercifully free from emails, texts and the shrill buzz of the smartphone...

Brave new world indeed ?

Who's with me ?

Business Pub Lunches

wingco44 | | Permalink

Last year 3 of my staff met for lunch and there were 9 mobile phones on the table - it's madness.

I have recently taken to turning my phone off at lunch and in the car (I have Blue tooth but it disconnects at will), whilst shopping and after 8 pm or whilst eating.  You know, it makes no difference to my life/business.   Besides, more and more people are doing this. Why do people think they can call you at 1 pm or 11 pm?  I think it's rude.  And so often it's some anonymous company trying to get me to reclaim PPI, claim for some non-existent accident or to upgrade my phone!!!!!  I must say 'Go away' (or similar) more than any other phrase per day.

I have an iPhone 4S and I don't use it as much as I should - but great camera.  I won't be upgrading to an iPhone5 or 4G - I just don't need it.

I also have an old Nokia and it is a real shock when I go back to it and discover it actually does things better than the iPhone, the battery lasts twice as long and it is so much easier to redirect calls and to check who I have redirected to - impossible on the iPhone (I believe?).  My only problem is I keep punching the screen expecting it to be a touch screen!!  But that's probably my age. 

Interestingly, I was paying over £100 per month on a mobile contract - I cancelled it after spending many thousands over 3-4 years (work it out - it's frightening) and
went sim only and 'pay as you go' - I now rarely top it up and probably spend under £5 per month.  My phone company cannot tell me why they charged me £100+ and just say. "You are clearly using it less now."  Avoid contracts, only use a smart phone if you are really dim or under 12. 

Old Greying Accountant's picture

Interestingly ...    4 thanks

Old Greying Acc... | | Permalink

... was just reading the internet keeps falling over as it is now overloaded as the whole world and his wife with their cheap smart phones spend all day clogging it up with meaningless shite,  there is no room left for those trying to run a business because of all the twittering tw*ts!

The world moves on and we

LangdonHamblin | | Permalink

The world moves on and we adapt with it.

You can put your smartphone down, turn it off and not respond to email in 60 seconds. How you use technology is down to you - you are an adult and can make choices.

Just as numerous coffee shops adorn our High Streets, it's my choice if I spend £3 on a cup of coffee.

Smartphones do make our lives easier and give us access to information and records, far quicker and easier than a few years ago.

Interesting that Xero have just published a study  - http://bit.ly/1ozqerJ - which states that 52% of young entrepreneurs deem their smartphone as their most important business tool.

As Evergreen has stated above, look on any High Street and you'll see people of all ages using their smartphone  - and this will be for looking for an accountant.

If you are not using latest technology, and smartphones are not expensive compared to alternatives, then today you will be blocking yourself from winning any quantity of new clients in the under 44 age bracket(using figures quoted by Evergreen).

 

Forget it

AndrewV12 | | Permalink

People only buy the latest phone as they feel they cannot do without it.  Why not get an old one and advise everyone its Retro, who knows maybe in 5 years we will have have a phone the size of a brick again. 

stepurhan's picture

Where's the study?    2 thanks

stepurhan | | Permalink

LangdonHamblin wrote:
Interesting that Xero have just published a study  - http://bit.ly/1ozqerJ - which states that 52% of young entrepreneurs deem their smartphone as their most important business tool.
The article says 52% of the 500 people Xero talked to said the smartphone was their most important business tool. No link to the study and no indication of who the 500 people they talked to were.

So do you know where we can find the actual study? Just a couple of thoughts off the top of my head. They say top young entrepreneurs, but no indication of how young is young, nor how they are judging "top". More crucially, no indication of what business they are in. Say 260 of the "top" young entrepreneurs are involved in app development. That 52% are going to be more interested in smartphones because of the business they are in, not because smartphones genuinely are important business tools.

In all honesty, as I said back in the thread, I see them as useful tools but not vital. Making sure your website displays well on them is good advice, as lots of people do use them. That's not the same as saying you desperately need one yourself.

Link to study

LangdonHamblin | | Permalink

Good Morning Stepurhan,

The study is on ITPro and the headline is "Smartphones deemed most important tool for running a business"

Read more: http://www.itpro.co.uk/mobile/22884/smartphones-deemed-most-important-tool-for-running-a-business#ixzz3ARwkWmDT

Please note: There was a link in my comment - http://bit.ly/1ozqerJ

Have a Great Day

stepurhan's picture

Try again    1 thanks

stepurhan | | Permalink

That is not the study. That is an article reporting that a study was undertaken. It does not contain detailed information about the study, nor does it provide a link to where such detailed information can be obtained. It is, as you say, exactly the link you posted in your original comment.

So where is the study itself?

Old Greying Accountant's picture

There is a big difference ...    1 thanks

Old Greying Acc... | | Permalink

... between clients using smart phones and their accountant needing to.

I can see smartphones as more useful to my clients than to me, for instance, an electrician can get detailed information on the system he is working on, manufacturers manuals, etc. for one example.

Clients are not going to not use you as an accountant because you don't have a smart phone.

My work is done in my office, I have dual 21" screen access on superfast broadband, a smartphone is pointless to my business.

Old Greying Accountant's picture

The most massive downside ...    2 thanks

Old Greying Acc... | | Permalink

... to smart phones is the death of the pointless pub discussion to while away a whole evening arguing black is white!

Eh?

brown-yuk | | Permalink

<< Clients are not going to use you as an accountant because you don't have a smart phone. >>

 

OGA - I think you mean the opposite of what you say?

Old Greying Accountant's picture

Ok ...

Old Greying Acc... | | Permalink

... missed the second not!, corrected now :o)

OGA remember to have the

brown-yuk | | Permalink

OGA remember to have the Debit side next to the window.

Old Greying Accountant's picture

That can't be right ...

Old Greying Acc... | | Permalink

... the window is on my right!

No wonder...

brown-yuk | | Permalink

... you are confused.

 

My first audit client - obviously confidentiality rules but let's just say an Italian business machine and computer company - had its computerised accounts entirely wrong way round.

 

I was confused enough already.

andrewjohnevans's picture

Google

andrewjohnevans | | Permalink

You could always use your smart phone to google the location of the study, Stepurhan?

 

 

stepurhan's picture

Wasting my time    2 thanks

stepurhan | | Permalink

andrewjohnevans wrote:
You could always use your smart phone to google the location of the study, Stepurhan?
It's not about finding the study. It is about someone talking about a study that supports their view and expecting us to take the "results" of said study as gospel truth.

I've already pointed out the issues based on the description of the study in the article. If the person claiming the study supports them won't back up that assertion by providing a link to it, then I take that as meaning either it isn't available online, or it is as rubbish as I suspect. Either way, why should I spend any more time on it if the person citing it in the first place cannot be bothered.

That's even assuming that a Google search turned up a single result that was unequivocally that specific study. No point analysing any study if I can't be sure I'm looking at the right one.