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.
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:
Mobiles separate to broadband
Low cost “No contract” service
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
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)
Nice phone: how much have you got?
Latest iPhone with a few compromises
Smooth Android challenger to Apple
Hi-spec widescreen Android phablet
Budget option with good battery life
Not the fastest but does the job
Good all-round Android performer
Fantastic value Windows mobile
Big screen and good call quality
On screen keyboard
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.