Practice platform rush: Fact or fad?
During the past year, developers tending the practice market have turned their attention to building practice application “platforms” such as CCH OneClick, Sage Accountant Cloud, the Receipt Bank Practice Platform and Xero HQ.
In the world of connected accounting, the battle is beginning to focus on ownership of the launch screen that sits at the heart of the practitioner’s application network.
Think of how the social media explosion has been corralled by tools like Hootsuite, Buffer and Tweetdeck that manage all the different sites for you. The big accounting software developers all want to come up with something similar for their practitioner customers.
Twenty years ago Peter Mart, founder of specialist tax/practice software developer CSM, came up with the idea of the Accountant’s Desktop, a Windows-based environment where the practitioner could access all the tools they needed in one place. Following an unfortunate dotcom adventure, CSM ended up as part of Sage in 2000 and the Accountant’s Desktop was promptly dropped.
Sage Accountant Cloud
Some would say that Mart’s vision is only just becoming tangible with the imminent emergence of the Sage Accountant Cloud, which is likely to land in May.
From the copious hints and previews – common to all high-concept software products – Sage Accountant Cloud is a set of ideas that are as hard to define as they are to put into software code. But it will include elements of the desktop Client Manager facility to let practitioners access clients’ accounts data online, alongside new bank feed and practice management tools.
After nearly two years’ development work, CCH OneClick is also due for its public unveiling at a series of events this month.
CCH OneClick made its first public appearance in November 2017 as an online client management dashboard that linked existing CCH tools to online apps from third-party developers. The dashboard includes a task list showing deadlines and action points in Facebook-like collaborative timelines on both the client’s and the practice’s OneClick dashboard.
OneClick is underpinned by the developer’s open integration programme, which has seen it connect to most of the leading cloud bookkeeping applications. According to Wolters Kluwer UK tax and accounting managing director Claire Carter, the solution has created a consistent, unified source for client bookkeeping data.
“The open integration programme forms the ecosystem from which a practice can not only produce accounts, but will also use this to manage MTD quarterly reporting from a single place, irrespective of whether they use Wolters Kluwer or another provider for compliance,” she said.
QBOA Practice Management
Intuit’s platform play was a big feature at QuickBooks Connect in London last month, where Intuit global accountant segment leader Rich Preece told the audience he wanted to make QBO “the one place” where accountants can manage their practice and clients.
“Many accountants and bookkeepers have been telling us that it is becoming increasingly complex to manage their work. There are more partners, more logins and more tools. Sometimes it all ties together and sometimes it doesn’t,” he said.
“We are driving a cloud where QBO is the centre of an ecosystem. We have tied them all together for the accountant in a cloud culture that is unbelievably convenient.”
In common with a lot of these platforms, QBOA Practice Management is a work in progress. Practitioners at the event felt that they would probably outgrow the basic practice management functions currently available, but noted the speed with which the US developer is now moving in this area.
Xero got a jump on these spring announcements in the UK by introducing its Xero HQ platform last November. The new-look environment gives practitioners the ability to view client Xero accounts in one place, to see who is using which connected apps and which banks they use.
Part of the Xero HQ package is a collection of hand-picked apps in different areas. Connected apps including Receipt Bank, Hubdoc, Spotlight Reporting, Futrli and Fathom will also share their activity feeds directly into the Xero HQ environment.
But doesn’t Receipt Bank already have a place where its accountant users can track the activity and progress of their clients? The Receipt Bank Practice Platform was the first such environment to reach the marketplace early in 2017. But when prompted about Xero HQ and QBOA moving into the same area, the data capture and management developer is not fussed.
In Receipt Bank’s view, its practice platform is focused more on managing the bookkeeping workflow than the whole practice. “You can’t compare all platforms. The purpose of what we do is different. It wouldn’t be helpful,” said a spokesperson at QB Connect.
The platform play is contagious. Even MyFirmsApp, which specialises in creating mobile apps and environments for practitioners, is getting in on the act with its OneApp platform. According to sales director Dan Richards, OneApp pulls together all the mobile phone apps accountants will need to support – and manage - their clients.
“I can understand why all the titans are jockeying for position around their platforms. They want to own that space with firms. That makes sense,” Richards told AccountingWEB. “Rather than competing with the giants, MyFirmsApp is aiming to control the client application space.”
So many options
But with so many product announcements in this area in the spring of 2018 and so few actual users in the field, is the practice platform more of a software fashion than an essential trend? The developers think not and are investing a lot of money and effort to capture the first webpage a practitioner visits each morning.
But as this quick round-up has demonstrated, there’s a risk these new platforms will only add to the information overload and fragmentation of attention that afflicts practitioners. How do you keep track of all the different platforms? Which one do you visit first and which will be the master database that controls the data and changes displayed elsewhere?
Some of the firms that have entered our Accounting Excellence awards have taken matters into their own hands by building their own management environments and dashboards with integration tools like Zapier and 9Spokes.
Thanks to Making Tax Digital and the general data protection regulation (GDPR), a lot of practitioners are probably reviewing their processes and practice software this spring. The features and functionality on offer from the different platforms may well help smooth out some of the bottlenecks around the new compliance requirements, but it’s unlikely that many accountants will make their purchasing decisions based on the merits of a new generation of fairly sketchy tools.
If you’ve already made your choices between Xero, QuickBooks Online or Sage Business Cloud Accounting, the platform each of them offers will be the best fit for your firm (even though they are all planning to display data from non-native accounting apps). And any practice considering a change in its compliance tools is likely to be looking for more compelling reasons than a revamped client homepage before they invest.
Have you seen or tested any of these new software systems? Do they offer facilities that might make a significant difference to how you run your practice? Share your views by commenting below so that we can find out what this software phenomenon is likely to mean in real life.
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AccountingWEB’s Head of Insight has been with the site since 1999 and likes to spend his time studying accountants’ technology habits. When not nerding out, you can find him exploring obscure indie music and searching for the perfect organic sourdough loaf from his base in Brighton, UK.