Accounting and computing are a natural pairing; with either platform, you’re talking about the movement of numbers at a very basic level. For the past couple of decades, that’s revolved around a desktop metaphor for accounting work. The gradual shift to laptops might have made that luggable but it didn’t change the way accounting work was done.
Mobile is a different type of operating environment, however, and one that’s overtaken the desktop/laptop computing market with astonishing speed.
On the smartphone side, research conducted for Google suggests that more than 65 per cent of Australians own smartphones, and 75 per cent of users are loathe to leave home without them.
While tablets aren’t new – Microsoft had touch-capable Windows XP more than a decade ago – they will soon overtake laptops as the mobile device of choice. That goes some way towards explaining why mobile accounting has grown exponentially in recent years, for accounting firms’ clients and for accountants themselves.
Where business goes, software will follow, and one thing on which Reckon Limited’s director of strategy Daniel Rabie, MYOB’s chief technology officer Simon Raik-Allen and Xero’s managing director Chris Ridd enthusiastically agree is that mobile accounting is hugely important in the current accounting environment and in the one that lies ahead.
Ridd notes that when Xero announced its touch-based mobile application, “we had laughter when we said people could sit up in bed and do bank reconciliations … but that’s what they’re doing!”.
According to Raik-Allen, MYOB’s figures suggest that around 95 per cent of today’s accountants are using smartphones and 77 per cent are using tablets – up more than 30 per cent year on year.
In using these technologies, accountants are mirroring the behaviour of their clients, as well as providing up-to-the-minute service. Rabie notes that this kind of tracking against clients’ expectations of their own work patterns is important. “An accounting business is no different to any other business these days, where a lot of people work out of the office,” he says. “They work on the train and on the way home; they work while they’re watching their son play sport; and their practice is running on their mobile or their tablet.”
As such, ‘mobile accounting’ has exploded, because it provides significant ways for accounting professionals to interact meaningfully with clients.
Ignoring it means handing an advantage to other accountants – or indeed to recruiting staff for your accounting firm. Being able to provide on-the-spot analysis of business realities irrespective of location gives you more flexibility and, ultimately, greater power.
Mobile accounting applications and platforms rely largely on cloud-based accounting packages, and these bring with them the scary prospect of data and device insecurity.
Ridd notes that due diligence is vital but that cloud storage may be better for your accounts’ security in any case. “The reality,” he says, “is that most small [businesses] and many accountants do a very poor job of managing their IT infrastructure today, especially for backup. Cloud provides superior security and availability.”
The wearable future
Just as mobile has shifted the focus away from the traditional desktop, it’s being challenged by devices that are even more mobile. That’s the field of wearable computing, which right now is dominated by devices such as ‘smartwatches’ from Pebble, Samsung and Sony, and Google’s much-hyped but not commercially available Glass. At present, these devices are largely supplementary to existing mobile devices, because they pair with them and rely on their data connections to perform most meaningful tasks. A smartwatch, for instance, mainly shows information you’d otherwise see on your phone.
Reckon’s Rabie is not convinced wearable devices will become an integral part of future business practice: he doesn’t feel they’ve evolved enough yet to be truly mainstream. That opens up opportunities for early adopters, however. Already, MYOB’s Raik- Allen “cannot imagine” life without his Pebble Smart Watch™, because it enables him to check smartphone notifications with minimal disruption to his daily work patterns.
Research firm Gartner rather famously predicted that internet-centred netbooks would hit more than 50 million worldwide sales by 2012, based on early sales figures. It didn’t happen – netbooks, as a market, were essentially ‘devoured whole’ by tablets – but it does show the disruptive power of new technological devices, both when it comes to charting sales figures and in their capacity to change the way we use technology productively for all sorts of tasks.
Smartwatches such as the Pebble and GALAXY Gear are just the tip of the wearable computing revolution, which makes it difficult to predict with accuracy where this accounting-technology intersect may lead. Advances in everything from battery power to flexible AMOLED displays suggest entirely new classes of devices.
Accountants may wish to let these new devices evolve before judging whether they, too, are practical business tools. But given the developments of the past few years, you’d be foolish to bet all your money against them.