There’s an app for that

2nd February 2012

Accountants have always embraced the latest technology developments, and the current generation of mobile apps is no exception. So FSN writer Lesley Meall finds finance professionals using them and producing their own.

The accountancy profession is one of the oldest in the world, and although it’s come a long way since Mesopotamian scribes incised clay tablets with signs to account for assets such as land, grain and animals, some things never change. Over the past 5,000 years accountants (and their professional descendents) have consistently been quick to evaluate the latest technology developments, and then use them to do their jobs more efficiently, effectively, and easily. 

When fountain pens arrived in the 1880’s, special ‘accountant’s nibs’ were developed to accommodate their heavy use. The (now defunct) accountancy firm Arthur Andersen installed the first business computer application in 1953. Droves of accountants bought the first pocket calculator, and because the first spreadsheet, VisiCalc, was available only for the Apple II computer, demand from accountants helped to kick-start the personal computer revolution.

So it should come as no surprise that many accountants are also embracing the latest generation of mobile apps, to make their personal and professional smart phones and tablets ever more indispensable. ‘I’m on the move all the time and rely on my smart phone and netbook,’ says Richard Messik, a chartered accountant, and owner of RFM Associates, a cloud consultancy, who snapped up an iPad whilst he was in the United States in 2010, because he couldn’t wait for them to arrive in the UK. 

‘It’s become my portable office,’ says Messik, who is a self-confessed ‘technophile’; but he is not alone in his enthusiasm for all things mobile. In 2011, when E-conomic (a Danish provider of online accounting software) surveyed 500 accounting and finance professionals, 56 per cent admitted to working with their Android, iPhone and BlackBerry devices whilst on holiday. ‘We live in a mobile app driven world these days,’ observes Anders Bjornsbo, UK managing director of E-conomic, and accountants can do business from the side of the pool as easily as from the office. 

Which begs the question, what sort of apps are finance people using on their smart phones, and tablet devices (iPad or otherwise), and why? Well the answers depend on who is being asked, and how extensively they use their smart phone, if they have one – not everyone does. But apps that are potentially useful to accountants are now myriad and increasingly varied: they include general productivity tools, apps aimed solely at finance people, apps aimed at users of specialist accounting and finance systems, and all sorts of handy little apps that just make your life a whole lot easier. 

With productivity apps such as DocumentsToGo and Office² you can use various mobile devices to access and work on MS Word, Excel and PowerPoint files; Apple iWorks provides similar functionality for documents in the iCloud and is available for devices including the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch (though working with a spreadsheet will to be easier on one of these devices than the other two). Evernote helps you to capture notes, snapshots and recordings and synch them with your PC, and with Quickoffice Pro you can create Microsoft PowerPoint presentations. Dictation apps include Dragon Dictation and nFlow Mobile Digital Dictation. 

The range of more specialised apps aimed primarily at finance people is also on the increase. For example, an Institute of Chartered Accountants (ICAEW) Financial Reporting Faculty app offers a range of tools including a standards tracker that delivers updates on topics such as IFRS and UK GAAP to various handheld devices. An iPhone app from the Big Four firm PwC provides access to its news and publications, you can get free access to training material from the Deloitte Leadership Academy through BlackBerry and iPhone apps, and its UKTaxMobile app offers (browser-based access to) all sorts of tax-related data. 

The developers of some types of business software were quicker than others to introduce mobile data input to their software. The ability to enter expenses related information using smart phones and their built-in cameras is available from Concur and WebExpenses, and this type of functionality is also available as apps for use with accounting systems. Cloud provider FreeAgentCentral offers the mobileAgent app, for inputting receipts and so on, Oracle has an iPhone app for expenses, and users of Access Dimensions get two-way integration between the system and mobile devices, so they can submit expenses data and monitor expenses claims already in the system. 

Developers of business software are increasingly offering mobile access to much more extensive functionality in their systems (and the associated data). The browser-based Agresso Reports app, for instance, allows users to query any information they have access to in Agresso Business World, from their Android devices, iPhones and iPads. Sugar Mobile provides access to its customer relationship management software with a series of native apps for Android, BlackBerry, iPhone and iPad devices. SAP Business Objects Explorer, Yellowfin, Visual KPI and Roambi are among the growing range of mobile business intelligence (BI) apps out there. 

There are also a host of less specialised apps that might potentially appeal to finance professionals (and lot of other people too, of course), because their highly focussed and necessarily limited functionality can do so much to make it easier to do your job, and live your life. With DroidScan and PDF Reader Pro you can take photographs and turn them into PDFs, Repligo Reader makes PDFs easier to read, and Offiviewer will open pretty much any file type. JuiceDefender optimises your battery life and LogMeIn gives one click access to remote computers, whilst Dictionary.com, Hours Tracker and Mobile Phax all turn your phone into just what their names imply. 

The popularity of apps has led some accountants to get involved in developing their own, as a way of promoting their brands, products and services. These apps include Business Profitability Analyst, Contractor Tax Calculator, iDonatedIt and Lipman Logic, and although some of them have not exactly flown off the shelves of the iTunes App Store, others have done very well. ‘The Business Profitability Analyst provides powerful messages very quickly and demonstrates that we are at the forefront of technology,’ says Kevin Salter, an accountant who was involved in its production by BBS Computing and 2020.  

‘We’re never going to make our fortune from it,’ says Salter, but others have had a different experience. When BMG Certified Public Accountants created its iPad app iDonatedIt, the aim was to help individuals and businesses in the United States to track their non-charitable donations for tax purposes, and get a little publicity for the firm too, of course. Then CNN Money named it one of its best seven apps for filing taxes. ‘It’s given us an edge, selling services,’ says Todd Blome, one of the BMG partners, and it has been profitable for the firm, too: ‘Gross revenue from app sales has exceeded development costs,’ he explains. 

So if you are feeling inspired, what’s actually involved in creating an app?  Martin Atkins, the accountant who oversaw the development of the Lipman Logic app, which is based on the magical ‘think of a number’ theme says: ‘I had to liase with a magician on the initial concept, our PR company supplied the text and stock photography, a software developer wrote the app, and I had to find an approved Apple publisher to launch it,’ which all took a good six months. But if you do want to follow in his footsteps, there are all sorts of (free and paid for) development tools out there designed to help. 

MicroStrategy Mobile, from BI specialist MicroStrategy, has been used by businesses including eHarmony.com and Volkswagen Group of America to build ‘information driven’ dashboard-style mobile apps (largely for internal use). AppMakr has been used by organisations ranging from Accenture to YouTube to build all sorts of customer facing apps – and the website offers guidance on how to ‘monetise’ your apps by charging for them or including advertisements. You will also find a free app inventor at http://info.appinventor.mit.edu/ specifically for Android devices. It’s all a far cry from clay tablets, quill pens and pocket calculators.

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