TechnologyGoing mobile

Going mobile

Consumers have embraced smart phones and tablet computers. But can software providers keep up with demands to use mobile technology for work?

SMARTPHONES USED TO BE for geeks but, when Apple launched the iPhone in 2007, all that changed. Suddenly smartphones were cool and, since then, the market has exploded with research firm IDC reporting that more than 300m smartphones were sold last year – a jump of 75% on the previous year’s figures.

Unsurprisingly, there’s been huge growth in mobile apps as well. And it’s not all Angry Birds and Talking Tom, there are an increasing number of serious business and enterprise apps appearing for the latest handsets, many of which are targeted at the accounting and tax world.

For example, PwC has tentatively dipped its toes in the mobile app world with the launch of its PwC UK iPhone app. At present, the company is primarily using it as a way to get information out to its customers.

“Essentially what we’re trying to do is give people access to technical information, as well as our thoughts and views on subjects,” says Jass Sarai, PwC’s UK technology leader. “At the moment we’re trialling it in certain key areas, but as we see the take up continue we’ll be putting more stuff through there.”

Sarai says the company sees the app as a very powerful communication channel that will be especially important at key times, such as the upcoming budget, when clients are looking to quickly access information on the effects of changes to the tax system.

But, as interesting as the PwC offering is, where the real future of mobile apps lie is in allowing users to interact with accounting platforms directly from their mobile, rather than having to use a laptop or wait until they get back to their office PC to perform key tasks.

Already many accounting software packages are offering these types of features, either via dedicated mobile apps or websites that have been optimised for use on mobile devices like smartphones and tablets.

For example, Xero, a provider of online accountancy software, is already gearing up to launch its second generation mobile app.

“We’ve had a smartphone optimised web client for a couple of years,” says Gary Turner, UK MD of Xero. “It’s very basic, as it’s really just enquiry only. But we’re just about to release a new refresh of our mobile apps because lots and lots of people are saying they want to do much more than enquiry – they’re saying ‘we want more capability on the go’.”

Xero will be introducing a new dedicated iPhone app along with an updated web app developed using HTML5 (the latest revision of the internet language for presenting content). The latter will offer much the same functionality as the iPhone version, but can be used on any mobile device with a browser including Android, Windows Phone 7 and Blackberry handsets. The new app gives users the ability to perform common day-to-day tasks, like billing and invoicing clients and processing expenses on the go.

Turner says that Xero’s users are very much driving the company’s push into mobile apps, something which Geoff Phillips, product manager for Connected Services at Sage UK, says is also true of Sage customers. “There is definitely demand from our customers to remotely access their data – mobile in particular being a specifically highlighted route.

“Almost half of Sage end users have a smartphone and nearly 80% of accountants now do too – an increase of about 50% overall. This trend will only accelerate in the future with the continued reduction in price of mobile hardware and associated carrier data plans.”

Philips says that there are a wide variety of reasons why Sage users are increasingly taking the mobile route, not least of which is the potential for big cost savings.

“Increased productivity, real time awareness of business performance, improved cashflow and accurate customer and supplier records are just some of the main benefits, “ he says. “Accountancy firm Taylorcocks estimates that the Sage SalesLogix mobile solution saves users at least an hour a day – the equivalent of over £1,000 in recovered chargeable time per user each week.”

However, Xero’s Turner says that it is mainly smaller companies that are the early adopters of mobile apps and it will take a while longer for them to become part of the core IT fabric among larger companies.

“I think what’s happening is that small businesses stand to benefit more than medium to large-sized businesses, because they can get up and running inside of an afternoon on this stuff,” he says. “They don’t have an IT strategy and they don’t have a CIO to convince, so they can give it a go and, if it doesn’t work out, they can switch it off.”

PwC’s Sarai agrees that small businesses have been quicker on the uptake and puts this down to the dependency of larger organizations on older, more complicated legacy systems.

“Smaller companies tend to be more agile and tend to embrace risk a little bit more and so are willing to try it and see where it goes,” he says. “I think bigger companies are like elephants and getting them to change is a bit more difficult.

They’ve made a lot of investment in their legacy systems and, in terms of mobile, you have to think about who has the device and what are they likely to use that device for.”

Sarai also believes that doubts around security may be one of issues that holds back larger firms from diving headfirst into the mobile app world.

“I think one of the things that you have to reflect on is client confidentially,” he says. “For example, if I was trying to send a client an invoice via a mobile app, if I didn’t think it was secure enough I might be more sensitive to it, because the bill isn’t just abut what I’m billing, but also about the service provided, which may be very confidential.”

Philips says that it’s important for any company to make sure it’s service providers are compliant with security standards such as the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard.  “Any businesses looking to access sensitive data remotely should pay particular attention to the service provider’s security credentials,” he warns.

However, there’s little doubt that mobile apps are set to play an increasingly important role when it comes to accountancy software – whether it’s linking
into online, cloud-based systems, or being integrated with older, existing accountancy platforms.

Turner thinks that the combination of mobile apps and cloud-based computing will ultimately have a massive impact on the accountancy world.

“I really believe that this shift to the cloud – connecting web apps and connecting data with other services – could potentially be as profound as the first wave of the PC generation 20 years ago,” he says. “I remember helping business 20 years ago to move on to their first computerised systems and the differences they experienced coming from pieces of paper was enormous, and I have to say, I see similar kinds of behaviours and similar patterns with this shift.”


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