The Apple iPad debuted to a lot of fanfare early in April when many of us were a bit preoccupied with tax matters. However there may actually be a business case for making use of the device in accounting, both in public firms and in industry.
I will describe here some of the uses I’ve found for the device in my own work. I both work in public practice and do lecturing for continuing education, with presentations.
First things first-this device will not be a replacement for your main computer or, likely, even your laptop. While it is a powerful device that, with increased screen real estate, can do much more than your smartphone, it has shortcomings that make it difficult or impossible to use for certain functions–and some of these shortcomings are intentionally imposed by Apple.
A criticism of the device is that it’s simply an oversized iPod Touch–and that description is exactly on point. But what that one-liner misses is just how useful an oversized truly touch oriented device can be. There are times when the small screen size on a smart phone makes certain uses impractical. This device opens up the options.
The device uses the iPhone operating system as its base. Unlike Windows tablets which have never taken off, using a phone operating system gives you what feels like an extra powerful iPhone/iPod Touch rather than a hobbled desktop system. As well, software for the device, both from Apple and from third parties, have all been designed to make use of the touch interface.
One not so obvious use of the device is have at your fingertips PDF documents. Many reference materials (such as accounting manuals, government documents, etc.) are published today in PDF form. My tax quick reference guide I subscribe to (The Tax Book) is published in that very form. Such materials can be moved to the iPad through the of third party apps. I use Good.iWare’s GoodReader, which allows me to easily move through the PDF using the Acrobat generated bookmarks.
The program moves speedily enough through the PDF to make it useful as a research tool. While some e-ink based ereaders will do the same (such as the KindleDX), the device isn’t burden with the ultra-slow screen refresh rates of e-ink. E-ink devices are great for moving page by page linearly through a document (like reading a novel), but the sluggishness makes them much less useful for reference materials.
The battery life, while not as long as e-ink devices, is still amazingly long. Surprisingly, the device in the real world generally appears to actually achieve Apple’s rated 10 hour battery life of use or even exceed it. That’s more than long enough to get you through a plane ride, or a day of meetings away from power outlets.
Moving PDFs to the iPad is quirky, but that’s a limitation imposed by Apple rather than an inherent limitation of the device.
As a CPE lecturer, one of the potential attractions of the device is that, with an optional VGA cable, can be used to show presentations. Apple sells a version of its Keynote presentation software for the device. While it is clearly a stripped down version of the desktop Keynote, the software has most of the features users will need.
The program will import Powerpoint files, though as you might expect I get more consistent results using Keynote under OSX. Nevertheless, if you keep presentations relatively simple without extreme special effects or make use of specialized fonts, it will fairly reliably reproduce presentations made on either platform.
You can edit presentations on the device, though it clearly is best used for minor revisions and touch-ups. You can create a presentation from scratch on the device, but I found it a much slower process than creating the presentation on the desktop and then moving it to the iPad.
In presentation mode the slides are sent out the external VGA adapter if that is plugged in (you can also just show the presentation on the iPad, but that’s only good for one on one presentations given the screen size). If you are using the external adapter, the iPad screen converts to a presenter style display that allows you to move from slide to slide, bring up your slides to jump to one, and can also be used to display a virtual laser pointer for your presentation.
While I doubt I’ll use it for my full eight hour presentations (I tend to use other programs to show examples in those cases), the iPad clearly can allow me to leave the laptop behind when I’m doing a shorter one or two hour presentation.
The web browser is the same mobile Safari found in the iPhone, but now with some real screen real estate. The browser is based on the same WebKit engine that powers the Desktop versions of Safari and Google’s mobile and Chrome desktop browser.
I’ve been able to make full use of my tax research subscription service with Tax Analysts (http://www.taxanalysts.com) for their Federal Tax Service which provides access to a complete library of federal source documents.
Just last week I was able to quickly refer back to a specific code section in a meeting to quickly answer a question about the specific application of a Code section to a proposed transaction. While that could have been done on an iPod Touch or my Droid, the small screen size would have made it much more difficult and, frankly, really not practical.
But in this case I had my reference materials–and unlike my laptop, the iPad was instantly available for use and just as easily able to be put immediately to the side once we had the information. A laptop, while it can accomplish the same thing, is much more disruptive in meetings–if not already powered on, you have the time for the bootup process, logging in, firing up the web browser, etc. If the laptop hasn’t been taken out already, you also have the extra time to unpack it, while the iPad simply sits next to my notepad.
The device has a full email client based on the iPhone client, but able to make use of the extra screen space. While I find I can deal with email on the iPhone/iPod Touch devices, it’s not really an optimal experience. However I now find that even in my office I leave the iPad open to deal with email–on the larger screen the touch interface makes managing email much more efficient than the mouse system on my desktop.
I do find the use of an external keyboard for email to increase efficiency, and the iPad will support a bluetooth keyboard. Apple makes a very portable bluetooth keyboard that I use for this purpose. However, even when I don’t have the bluetooth keyboard I find the much larger onscreen keyboard, when the device is placed in landscape mode, to be preferable to the keyboards on my phones (either touchscreen on the Droid or physical on the Blackberry). The onscreen keyboard is not as efficient to use as the external physical keyboard, but I do find it more than adequate for routine one or two paragraph emails.
3G or No 3G?
The iPad I have only has wifi, and no 3G radio built in. Apple will be releasing a version with a 3G radio in it that can be used with AT&T’s system. The unlimited data plan with AT&T will cost $29.95 a month–and it appears that, in this case, unlimited means unlimited, not unlimited until you hit 5 GB of data or some other cap. That is less expensive than most other data systems, but it is restricted to this single device.
What I have been using instead is my Verizon Mifi portable hotspot to connect the iPad to the internet. The monthly data plan is much more expensive and is subject to a cap ($59.95 for 5GB). However I already have the Mifi so that my laptop can get access on the road, so there’s no extra cost for the iPad. The cap generally won’t be a problem unless I use the iPad to grab large video files–something that is painfully slow under 3G anyway.
There are some significant limitations to the device you have to deal with. First, the current version of the operating system supports multitasking only for a limited set of Apple supplied applications. While iPhone 4.0 will remove some of these limits, it won’t give you the same multitasking experience you have on a desktop.
That said, for most uses the lack of multitasking is not a major problem–most programs either save their state or can be set to do so, and popping in and out of programs is very snappy on the device. It is annoying if you want to do something like play streaming audio in the background (Pandora is a lot more useful on the Droid), but I have not found it to be a major problem.
A more significant problems arises from Apple’s decision not to give the device an open file system. Due to that, there’s no easy way for applications to share data, and moving document files onto or off the device is a remarkably convoluted process. The easiest way to move PDF files onto the device for GoodReader involves using a well hidden tab in iTunes (just where you’d look first, right?)–and even then the file transfer section starts off offscreen (you have to scroll down to find it).
Apple clearly made this decision to simplify the interface for users, but it does mean that making use of it for most business purposes will be far more complicated than it has to be.
Nevertheless, once you get past those initial hurdles it is a very convenient and very portable computing device that is always ready to go–unlike a laptop.
Is the iPad a must have for every CPA? Probably not. But there are definite use cases where this device is simply the best tool available today for the job.
The iPad doesn’t replace your laptop, but it may allow you to leave that laptop in its bag for much of the time you are on the road, and nothing I’ve worked with beats it for an on the go reference device.