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Tapping into the Internet.

Accountants, take note! The information highway and more specifically, the Internet--or the Net, as Internet aficionados call it--is vital to the health of the profession and your future income. This article will tell you why the Internet is important to you and how to use it to your advantage.

The Internet is one of the major arteries of the information highway. But before most people can maneuver onto the highway's entrance ramp, they'll have to endure some sizable potholes and detours. (They'll also have to learn some new words and phrases. See the glossary on page 61.)

Right now the Internet is three things:

* A nearly free communications channel. For example, a Net user in New York can dash off an electronic letter (e-mail) to a business associate in Australia. In fact, with the right software, he or she can even conduct a voice conversation with that person half way around the world. The only charge is the price of a local phone call. In addition, some groups, such as the American Institute of CPAs, have arranged places on the Net where users can dialog--ask questions and share information and opinions (for more on this see the sidebar "The AICPA Online," page 62, and "Answers to Some Frequently Asked Questions about the Accountants Forum," page 80).

* A vast storehouse of information--from the history of abacuses to the physiology of zebras--including accounting and financial information. However, the Net's utility often is obscured by the way the data are stored--tucked away in electronic libraries all around the world. Many users see the Internet as a giant library that never closes, lacks a card catalog, has all its books shelved helter-skelter and often classifies titles in an esoteric code. However, those in the know, able and willing to decipher codes such as http://www.servtech.com/re/acct.html, find the Internet the single greatest source of data available today.

* An electronic storefront. Businesses as diverse as flower shops and airlines are setting up virtual shops on the Net, and their cash registers are beginning to ring. Marketing-savvy CPAs and consultants also are setting up shop on the Net--offering both free services as loss leaders and advertisements for their consulting expertise.

Slowly the barriers to accessing the Net, uncovering data hidden in its libraries and setting up shop, are coming down. One of the Internet's most powerful utilities, the World Wide Web (WWW), can now be accessed and navigated relatively easily with a mouse. The key point is that the Internet is becoming both user friendly and user vital. And unless accounting professionals recognize that the future of their business is information--finding it, creating it, formatting it, using it and distributing it--and become involved in this emerging technology, they may find themselves fending off fierce new competitors.

THE CPA MARKET

For accountants, the Net represents yet another opportunity--or challenge, depending on one's point of view: Although it's only a trickle right now, in the near future a considerable amount of business information will be transmitted by online systems. For example, clients can e-mail their general ledger transactions to their accountants' bookkeeping systems. Net-wise CPAs today download marketing information, prospectuses and newsletters. They also view instantly Standard & Poor's data, Securities and Exchange Commission filings, analysts' reports, financial statement data and earnings data on various industries.

In addition, for those businesses that sell merchandise or services on the Net, the virtual cash register data also will be transmitted via the Net. In fact, one accounting software publisher, SBT Accounting Systems, just introduced a module called the Web Trader that handles such data.

These are just some of the resources and business opportunities available now on the Internet. There's no telling what it will be able to offer in the future.

MAKING THE CONNECTION

Before you can make a Net connection you must have a modem--an electronic device that connects your computer to the phone line and translates each one's unique language so they can speak to each other. The faster the modem the better because it's able to transmit data at a faster clip. The fastest modem on the market today runs at 28,800 bits per second (bps); while it costs more, it's worth it.

Next you need a way to call up the Net. The easiest way is to use a major Internet service provider (ISP). The most popular are America Online, CompuServe, Delphi, GEnie and Prodigy. These five major commercial online services provide nationwide points of presence (POPs)--that is, local telephone numbers so subscribers can access the Net from anywhere in the country. Competition among them has become so intense and their growth so rapid that their connection prices continue to drop (currently about $10 a month) and their lists of services grow as each tries to snare a share of this swiftly expanding market. Most of the providers allow several hours of free browse time so shoppers can decide which service best suits their needs.

To get first-hand experience of what each service provides, call their information numbers listed in the sidebar "Some of the Major Internet Links" on this page. They will send you free software and instructions for accessing their service. Because subscription prices and services change rapidly, this article omits such details. The sidebar on page 60 lists phone numbers of the major providers.

Caveat: Many of the ISPs provide only limited access to the Internet and focus instead on their own services, such as news, weather and local chat lines on which subscribers exchange views on any number of subjects. But other small ISPs, such as the Pipeline, which started as a local New York service providing full Net connections plus some local services, also are installing local access phone numbers nationwide. As consumers recognize the power of the Net, they are demanding more and better connections and many vendors are complying at a dizzying pace.

It's estimated that there are between 20 million and 30 million people connected to the Net, and by 1998 upwards of 100 million people could be on it--an estimate many consider conservative.

MAKING THE CHOICE

If all you want to do is use the Internet as a low-cost alternative to snail mail (the term used to describe postal service) then by all means subscribe to any of the five low-cost commercial online services mentioned above.

For those users who want an alternative to these nationwide ISPs, there are local Internet providers; each offers its own unique menu of services. While they usually provide a full Internet connection, local providers usually lack local access phone numbers outside their calling area. National providers, on the other hand, support either toll-free numbers or multiple numbers outside their calling area. This allows traveling subscribers, or those who live outside the local calling area, to make their connection with a local call. Some of these providers have established 800 numbers that let users hook up for a small hourly surcharge.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE ON THE NET

A few examples of the types of data that are of interest to accountants follow. This is only a sampling--there are many thousands of other avenues to explore.

* Many businesses have set up home pages (also called "storefronts") on the World Wide Web (WWW) where you can see videos and catalogues and place orders for merchandise. The nature of the Internet, however, allows more subtle advertising. For example, Maxwell Labs has set up the "Taxing Times 1994" Web site, which contains federal, state and Canadian tax forms for downloading. The address is: http://www.scubed.com:8001/tax/tax.html.

* The IRS: From this site you can download tax forms and instructions and obtain other tax information. The IRS is at http://www.ustreas.gov/treasury/bureaus/irs/irs.html.

* 800 numbers: AT&T offers a directory of every toll-free number in its system. The address is: http://att.net/dir800.

* SEC data: The EDGAR project contains corporate filings submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission. You can review 10k's, 10Q's, proxies and the Mutual Funds Retrieval; check out the 485 forms with "prospectus search" and use schedule 13D acquisition reporting to get an ownership report. (EDGAR, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, stands for electronic data gathering and retrieval.) To reach EDGAR: http://www.town.hall.org/edgar/edgar.html or http://edgar.stern.nyu.edu.

* University reference shelf: The University of California at San Diego library system provides a reference shelf with information helpful to business. The 14 menu options include dictionaries, encyclopedias and a link to the United Nations, where you can get the United Nations Currency Exchange Rates. You'll find it at http://www.ucsd.edu.

* The Accounting Network: The ANet is a cooperative venture made up primarily of individuals and organizations around the world providing information on accounting and auditing. It is one of a group of three sites that make up the International Accounting Network. The others are Rutgers University in New Jersey and the Summa Project at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. From ANet you can find out about accounting organizations and journals around the world, skip to other accounting-related Internet services or participate in online accounting discussion groups. If you join these groups, you can have the discussions e-mailed to you regularly. To get to ANet: http://www.scu.edu.au/anethomepage.html.

* Government: The best known government Internet address is The White House. It's billed as an interactive citizens' handbook that offers six options: Executive Branch, The First Family, Tours, What's New, Publications and a place where users can leave comments. From these places you can jump off to myriad government locations including the president's daily press releases and schedules. Releases cover economic and environmental policy, foreign affairs, jobs, health care and science and technology. Its address is http://www.whitehouse.gov.

* Legislative data: The U.S. Congress has set up THOMAS--a treasure trove of legislative information. It includes data such as the full text of House and Senate legislation and links to numerous other federal, state and foreign online sites. THOMAS is at http://thomas.loc.gov.

* Small business: The Small Business Administration has its own Web site with tips for starting, financing and expanding a small business. SBA Online is at http://www.sbaonline.sba.gov.

THE NET'S FUTURE

What's the Net going to be like in the future?

Predicting the future--especially for this field--is risky. But this much is already known:

* IBM's operating system, OS/2 Warp, and Microsoft's new operating system, Windows 95, each may offer a built-in Net connection. In fact, Microsoft is stitching together its own online network, called the Microsoft Network.

* America Online is offering links between its service and alphanumeric pagers, so your e-mail and selected news and stock quotes can reach you automatically--you don't even have to log on to the Net.

* AT&T has announced it plans to offer telephone access to the Internet--no need for a computer at hand. The service will electronically read aloud your e-mail and faxes on the phone using speech-recognition software.

If you're not already connected to the Net, it would be to your advantage to get online soon. By browsing through its available features you likely will find ways to make it a rewarding experience.

RELATED ARTICLE: What Is the Internet?

The Internet is the world's largest computer network, connecting millions of computers around the world. Despite its size, it has no central administration and, in fact, no one owns it. There's no single location through which all the messages flow. A message sent from New York to Chicago, for example, jumps from one local Internet gateway, or switching location, to another and eventually reaches its destination. Its route may not be direct: It could meander through San Francisco and even New Orleans before it reaches Chicago. But neither sender nor receiver should care because the transmission moves at the speed of light and detours are of no consequence.

Why would anyone design such an Alice-in-Wonderland communication system? Some 25 years ago, during the Cold War, the Department of Defense wanted a communications network that was relatively invulnerable to enemy attack. So it conceived a network that linked its various bases and research labs via myriad commercial and private phone lines into a design that resembled a spider's web. The idea was that even if some of the network lines were destroyed in an enemy attack, the network could still limp along, with phone connections maneuvering around the downed lines until it found a pathway to the address it wanted.

The design worked well, and soon defense vendors and universities were added to the Net. Since the higher volume did not adversely affect the Net, others were eventually allowed on, too. The more people and organizations joining the Net, the more resources it accumulated.

A few years ago businesses and organizations not defense- or university-related were allowed to join. Some of the more entrepreneurial ones instantly saw the Internet's commercial opportunities: access, for a fee, to anyone who wanted to tap into this huge data and communications resource.

The early agreed-upon Internet software language was Unix, a powerful but not very user-friendly package that is popular with researchers. So, to make access easier, the entrepreneurs soon devised user-friendly software that could translate Unix. Today there are a large number of Internet software interfaces that not only talk Unix but also make cruising the Internet a lot less complicated. But be clear about this: Tapping the full resources of the Internet is now easier--but still not easy.

RELATED ARTICLE: Some of the Major Internet Links

America Online: (800) 827-6364 or (703) 448-8700

CompuServe Information Service: (800) 848-8199 or (614) 457-8600

Delphi: (800) 695-4005

GEnie: (800) 638-9636

NetCom: (800) 353-6600 or (408) 983-5950

Pipeline: (212) 267-3636

Prodigy: (800) 776-3449

RELATED ARTICLE: EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

* THE INTERNET IS VITAL to the CPA profession. Despite its problems and current limitations, the Internet is a link to the future of the information revolution.

* THE INTERNET offers these obvious benefits:

1. Information: A vast storehouse of data.

2. Communications: A quick, easy and inexpensive way to communicate and advertise.

* Business information is transmitted by online systems. For example:

1. Clients can e-mail their general ledger transactions for input to their accountants' bookkeeping systems.

2. A CPA can download from various remote sources marketing information, prospectuses and newsletters.

3. A user can view such things as Standard & Poor's data, Securities and Exchange Commission filings, analysts' reports, financial statement data and earnings data on various industries.

RELATED ARTICLE: Glossary of Internet Terminology

Archie: A utility to find files stored on FTP servers.

Chat: "Talk" (by typing message) with other users in real time.

Domain Name System (DNS): A database that correlates mnemonic names to their Internet address.

FAQ: Frequently asked questions, a list of basic queries to help newcomers get answers and reduce redundant postings.

Finger: A utility to find out if someone is on the Net, his or her e-mail address and to display information anyone wishes to make publicly available.

FTP: File transfer protocol, a standard utility for moving files across the Internet.

Gopher: A menu-driven program that helps users find data or services.

Hypertext: A technique for linking key words in a document with other documents or other Web sites. Thus, if a user double-clicks on hypertext word it will instantly call up the document it's linked to.

HTML: The Hypertext Markup Language provides hypertext links from a World Wide Web (see "WWW" below) document to different types of data.

IP address: A 32-character number that identifies a location on the Internet.

IRC: International Relay Chat, a utility for holding real-time keyboard conversations online.

Modem: An electronic device that's needed to connect to the Internet; it links a computer with a telephone

Newsgroup: A forum or conference area where users can pursue topics of interest.

PPP: Point-to-point protocol, one of the two most popular ways to connect computers to the Net using a dial-up phone line.

Protocol: A set of standards that describes ways to operate and ensure compatibility between systems.

SLIP: Serial line Internet protocol, one of the two most popular ways to connect computers to the Net using a dial-up phone line.

TCP/IP: Transmission control protocol/Internet protocol: The basic protocols that allow blocks of communication to go from one place to another on the Net and be understood.

Telnet: A protocol and the utility that lets you log on to a remote computer.

Veronica: Very easy mouse-oriented netwide index to computerized articles. A search tool that looks for text in gopher menus.

WAIS: Wide area information servers: The software to index large text files and search and retrieve documents based on that index.

WWW: World Wide Web: A graphic, hypertext-based system of documents that may include text, graphics, photographs, sound, video and links to other documents and services.

RELATED ARTICLE: Where to Find Out More

The following books are helpful:

* The Internet: The Complete Reference by Harley Hahn and Rick Stout, published by Osborne McGraw-Hill, $29.95. It's an excellent reference with over 800 pages of advice.

* The Whole Internet User's Guide & Catalog by Ed Krol, published by O'Reilly & Associates Inc., $24.95. It provides thorough coverage of every aspect of the Net.

* The Internet for Dummies by John R. Levine and Carol Baroudi, published by IDG Books, $19.99. It's not for the slow, but for the uninitiated.

RELATED ARTICLE: The AICPA Online

The Accountants Forum on CompuServe, the AICPA's Internet entry, enables members not only to "surf the Net" but also to communicate with the American Institute of CPAs, state societies, other professional organizations and one another. The Forum accommodates e-mail, bulletin board messages and online conferences.

In addition, the Institute, state societies and other professional associations can deliver many of their products and services via the Net.

The Forum has four elements: A library for electronic research; a message center where members can post messages; a conference center where participating organizations can hold public or private conferences; and a catalog, from which members can order AICPA products or register for conferences and continuing professional education courses. (See "Accountants Forum Links CPAs Online," JofA, Jun.95, page 96.)

For more information, contact Richard D. Walker, director of information technology, American Institute of CPAs, 1211 Avenue of the Americas, New York, New York 10036-6024 or call (212) 596-6008. The fax number is (212) 596-6024.
COPYRIGHT 1995 American Institute of CPA's
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:on-line services for accountants
Author:Cohen, Eric E.
Publication:Journal of Accountancy
Date:Aug 1, 1995
Words:3061
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