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Office equipment for the modern practitioner; boosting an accountant's productivity.

An accountant's basic work is the same today as it has been for a hundred years: working with numbers, overseeing accounts, reviewing andanalyzing flows of money. But to perform efficiently today, an accountant needs more than a telephone, paper and pencil. The maqrketplace now offers office equipment designed to improve productivity in handling forms, working with figures and keeping in close contact with clients and colleagues in far-flung locations. Although copiers, facsimile machines and typewriters are not new, new products and technologies in these equipment areas offer better-than-ever ways to boost the productivity and cost-effectiveness of professional and office staff.

Some of the newest offerings are described below. See exhibit 1 on pages 76-77 for a guide to vendors and features available.

COPIERS

The discussion of copiers covers digitalization, color, modularity and traditional technology.

Digitalization. One of the most important advances in recent copier technology is digitization. Digital copiers use an entirely different approach from that of conventional "analog" copiers. Traditional copiers essentially photograph the image on one piece of paper, then immediately reproduce it onto another piece of paper. Some size and contrast changes are possible, but the ability to modify the image as it transfers from the original to the copy is very limited. The newer digital copiers, however, convert the original image into a series of digital codes that can be stored, manipulated and reproduced via well-established computer technologies. This introduces tremendous power and flexibility into the copying process.

For example, digitized images can be accented, stretched or shrunk, modified and even colorized before they are printed on the copy paper. Because the image is in digital form, it can be stored easily on computer disks or other devices and recalled later for additional duplication or sent to another copier. But, despite their advantages, digital copiers are slower than many conventional models and high-production applications still need the older analog technology.

Color. Although early models were bulky and expensive, new color copiers are more practical and their functions are more flexible. They can print in full color or one color or can add color to a portion of a copied page. Financial specialists are using them to highlight otherwise gray numbers in colorful, vivid reports.

While full-color copying remains much more costly and much slower than one-color copying, more than 130,000 color copiers are expected to be in use by 1992. Already, thousands of firms that have added color copying to their duplicating centers report they use these machines more than they originally had anticipated.

In general, there are two basic color copying technologies to consider: "cycolor" and colorocs." Cycolor machines are cheaper than colorocs but they use special copy paper and the cost per copy is relatively high. Colorocs machines print on plain paper, so per-copy costs are low. But each machine costs more to purchase than an equivalent cycolor machine. In the future, color copying is likely to become more popular as it becomes simpler and cheaper.

Modularity. Another innovation is modular design, which allows machines to be maintained, repaired and even upgraded more easily because they are made of several large, snap-in components.

Modularity can lead to higher levels of reliability and performance as replaceable cartridges containing the drum, developer and toner--such as those pioneered in Canon personal copiers--find their way into more business-quality machines. A new Swintec copier, for example, uses a single cartridge to hosue most of the components that wear and burn out, while a Xerox model houses the same general components in two replaceable cartridges. By snapping in new cartridges as old ones wear out, it is easy to keep one of these modular copiers in good repair. In addition, by switching from one toner cartridge to another, the copier can duplicate originals in blue, green and other colors, as desired. Note, however, that monochrome copiers can print only one color at a time.

Another advantage of the new modularity is the proliferation of add-on components for popular copiers. This allows many copiers to be purchased initially in their least expensive configuration, then beefed up over several years to meet expanding copy requirements. It is possible to add sorters, collators, multiple-feed bins, copy counters and more features, as needed. Provided the copier has enough basic capabilities (such as the capacity to copy from 11" x 17" originals with some reduction and enlargement features), the modular approach can work very well.

Traditional technology. While copier technology has advanced considerably in the past few years, few offices are choosing copiers at the high end of the market. More than 90% of sales and rentals are of relatively simple machines that produce fewer than 45 copies per minute. More than half of all copiers sold or rented produce between 10 and 20 copies per minute--plenty of capacity for the average office or financial department.

In fact, relatively inexpensive copiers using traditional technology are better choices than ever for financial professionals who just want to copy forms or correspondence. Nevertheless, it's often cost-effective to select a copier with some productivity-improving features, such as a faster copying speed, image reduction and enlargement, an automatic document feeder, multiple-feed bins or a copy sorter. Copiers capable of producing 10 to 100 pages per minute with added features such as these are readily available at attractive prices in today's market from almost every vendor.

In general, the acquisition decision for copiers is no more final than a decision to purchase an automobile. In time, the unit will either wear out and require replacement or prove inadequate and have to be augmented by additional units. Many offices initially require several copiers with different capabilities: one for mass duplication, for example, one for general copying work and one for sophisticated editing or color copying. Even in one-copier offices, industry statistics indicate that most general-purpose copiers are replaced after three to five years of service.

FAX MACHINES

Facsimile machines were once slow and cumbersome, serving as little more than office curiosities. But with annual sales running at about two million units, FAX machines are now so ubiquitous they have become a virtual necessity for doing business and serving clients.

The continuing fall in prices for electronic components has allowed prices of FAX machines to all much lower than anyone anticipated a year or two ago. For business use, it's important to obtain a heavy-duty machine with such basics as an automatic paper-cutter and at least a 10-page document feeder. These machines now are priced between $600 and $2,000, while lesser-quality models, with limited features that are suitable for occasional or home use, are priced well under $500.

As the use of FAX machines continues to accelerate, vendors are bringing out advanced models. Some have automated paper-handling or documented feed capabilities for 100-page or even longer documents--very practical for high-volume FAX centers. Others are capable of sharing a single telephone line with a voice telephone and/or a modem.

Since these devices reduce the cost of overnight shipping an average document from about $12 to about $1 (with documents delivered in minutes rather than hours or days), a FAX can repay its own cost easily in the first year of operation.

Various FAX brands and models have significantly different capacity ratings, graphic capabilities, multipage document handling devices and features for automated operation. This allows a purchaser to buy a FAX that can meet his or her requirements. Discussion of some relatively recent advances in FAX machines follows.

Color. One of the newest additions to FAX technology is a method of transmitting color images. Star Signal, Inc. recently introduced Colorfax, the first machine capable of sending high-resolution color images at three to five minutes per page. When the image is received, it can be displayed on a computer's color monitor or printed on a color printer. Because the technology is digital, the Colorfax can be used as a color printer and scanner for computerized graphics, too.

Memory. Another advancement in FAX technology is a built-in memory to store documents (either sent or received). Some vendors give memory capacity in pages and other in kilobytes (K). There's no clear standard in this area and different vendors equate 256K of memory to anything from 7 to 20 pages. In practice, memory capacity (and transmission speed) will depend on how much material each page contains.

In any case, a FAX machine equipped with memory can receive pages from one FAX and automatically forward them to others or it can send the same documents automatically to many different FAX machines. Extensive memory is an added convenience because the machine also can continue receiving a document even when it runs out of paper. FAX machines without built-in memory generall discard anything received when they are out of paper. Consequently, the material must be sent again after the receiving machine's paper has been replenished.

Speed. Another recent improvement concerns transmission speed. The old machines, rated at 4,800 bits per second (bps), are being rendered obsolete by machines that send data at between 9,600 and 14,400 bps. In practical terms, this means a page that once took 30 seconds to transfer now can be sent between two of the high-speed machines in about 10 seconds. Because a machine's practical transmission speed varies according to how much material a page contains, vendors rarely use the available standard page and some claim very high transfer rates by testing their machines with half-filled pages. For a purchaser to get honest comparisons, different machines should be tested with a standard document.

Increased performance. Over the years, FAX performance has increased as performance standards have been raised from the earliest group 1 through group 2 to the present dominance of group 3 machines. Each group outperforms the earlier one in both speed and resolution of complex image details--such as tiny numbers on a spreadsheet or subtle shading in photographs. Today, group 1 and group 2 machines are virtually obsolete. The group 3 standard is by far the most popular. But group 4 FAX machines now are becoming available. When two group 4 machines are connected, they provide two to four times as much resolution and document transfer speed as group 3 machines. So far, however, group 4 machines remain relatively expensive and, thus, rare.

Plain paper. FAX machines that print or plain paper have been available for some time but a new printing technology pioneered by Lanier promises to reduce the size, cost and downtime of plain-paper FAX machines in comparison with those now using better-established laser-printing devices. Plain-paper machines priced between $3,000 and $5,000 are alreay on the market and prices should fall even more in the next year or two.

It is difficult to predict future uses of FAX machines. Most offices without one survive and prosper. However, once a FAX is installed, important uses for it quickly develop. In cases where the machines are available, they almost universally are regarded as indispensable business tools.

LINE-SHARING DEVICES

For offices--large or small--where telephone lines are at a premium, there's a new accessory that eliminates the need to dedicate a telephone line to teach FAX machine. If the capability is not built into the machine, it's possible to obtain a separate device, called an autoswitch or FAX switch, which can route each incoming call to the intended answering device.

Different autoswitch models will handle different combinations of the three main types of calls received. These are calls intended for

* A FAX.

* A computer's modem.

* An individual or a telephone answering machine.

Some of the autoswitch devices require the caller to direct the call by pushing one or two buttons on a Touch-tone phone or dialing a number on a rotary phone. Other versions of the autoswitch devices allow the recipient to direct the call or automatically detect each type of call and switch it directly to its proper destination.

Some autoswitches are built to handle only one telephone line, while others can handle any number of lines in a multiline telephone setup.

For financial professionals who use modems and FAX machines extensively, the cost savings from autoswitches can be considerable because the devices eliminate the need for the $20 to $50 per month cost of each dedicated telephone line. In many offices, the FAX machine or computer modem must be constantly available but it's actually in use less than 8% of the time. With an autoswitch device, the other 92% of the time the dedicated telephone line can be used for ordinary voice calls.

By connecting the autoswitch device in various ways, it can detect incoming FAX or modem calls on a single line, on one line of a multiple-line setup or on any line of a multiple-line setup. These devices also can be installed to monitor all lines in the office and allow any call to be switched manually to the modem or the FAX.

Although many companies now market some form of autoswitch device, manufacturers of FAX and telephone answering machines gradually are recognizing the advantage of building this type of autoswitch capability into their newest machines. Whether this feature is available as a built-in capability from a vendor is indicated in exhibit 1.

ELECTRONIC TYPEWRITERS

Although today's general purpose computers are perfectly capable of handling most word processing and document-preparation tasks, some jobs still call for a typewriter--particularly when specific information must be entered exactly into particular blanks on preprinted accounting and tax forms.

Three main groups of typewriters are available today. Traditional typewriters can only type, and have no line display. Simple electronic typewriters have some line-display and rudimentary word processing capabilities. More advanced electronic typewriters can perform some measure of screen-based word processing.

These capabilities often are classified in terms of how much text the machine can revise easily. Line revision capability usually is accomplished directly on paper with lift-off tape. Paragraph revision normally requires a small amount of internal memory. Page revision most often implies considerably more memory. Document revision suggests the device has significant internal storage and extremely good document display capabilities.

Typewriters with extensive display screens can be classified further into relatively light-duty personal word processors, intended for college students and occasional office use, and relatively heavy-duty office-quality screen-based typewriters, intended for daily business applications.

Office-quality screen-based typewriters are one of the most exciting additions to the world of office machinery. Screen-based typewriters display at least 80 columns of characters across and eight full lines of text down. In contrast, none of the line-display models show more than four lines and most show only one or two. Because of these advanced capabilities, sales of screen-based typewriters are doubling each year, while sales of correcting-only and line-display models are declining. Industry analysts expect this trend to continue for several years, despite the somewhat higher cost of screen-based typewriters.

Most screen-based typewriter users report they use the devices' word processing capabilities about 80% to 90% percent of the time and use the machines as conventional typewriters only 10% to 20% of the time. Even when personal computer capabilities are included, electronic word processing is by far the dominant function used.

Screen-based typewriters are extremely simple to perate. They can be used either to type directly onto forms and plain paper or to compose information on screen and then type it out automatically on a form or letterhead. Screen-based typewriters at the higher end of the market can perform some of the functions of a PC. However, PCs generally cannot be used as electronic typewriters. This is because it becomes very diffiult and cumbersome to use a computer-based word processor for filling in forms precisely. Also, people prefer not to start the computer and load the word processing software just to type a short memorandum or note.

In price and performance, most screen-based typewriters fall midway between PCs and line-display typewriters. However, individual products in this category vary considerably in such features as the amount of memory they contain, their printing speed and their special functions and overall flexibility. For example, some screen-based typewriters can connect with computer printers to provide laser-based output, but others have no connector for this purpose. A few have detachable keyboards and 40-meg hard-drive storage devices but most do not. These typewriters also vary considerably in screen size and extra productivity features, such as text blocking and movement or the ability to create and store frequently used forms.

Although screen-based typewriters cost $1,750 and up, these machine usually are durable and useful enough to permit the cost to be absorbed over five years or longer. In addition, a "bare bones" machine can be purchased and, as the need arises, gradually outfitted with more memory and advanced capabilities such as spelling correction, an automatic thesaurus and even optical-disk storage devices, as they reach the market.

IMPROVING PRODUCTIVITY

Although accountants today are often called on to do the same kind of work they performed in Charles Dickens' time, it is clear from these summaries that today's office can offer a broad range of equipment to help speed the flow of work and improve the productivity of the average practitioner and staff.

ROBERT MOSKOWITZ is a business consultant based in Woodland Hills, California. He writes frequently on productivity, office automation and technology.
COPYRIGHT 1990 American Institute of CPA's
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Moskowitz, Robert A.
Publication:Journal of Accountancy
Date:Aug 1, 1990
Words:2862
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