Staying in touch.
We've come a long ways since Alexander Graham Bell blurted out to his assistant on the first experimental telephone, "Come here, Mr. Watson, I need you." This article will explore where communications technology is today, where it is going and how CPAs can harness some of the new applications to stay ahead of the curve.
Let's look at an array of communications vehicles--hardware, software and services--designed to help CPAs stay in touch.
CALLING UP INFORMATION
Take note of the abbreviation CTI. You'll be hearing it often and from many different sources-clients, suppliers and customers. And surely your competition will be aware of CTI. The letters stand for computer-telephone integration, and it's revolutionizing communications in general and telephones in particular.
The easiest way to describe CTI is through this scenario: Your phone rings and your computer instantly recognizes the incoming number, associates it with a client, customer, vendor or colleague, for example. Before you lift the telephone handset a file that includes all the essential information about that person and his or her business flashes on your computer screen. While you're talking, you can add, subtract or edit the data. In fact, if the caller rang you from a different phone--a home phone, say--that new number can be added to the profile so that in the future your computer will recognize it. If the call must be forwarded to another person in your organization, a touch of an icon on the screen transfers not only the call but also the data file. And, as if that's not enough, add these dividends:
* You pick up any phone in your office or outside, dial your computer server and your e-mail (not voice mail) is read to you.
* You're on the phone when a second call comes in and a screen tells you immediately who it is. If you choose not to take it, with the push of button you can activate one of your many customized outgoing messages--not the canned message that most callers get.
* You want to add two other colleagues to a conversation. Without getting off the line, you click on an icon and add the others.
What makes all this possible? Telephones (and entire PBX systems) are increasingly being connected to office computers. It's likely that business telephone systems of the future will have CTI systems built in or offered as an option.
Every major player in the computer industry is targeting CTI as the next big push. Intel, Microsoft, Novell and AT&T are each taking a slightly different approach to what they see as a pot of gold for them and a wondrous new technological tool for their customers. In the meantime, scores of smaller companies are trying to get a foot in the door with products that perform one or several of the functions mentioned above. See the sidebar on page 59 for product names and phone numbers.
Some companies, especially large telemarketers, already use some form of CTI. Can you install it? Sure, but for a comprehensive system be prepared to pay a hefty price--running into the six and even seven figures. However, for a look at CTI on a limited scale, acquire a copy of any sophisticated contact management software, such as ACT!. When linked with caller ID, it uses that identification to bring to the screen any previously stored contact management data.
Until recently the growth of CTI was handicapped by very high prices and a lack of standards for the hardware and software. Thus few CTI elements were interchangeable. To upgrade your system or add options, you probably had to stay with the same hardware manufacturer or software vendor. That is changing: Within the past few months a set of standards has been hammered out by the computer and phone industries, making it easier to mix and match software, computers and telephone systems. That also should lower the price of admission.
CELLULAR PHONE PLUS
The cellular phone has become as ubiquitous among today's accountants as columnar pads were 50 years ago. Most of the phones do pretty much the same thing: receive and send voice calls. But a new product is pushing cellulars to higher levels. Ericsson has introduced a portable phone that goes beyond voice communication--it handles text messages as well, thus becoming the first personal communications services instrument. In addition, it provides some handy extras: It can handle as many as three calls and, if caller ID is added, identifies the incoming callers even when you're on another line. It has call forwarding and can be programmed to send calls to different numbers under different situations--for example, when an incoming call you've identified should actually be handled by one of your colleagues. A special replaceable card stores phone numbers and text messages and the phone even has a built-in clock and appointment alarm.
While cordless telephones are popular with most consumers, accountants and other professionals who work on proprietary information tend to avoid them because not only do they occasionally lack clarity and range but, most important, they lack security. If calls accidentally share the same carrier frequency, neighbors using another cordless may, either inadvertently or on purpose, eavesdrop on a conversation. On occasion, in fact, cordless phone conversations have been picked up by those inexpensive wireless monitors that parents install in nurseries.
But now a new technology called "spread spectrum" is coming to market that will make cordless phones very secure, extend their range and improve their clarity. It was originally developed for the military, which neededjamproof wireless communications. The product, redesigned for the civilian commercial market, is called SureLink, and it's being used by many leading wireless phone manufacturers-southwestern Bell Freedom Phone, Cobra and Escort, to name a few. So, for the freedom of a wireless phone without the drawbacks, be sure the product uses SureLink technology.
SMALL OFFICE, BIG IMAGE
For sole proprietors, there are phone systems that not only give callers a better impression of their businesses but also add benefits such as multiple mailbox voice mail and fax options--all at bargain prices. One product, Phone Blaster, made by Creative Labs, uses the office computer to handle all the telephone functions--from customized outgoing messages to pager notification of incoming calls.
If your image of a wireless pager is a little black box that goes beep-beep-beep during the pianissimo movement of a Mozart symphony, prompting you to call a central operator to get the message, think again. Pagers have gone high tech an they are about to go even higher tech.
While some still match the above image, the new models are quiet and very smart. For example, instead of beeping, some either vibrate faintly--producing a tickling sensation--or emit a tiny alert light. And these high-tech models not only provide the call-back number on their tiny screens but even deliver a full news bulletin and stock market data.
If you're out of the pager's local calling region, there are units that will dial up to 10 different numbers until they locate you anywhere on the globe. And if you don't need that kind of sophistication, some pagers will alert you to a message and then, when you return to the calling region, deliver it in full.
To be sure, there are beepers that look like the old fashioned models the size of cigarette packages and fit neatly in a shirt pocket or purse or hang on a belt. But some of the new models are true clothing accessories with matching colors that can pass as decorative jewelry. Motorola even makes a model (the $299 Gold Line) that resembles an expensive pen. Others, such as the Seiko and Swatch products, built into a working wristwatch.
Pager users who don't want 24-hour coverage can turn theirs off and-later receive any messages sent during the lapse (AirTouch Communications).
Since pager technology is advancing so rapidly, wise users generally don't purchase theirs; instead they rent so they can upgrade each time a major technical advance is announced.
Economy-minded CPAs who use cellular phones are discovering that pagers can save them a bundle on phone charges. Since cellular phone users pay premium prices for both outgoing and incoming calls, giving colleagues or clients a pager number can make a huge difference. Not only do they save on the cost of incoming calls, users can filter out less urgent calls.
Pager prices can be as low as $10 a month for local coverage, stepping up to $15 to $30 for regional coverage and up to $40 for those who wander across country. Drawback: Because of the competition in this field, there are scores of different pager service plans, each with a wide array of options and prices. Since it costs about $35 to switch services (because the frequency of the device has to be changed) make your initial selection carefully.
Also, laptop users can add a pager to their mobile computers. The pager itself is a credit-card-sized card (called a PCMCIA) that is actually a two-way radio. The card slides into one of the computer's ports and, since it has its own battery, it works even when the computer is turned off.
Why would anyone want to install a pager in a laptop? Because it provides a nice bonus: the ability to download the pager's e-mail and other messages directly into the computer for later editing or retransmitting. But pager cards for laptops have their drawbacks: They are bit pricey--costing about twice as much as a good standalone pager--and their batteries, which are much smaller than those for a full-size pager, don't provide long life or have much power, which limits their range.
MCI has taken the pager idea one step further. Its Directline service--a "find-me, follow-me" system--links the whole range of electronic messaging--telephone, cellular, fax, voice mail and pagers--and ties it t6 a single telephone number.
SkyTel, a nationwide pager service, offers a customized system that lets you use the nationwide service (at a higher fee) only when you are traveling--providing considerable savings. And Bell Atlantic offers Group Call, which links several pagers with a common pager number--an effective way to keep track of a highly mobile staff.
What's ahead for paging: Because of changes in the federal government's allocation of radio bandwidths, it's likely private companies will soon set up private paging networks for employees and key customers or suppliers. Also, while pagers today have some limits on the size of the documents they can handle, emerging technology will allow a pager to capture long faxes and transmit them to other wireless pagers.
IN YOUR FACE
While you're "on a business trip your boss calls you with this urgent message, "Get back to me ASAP. Having trouble with the financial projections you made for Big Client." You plug your laptop into the hotel phone and dial your office. Once connected, you and your boss fire up an application such as TALKShow, which displays your original spreadsheet file for Big Client on both of your computer screens in real time. Not only can both of you view the critical data, but both also can underline or annotate parts of the file. The only major drawback to this program is that without two phone lines--one for the display and the other for voice--you are limited to on-screen communications. However, you can type real-time notes to each other while viewing the same data screen.
But just over the horizon is a technology that will let modems transmit data (such as files and e-mail) while simultaneously transmitting voice communications over the same telephone line. Although there is at least one modem on the market that claims it can do that, our recent tests with the system indicate it's not very effective--the voice link gets so little of the available bandwidth that conversation is barely audible. But there's little doubt that a solution is imminent.
SHOW MD TELL
One step beyond being able to share and annotate static files is video conferencing--a technique that allows remote parties to talk to and see each other in real time. Until recently, video conferencing was very expensive, with costs in excess of $50,000 just for the video gear; leasing of the special phone lines was extra. With today's technology, prices are within reach of most businesses.
There are about a dozen systems on the market--with costs ranging from a low of about $1,000 to a high of $5,000. But since this field is still in its infancy, few technical standards exist. As a result, you'll probably need a consultant to be sure your computers and phone lines match the video equipment needs.
The video picture produced by these systems are hardly commercial television quality. Since the picture and sound are transmitted over ordinary phone lines with limited bandwidth, the images are refreshed only every few seconds, unlike real video, in which the picture is refreshed 60 times a second. As a result, the picture looks jerky. But for most short business conferences, it's quite adequate especially in light of the economical prices.
STAYING IN CONTROL REMOTELY
A client calls for help on her computerized chart of accounts. You can travel to her office and work on the problem--or you can dial her computer via your modem using remote-control software. Once you've accessed the remote computer, you can call up her accounting program as if you were sitting at the client's terminal.
Similarly, if you're visiting a client and discover you've forgotten to bring a computer file with you, you can dial your office computer and within a few seconds you're virtually sitting at your office terminal, able to download any file you wish.
A NOTE ON NOTES
One of the fastest growing computer program is Lotus Notes--a network utility that lets users collect, organize and share information.
But because Notes is a very complex program, its use is limited mostly to large organizations that can afford the setup and training investment--but that will change. Not only is Lotus selling a light version of Notes for small users, a more friendly version is due out next year. While it would be impossible to provide a comprehensive description of how Lotus Notes works in an overview article like this, this example may help:
A CPA in the New York office wants to work on a project with a colleague in Chicago. They begin by bringing up a document on their computer screens. Both can work on it at the same time. Then, to collect supplementary information, they call up several other files from a wide assortment of locations--spreadsheets, databases, e-mail phone logs, reports of any kind. With a few keyboard commands, that collection of files is grouped into an electronic folder, which then is stored or e-mailed to others in the organization. Then, with the proper passwords added, the entire folder and or parts of it can be accessed by still others in the organization--either for individual work or for teams. Attached to the folder could be a memo detailing the latest work done by various team members. Data in nearly any form (word processing, spreadsheet, database, video clip, sound) can be grouped automaticany in the folder. This does away with the need to e-mail or fax separate documents to a remote team member. The utility even has sophisticated ways to allow multiple users to work on a file without destroying the integrity of the original data. An added bonus: It works on any popular operating system: Windows, NT, Unix, Macintosh.
To talk about the future of telecommunications can be misleading. The rate of change today is so swift that the future is upon us now. To wait is to be left behind. In the 1980s, as computer and communications technology surged ahead at a blistering pace, many accountants failed to keep up with the advances because they doubted they could justify the expense. Today most CPAs recognize they must stay abreast of new technology--not only to make their work more effective and efficient but because the new technology--whether they like it or not--will determine whether their firms will have a future.
RELATED ARTICLE: How to Find It
Following are the telephone numbers of types of products mentioned in this article. In cases where a vendor produces multiple products, its phone likely will be answered with the company name--not the product name.
Cellular phone Ericsson (800) 227-3663
CTI and contact management software ACT! by Symantec Corp (408) 25379600 Phonetastic (617) 482-5333 ComManager (800) 765-6123
Telephone software systems Distributed Call Center (508) 663-7570 Phone Blaster (800) 998-5227 Phonestastic (617) 482-5333 SoftPhone (800) 896-2677 TeLANophy (206) 441-4700
Pagers AT&T (201) 581-4067 Everan America (800) 603-3766 HP StarLink (800) 917-5465 Motorola (800) 542-7882 NEC America (800) 421-2141 NovaLink Technologies (800) 668-2546 Panasonic (201) 392-6144 Seiko Communications (503) 531-3450 SkyTel (800) 759-9779 Sockat Communications (510) 744-2700 Sony Electronics (800) 556-2442 Swatch (800) 879-2824 Toshiba (800) 959-4100 Wireless Access (408) 653-1555 Paging services AirTouch (800) 247-8682 American Paging (800) 551-2753 Bell Atlantic (800) 233-7669 AT&T (McCaw Cellular) (800) 821-5425 MCI (800) 675-1707 Mobile Media Communications (800) 437-2337 PageNet (800) 334-7515 SkyTel (800) 759-8737
Data conferencing products FarSite (606) 245-3500 Insitu Conference (617) 720-0821 Intel ProShare Video System (800) 538-3373 LiveShare Plus (508) 762-5000 PictureTel Live (800) 716-6000 TALKShow (415) 254-9000
Remote control software Carbon Copy (800) 822-8224 Close-Up (805) 964-6767 LapLink Remote Access (800) 343-8080 Reach Out Remote Control (800) 677-6232
Visual conferencing equipment Alpha Systems Lab MegaConference (800) 576-4275 AT&T Vistium (800) 843-3646 Creative Labs ShareVision (800) 998-1000
Other Lotus Notes (617) 577-8500
RELATED ARTICLE: EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
* CPAs MUST STAY IN TOUCH--able to access a wide range of information from many locations and share it with others near and far. Technology is giving the profession many tools to do that.
* CTI--computer-telephone integration--is changing communications in general and telephones in particular. Data about the caller can be immediately accessible onscreen when the phone rings.
* THE NEW BREED OF CORDLESS PHONES no longer lack the clarity, range and limited security of the older models. This is because of a new technology called Surelink, now available on many wireless phones.
* PAGERS HAVE GONE VEPIY HIGH TECH. Beeperless models can receive and send long messages. They come in nicer packages, too--much as wristwatches and pen designs. And pager modules can be added to mobile computers-working even when the computer is turned off.
* CONTINUALLY IMPPOVING HARDWARE and software allow far-flung employees and clients to communicate over the phone and via e-mail simultaneously. And videoconferencing-remote parties seeing and speaking to each other in real time-will become more and more common as the price drops.
* LOTUS NOTES IS OPENING NEW WAYS for computer users to collect, organize and share information. While it's currently used mostly by large organizations that can afford the setup and training investment, there is little doubt that Notes, or a competing program, will soon be used by most organizations.
STANLEY ZAROWIN is a senior editor on the journal. Mr. Zarowin is an employee of the American Institute of CPAS and his views, as expressed in this article, do not necessarily reflect the views of the AICPA. Official positions are deterniined through certain specific commiittee procedures, due process and deliberation.
RELATED ARTICLE: Internet: The Place for Electronic Commerce
That worldwide network of millions of interconnected computers called the Internet is changing the way business does business-the way organizations communicate with each other and customers and prospective customers. The potential for change is so awesome that it's doubtful anyone is yet fully aware of its implications. What is abundantly clear, however, is that Internet technology--or whatever eventually succeeds it--will affect nearly every business and every profession. And CPAs must know this.
The buzz phrase for this revolution is "electronic commerce," an expression you'll be hearing a lot about. Right now, according to Karl Nagel, a Manhattan Beach, California, CPA who does technology consulting, the Internet is the vehicle for a limited amount of commerce in part because few businesses, yet understand how to apply it and because there are still some doubts about whether the information that moves between businesses and customers is fully secure.
That problem is being solved. In fact, accounting software reaching the market handles business conducted on the Internet with security.
Not only will the Internet be a major vehicle for marketing, it also will become the prime link between a business and its CPAs for exchanging data. In fact, electronic data interchange (EDI)--the paperless intercompany computer conduit for purchasing and invoicing that has been lagging because it's expensive and can be difficult to set up--may become passe as soon as the Internet takes over.
The day is coming--and soon--when the computer as we know it, ruled by Intel, the producer of the niicrochip that is its electronic brain, and Microsoft, which provides the operating system software that runs nearly three-quarters of the world's computers, may be bypassed by a new kind of computer designed to gather and distribute data on a worldwide network like the Internet.
What can the CPA do amidst all this upheaval?
Start using the Internet--first as a data-gathering tool. Then, if you're a management accountant, determine how your business can use it, from data gathering to direct sales. If you're in public accounting, consider how to use it for marketing and to communicate with clients and colleagues.
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|Title Annotation:||communications systems for accountants|
|Publication:||Journal of Accountancy|
|Date:||Dec 1, 1995|
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