Many of you know that I bought a Windows RT tablet, which my entire family (parents, child, and spouse) are all coveting – which means it's a winner – assuming the kids decide that it's cool. What you may not know is that I bought an HTC 8x this week so I can report on how things are going with this device. The short answer to that is really, really well. Since the iPhone seems to be dropping in the "cool" factor of late as it is adopted by <sarcasm> beloved groups like the TSA and NTSB </sarcasm>, I think this may represent an opportunity for Microsoft to gain a strong third place in the smartphone wars. While I've only had a couple of days with the device, I have some initial observations, for you, the benevolent gentle reader of this blog.
Basics: The device is $199 with a two year contract, or $525 out of contract. The HTC 8X supports Verizon's unbelievably fast LTE wireless connection as well as Bluetooth, 802.11n, and Near Field Communication. Unlike every phone I've had in the last 7 years or so, there is NOT any kind of expansion slot for flash memory, and there is no wired connection which allows you to connect your phone to your monitor or TV set. (While I have had devices for the last five years which supported MicroHDMI connections, I have yet to find a compelling reason as to why I would need to do this, so I'm going to declare the video connections not needed.) The strong cloud integration appears to compensate for the lack of a flash memory expansion slot, but I'll know a whole lot more in a month or two, after I've seen what streaming music from Xbox Music does to my data usage.
It's Obscenely Easy to Set Up
Really. I set up my phone in about 15 minutes, including four e-mail accounts, LastPass, LinkedIn, Twitter, and FaceBook. I even set up the "all you can eat" Xbox music subscription in this time, as well as downloaded all of the files. Really. Easy. Like your parents can handle this, and be bored doing it easy. The cool thing is that the integration between all of these services is very, very good. The information your contacts disclose to you through social networks appears in your address book, and it includes options for texting or IM'ing your friends. Very cool, very slick, and easy to use. I connected my Office 365 account by putting in my e-mail address and the associated password – and it worked from there. Very, very cool.
One option which you may not have considered is the $9.99/mo or $99.99/yr "all you can eat" music from the Xbox Music Store. I've enjoyed the subscription so far, and have enjoyed it. Being able to access it on my PC, my Windows RT Tablet, and my phone makes a big difference to me, and the ability to download DRM-protected files means that I don't have to have a good internet connection to be able to listen to some tunes.
There's More Software Than You Would Expect
I'm not going to lie to you and tell you that it has more software than the iPhone or the Android platforms, because it doesn't have that much software – HOWEVER, for what MOST people use the device for, there are plenty of apps(***). Shopping the Windows Phone App Store is more like going to CostCo rather than your gourmet grocery store – you can get what you want in a high quality item, but there's not as much selection as you have for the iPhone (think a gourmet grocery store) – but there's a solution for just about everything. The Windows Phone 8 platform has 47 of the top 50 iPhone apps, and has many of the tools you come to expect. The Google apps are third party instead of native Google apps (e.g. GMaps, G Music, etc.), but you can access all of your Google cloud services on this platform. My phone has the following apps on it:
Calvin & Hobbes
Genius Scan (PDF scanner which uses camera)
SBux Card (a third party substitute for the missing Starbucks app)
Scan (free PDF scanner)
Starbucks Finder (another Starbucks app)
YouTube (third party YouTube viewer)
The LiveTiles in the interface are particularly helpful, and let you have kind of an interactive dashboard for your communications. For example, when you receive new mail, the number of messages you have not seen appears as a number on the live tile for the selected e-mail account. When new social network posts or SMS messages come through, the number of unread posts are listed on the live tile. One can "drill down" to the listing of posts, etc. by simply tapping on the Live Tile. Again, the interface has some things you have to learn about it, but it is pretty amazing .
While the industry specific applications I might use (CPA firm applications, for example) are largely not available on the Windows Phone 8 platform, just about everything I would have used is available using the mobile version of Internet Explorer 10 included in WP8. The major switch between Windows Phone 7 and WP8 is the change to run the phone on the same base code (kernel) as Windows (the "NT kernel"). This is a significant leap forward for this platform, as many people were "underwhelmed" by the Windows CE kernel used in previous iterations of this platform. I am told that the device has strong interactions with the Xbox platform, but since I do not have an Xbox, I am unable to offer an opinion, however, a person I spoke with informed me that the integrations were "sick" (I understand "sick" to mean that they are good – but as a 40-something accountant who works with technology, I'm also old enough and wise enough to be rid of any illusions that I'm "cool"). [I am who I am]
Battery Life: TBD, Love the Wireless Charging
I have not run a realistic test on the battery life yet (no overnight charge), so I can't offer an opinion on this. The cell phone stuff I read indicates that it gets a day and a half to two days of battery on a single charge, which means in English that you will have to charge it every night. The battery is built into the HTC 8X, so you can't buy a replacement battery and swap it out on the fly. I advise power users to buy a car charger, an extra micro-USB wall charger, and an external battery you can use to charge the phone. While I hope not to need the external battery, I would rather have it and not need it.
One of the other things that's interesting about it is that it uses the Qi wireless charging standard. I purchased a Verizon/LG charging pad to use with the device, and it works very well. I'll have to give a better report – but my initial view of the charging pad is that (1) I hate that it beeps loudly when you put the phone on it (woke my wife up), (2) It seems a little too easy to get things lined up wrong and have the phone not charge when on the pad. (early observations, will have more in a few weeks).
Microsoft Office on the Phone: Meh.
While the promise of having a native version of Microsoft Office on the phone sounds intriguing, I've been underwhelmed with every attempt to put Office on a Smartphone screen, and this is no exception. The real constraint which makes Office on a Smartphone impossible is the complete lack of screen real estate on these devices. While they may have good resolution, the font sizes needed because of the small (4") screen size make it impossible to use that screen resolution to good effect presenting a lot of options on the screen. As a result, the Office applications lack many features, and feel very "clunky". I would not dream of using the included Excel for anything serious, as the input and product functionality are pretty thin. Other things that may cause some heartburn include:
There is no version of Outlook for this phone. While you can retrieve mail, you can't use it in an "Outlook style" interface.
The lack of a flash memory slot means that if you use your phone for confidential stuff (CPA firm, HIPAA covered activities, etc.), you will have to sync your phone to get that confidential data on and off of the device, or you'll have to use a web-based portal.
While it's early days in my time with this device, the device, which is milled from a solid block of polycarbonate with a Gorilla Glass screen, feels good in your hand, and is both easy to use and flexible enough for power users. If you are not completely embedded in the Apple ecosystem (e.g. gone over to the "dark side"), this is a phone you should consider and evaluate. I'm VERY impressed with this phone, and like it as much or more than the Droid RAZR MAXX which it replaces. I think it will be interesting, and should be seriously evaluated by anyone getting a new phone, especially those who are tired of the old-school iPhone/Android interfaces, and want something a little more like a personalized dashboard. Check it out, or you will have phone envy when you see the Windows Phone your friends and neighbors purchase. It's the real deal, folks.
Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
*** The author has not counted the number of "fart" apps in the Windows Phone Store, but is convinced that it would be significantly less than the 1,123 reported which were in the Apple store in May 2011. While I am quite sure there is plenty of flatulence for those who seek it (teenage boys, for example), I think the app catalog should be judged on quality as well as quantity, and fewer flatulence apps is OK by me. While the Windows Phone 8 catalog is high quality, it could still use some more apps. Fortunately, the Store has what I need (although not all that I want), and I'm pretty happy with the quality I've seen so far.
Software publisher BigTime Software, Inc. announced the launch of a new Time & Billing application targeted at small accounting firms with fewer than twenty users this morning. The new application, Big Time Express, allows users to track time quickly from mobile devices or using a desktop widget in Windows 7. The product is designed with a simplified user interface, and offers tight integration with Intuit’s QuickBooks business management software.
The release also reports that Big Time Express has a redesigned user interface which puts everything at the user’s fingertips. Brian Saunders, Founder and CEO of BigTime Software, Inc. reports that the company has “radically changed the way the user interacts with the system. We (BigTime) made major improvements to the menus, stripped the main navigation across the top of the page, and implemented a few other alterations that give the user easier access to major functionality and frees up space so user data gets some much-needed breathing room.”
Saunders continued, “The goal of this version was threefold: simplicity, speed, reliability. Our smaller users told us that the attributes they most wanted in a time-tracking app were super-fast set-up, reliable data syncs and timesheets that allow them to input their time and get out in just a few minutes at the end of the day. That’s exactly what Express does.”
The Express app is designed for smaller, entrepreneurial firms with fewer than 20 users who to easily add users as their firm grows. Firms with more than 20 users can use one of the Company’s pro-level applications, BigTime Plus and BigTime Premium. All three plans offer a 30 day risk-free trial, unlimited projects, and integration with QuickBooks. (A screen shot of the BigTime Express product follows.)
I purchased a Microsoft Surface tablet recently. This is a well-designed, attractive piece of hardware which is very compelling, and I like it more with each passing day. While there are a lot of great things about the device (form factor, battery life, etc.), there are also some challenges (lack of software, lack of accessories) My thoughts on the device include:
Good: Full Microsoft Office (most of it, anyway), especially Excel.
If you've tried to use some of the poor excuses for speadsheets which are on the iPad, you know why this is such a strategic advantage. Although the iPad will be getting Office in 1Q 2013, followed by an Android version of Officein2Q2013, there really is no substitute for Excel. Sure, you can't use add-ins like PowerPivot and some features like ODBC data connections. Who cares. You can print, save as XLSX, and even store the data on Skydrive or use SharePoint, without some stupid loss of formatting. The Windows RT version of Office 2013 Home and Student which is included with the device is very full featured, and works seamlessly with the files I send and receive from my tablet.
Office is the KILLER APP for Surface, and every other experience I've had with office pales in comparison to the version implemented in Windows RT.
MIA: Outlook, Acrobat, very few apps
One of the more annoying things which is missing from Office RT is Outlook. Sure, I can use Outlook Web Access. I could also wear lime green shoes – but that doesn't seem like a great idea either. The included metro mail application (Windows Mail) is OK, but has pursued simplicity to the exclusion of complex functionality. The music & calendar apps were present, but are so simplistic that they may not meet the needs of sophisticated users. Comparing the app selection to the iPad app store, while manifestly unfair due to iOS's head start on apps and huge install base, is pretty depressing. Other MIA apps include
WinAmp or another reasonably good media player which will address media housed on a micro-SDHC car
A pdf editor with customizable stamps
Good native Metro Facebook. Twitter, and LinkedIn Apps
More options for taking photos.
No VPN client for my SonicWall TZ200 firewall
Ugly: The Touch Keyboard
Using the included touch keyboard with the device is similar to texting and driving while blindfolded – very dangerous and frustrating. Perhaps it's just the way have taught myself to type, but I've gone from "fast" on a laptop to a glacial pace due to the complete lack of tactile feedback on this device. While you can do some typing with the clip-in keyboard, I honestly think that Microsoft should have not bothered including the fabric keyboard, as it's very hard to use (at least for me). If I could trade the el-cheapo in with credit on a click keyboard I would.
Summary and Conclusion
Good product, great hardware, weak software selection available. While I wish that the device costed less than it does, it's a very elegant device, and reminds me of a better version of the Samsung 7-series slate which I saw at CES in January 2012. Although most users will purchase the device online, Microsoft has a number of temporary holiday stores around the country where you can play with the device and see how it would fit into your processes.
I have found that I am asked quite often if it’s really necessary to update your accounting software with every update from the software publisher. My response is that it depends on your software, so here are my thoughts…
QuickBooks Products – These products have an annual update that is generally available in the fall. If you are using Intuit’s Payroll or Merchant services, both of which I highly recommend, you need to stay within three years of the current version. Therefore updating at least once every three years is required. ***The 2010 versions will be phase out in the Spring of 2013. ***
QuickBooks Enterprise – This software can be purchased once and then the customer pays an annual fee to keep the software current. If you don’t pay the annual fee you will have to re-purchase the software at a later date when you want to upgrade. I recommend paying the annual fee since this keeps you current and also provides an online backup and unlimited Technical Support. With this said, you can choose not to install an update if the timing is not convenient.
QuickBooks Pro/Premier - This software is purchased without an annual maintenance agreement, to get the new version you need to re-purchase the software. I recommend that you stay within three years since this keeps your software up to date with operating systems, browsers and hardware. I would check each year to see what new features have been released and evaluate the advantage of using these features even if your software is less than three years old. Since the new version is released in the Fall. It makes sense to upgrade in the Fall to get the best pricing (discounts offered in Oct & Nov), early use of the software, and trigger the expense for a calendar year tax deduction.
Current Specials I’m offering, please call 831.373.8200
QuickBooks Enterprise Solutions 40% off list price of Software through 11/30/2012
QuickBooks Pro/Premier & Accountant – 35% off list price of Software through 11/30/2012
Sage 100 (Formerly MAS90) - This software is usually purchased once and the customer pays an annual fee to keep the software current. I recommend paying the annual fee. If you don’t pay the annual fee you will have to re-purchase (or pay all back maintenance fees) at a later date if you want to add users, modules or additional functionality. This is extremely expensive when compared to the annual maintenance plan.
Current Specials I’m offering, please call 831.373.8200