Our never ending pursuit of efficiency will eventually lead us beyond the cloud to the devices that we hold in our hands for much of the day. Just as cloud-based accounting once seemed unthinkable, mobile devices are inching their way toward becoming indispensable productivity tools. Before you know it you’ll be relying on your mobile phone to carry out accounting and spreadsheet related tasks. Not today, perhaps—but soon. In this article I’ll provide a rundown on the current state of what you can—and cannot—do with both QuickBooks and Excel on a mobile device, meaning smartphone or tablet. Presently there’s a fair amount of “not that you would but you could” with regard to mobile computing, but the pace of change is accelerating.
Accounting Software On the Go
Let’s lead off with accessing accounting software on the go. I don’t yet have any personal experience with Xero or other non-Intuit online platforms, so I’ll limit my focus to QuickBooks Online and QuickBooks Desktop.
Both cloud-based solutions and mobile apps may have constraints when compared to full-featured desktop software. Depending upon your mobile device there’s no guarantee that a native app is available. QuickBooks Online does offer free companion apps for iPhone, iPad, and Android, but there are a couple of catches:
- QuickBooks Desktop users are out in the cold on this front, as the native QuickBooks apps require a QuickBooks Online subscription. There’s an either/or aspect to these two versions of QuickBooks: you can move your data between online and desktop, but your data can only reside in one environment at a time.
- The apps provide access to basic accounting information and transactions. Presently you can’t create month end journal entries or record transfers in the mobile apps.
- Reports are extremely limited.
In short, if you’ve found QuickBooks Online to be a watered down version of QuickBooks on a desktop, the functionality on the mobile apps is diluted even further. I’m not writing this to say don’t bother with the apps— just know that you’ll find many missing features within them. However, having a subset of QuickBooks in your pocket can be useful in a pinch.
QuickBooks Online users do have a second option, which is to log into the full site via a web browser. Doing so puts the full array of QuickBooks Online in the palm of your hand, although this may be an exercise in frustration if your mobile phone has a modest sized screen.
Presently QuickBooks Desktop users are limited to phone-home solutions that allow you to remotely access your desktop computer or hosted instance remotely. The road to the cloud is now littered with discontinued solutions for desktop users, such as qBooks, QuickBooks Connect, and probably others that used to sync the desktop version of QuickBooks with mobile devices. To my knowledge there aren’t any apps available that sync QuickBooks desktop, but you can still get direct access to your data. For example:
- Microsoft’s Remote Desktop App – This free app is available for iOS and Android. Scrunching your desktop down to the size of an index card or smaller is sure to cause eyestrain at best on a mobile phone. However, I was surprised at the experience on my iPad Air 2—it was fascinating to navigate the desktop version of QuickBooks by touch. I struggled for a few minutes with the app, as it launches in “Pointer Mode”. This means you have to drag a cursor around to whatever button or icon you want to access, and then tap. Yes, it’s as painful as it sounds. However, drag from the left side of the screen to reveal a menu from which you can use “Touch Mode”. In that regard you’re able to simply tap anywhere on your QuickBooks desktop screen to carry out tasks. This is probably best suited to reviewing reports from your couch, but you can add transactions and carry out other tasks if you wish.
Keep in mind that your mobile device will need to either be on the same WiFi network as your desktop computer, or you’ll have to have IP address-based access to your computer. Hosted solutions function in this manner, so you’ll be able to access hosted QuickBooks from anywhere. You’ll also need to enable Remote Desktop Access on your computer.
- LogMeIn Ignition – Although not free, LogMeIn Ignition allows you to access your computer from anywhere that you have an Internet connection. You install this service on your desktop computer, and then you can use the mobile app or LogMeIn website to access your computer from anywhere. Pricing for this service starts at $99/year for access to up to two computers. Once installed, you can access your designated computers from any web browser, whether on a computer or mobile device.
- GoToMyPC – This service was one of the earliest means that we could remotely access a computer and remains a valid option. It works in a similar fashion to LogMeIn, but its pricing starts at $19.95/month.
Using QuickBooks Data in Excel Mobile
With apologies to Rudyard Kipling, on mobile devices QuickBooks is QuickBooks, and Excel is Excel, and never the twain shall meet. This is particularly the case with the QuickBooks mobile app. The only way you’re getting any report data out of the mobile apps is via a screenshot:
- iPhone or iPad: Hold down the Power button and the Home button simultaneously.
- Android device using Ice Cream Sandwich 4.0 and above: hold down the Power button and the Volume Down button at the same time.
If you’re using QuickBooks Online, you can email reports to yourself, which you can then open in Excel. However, the reports generated by QuickBooks online use the obsolete Excel 97-2003 format, meaning the files have an .XLS extension. The mobile versions of Excel require documents to be saved in the modern .XLSX workbook format, so whenever you open a QuickBooks Online report on your mobile device you’ll be required to convert the document to the new format, otherwise you’ll only be able to look at the report onscreen.
If you use a desktop version of QuickBooks, email is clearly an option for you as well. However, the mobile versions of Excel integrate with both Microsoft’s OneDrive service as well as Dropbox. This means that QuickBooks reports saved to an OneDrive or Dropbox folder will be readily accessible on your mobile device.
Available Tasks in QuickBooks Mobile
QuickBooks Mobile enables you to create and view customers, vendors, and inventory items on the go as illustrated in figure 1. You can also create related transactions, such as invoices, payments, and log and pay bills as illustrated in figure 2. You can manage sales tax from within the app, but you can’t create journal entries. Reports are limited to the profit and loss as well as balance sheet reports. You can view summary lists of activity by customer/vendor, as well as view aging reports. However, customization is limited, and the data can only be viewed onscreen.
Figure 1: QuickBooks for iPad and iPhone features an easy to navigate menu.
Figure 2: QuickBooks for iPad and iPhone allows to easily create items and transactions from the main screen.
Microsoft Excel on Mobile Devices
Let me first say that if you want to run a full version of Excel on a mobile device, then purchase a Windows tablet. Microsoft’s Surface tablet gets lots of press, but many manufacturers offer Windows-based tablets that let you install any desktop version of Excel and use all features without limitation. With that said, Microsoft’s previous CEO Steve Ballmer seemed to have little interest in expanding access to Office products beyond the Windows platform. An early iteration of Excel for iPhone was barely a caricature of the desktop version—I found it completely unusable. However, last year Excel for iPad arrived on the scene with an impressive version 1.0. In the intervening months several updates to Excel for iPad have been released. This was followed by an actually usable version of Excel Mobile for iPhone as illustrated in figure 3, and Excel for Android has just been released.
Now, actually laying your hands on a mobile version of Excel can be trickier than you think:
- If your iOS device has version 7.1 or later of the operating system, you’ll be able to download the app from Apples’ App Store and easily be off on your way.
- Accessing Excel on an Android device is akin to trying to find a needle in a haystack because the Android platform is highly fragmented. Android’s operating systems are best thought of as flavors, as each one is named after some sort of sweet treat. Excel for Android will only work on one of these flavors, known as KitKat (yes, after the candy bar). If you buy a new Android tablet today, it might have any one of these flavors (operating system versions):
- Ice Cream Sandwich
Thus the first hurdle in your quest for Excel on an Android device involves choosing the proper flavor, which means cosmically means the latest version of Android is incompatible. From there, you have to pay attention to the type of processor inside your device. Most brand-name tablets, such as by Samsung and Dell use Intel’s Atom processor. However, Excel for Android only runs on devices that have an ARM processor. Apple devices use ARM processors, and so that seems to have been the path of least resistance to the Android environment.
A further limitation is that Excel for Android requires one’s screen size to fall between 7 inches and 10 inches. A number of Android tablets have a 10.1” inch screen, which means no Excel for Android for you. Finally, the device must have at least 1 GB of RAM.
To recap, Excel on an Android tablet requires the following:
- KitKat operating system
- 1 GB Ram
- ARM processor
- Screen size between 7” and 10”
I am well versed on these requirements because it actually took me three attempts to find a tablet that I could use Excel on. The first tablet only met three of the four specifications. My second tablet met all four, but was so fragile that grabbing the wrong micro-USB cord to charge it made it non-functional. My third attempt has met with limited success—I can run Excel for Android, but the Android operating system itself often doesn’t respond to basic commands like a tap of the Install button in the Play store, or completing Google searches. Unfortunately most of the Android tablets that meet all 4 requirements are from manufacturers that you’ve never heard of, and each has some unique spin on how the Android experience should work.
The mobile apps for Excel are free, but much of the functionality will be limited until you sign in with a free Microsoft account. You can also get access to Excel by way of an Office 365 subscription.
Figure 3: Excel for iPad and Excel for iPhone have significantly improved over the past year.
Available Tasks in Excel for Mobile
Compared to the historical “issue a software update every three years” cycle Microsoft is updating the mobile apps at a furious pace. At least 7 significant updates have been issued for Excel for iPad in less than a year, and several of these added new features. Thus what you can and can’t do in Excel might change without notice, but here’s a high level overview:
- Use just about any worksheet function
- Use Excel’s Table feature
- Create charts, including the Recommended Charts feature first introduced in Excel 2013
- Interact with pivot tables (although you can’t drill down on data, or create pivot tables from scratch)
- Filter lists of data
- Easily zoom in and out of spreadsheets by pinching the screen
Major activities that you can’t with Excel on mobile devices include:
- You cannot use macros or ODBC connections of any sort on an Apple or Android device. A Windows tablet is your only recourse here.
- You won’t find the Custom Views, Conditional Formatting, Watch Window, Slicers, Sparklines, or worksheet protection features.
- You can view and delete but not add new comments in Excel for iOS, but the Android version does allow you to add comments.
- You can add limited borders to worksheet cells but you can’t add a double-line at the bottom of a worksheet cell. Clearly the mobile apps weren’t designed by accountants.
Creating spreadsheet-based content on a mobile phone or even a tablet can end up being an exercise in frustration. However, the mobile versions of Excel are certainly suitable for quickly reviewing a spreadsheet, or opening a file from Dropbox, OneDrive, or iCloud that you need to email to someone as illustrated in figure 4.
Figure 4: Excel for iPad and iPhone allows you to quickly open files from DropBox, OneDrive or iCloud.