All posts by Barry Collins

The great telephone switch-off

Barry Collins

21 Sep, 2021

The telephone network that we’ve relied on for decades is coming to an end. The UK’s public switched telephone network (PSTN) is being shut down in 2025, and traditional telephony products will stop being sold in as little as 18 months’ time.

The closure puts on notice everything from your home landline to the office phone system, from burglar alarms to traffic lights. They’ll all need to be migrated to digital technology within the next few years or they’ll stop working. ISDN lines are another casualty.

We’ve spoken to the person responsible for managing the switch-off and other industry experts to find out precisely what effect this will have on businesses – and why you need to start planning now for the great British switch-off.

What’s being switched off?

Although the switch-off hasn’t been widely publicised yet, there’s already some confusing, contradictory and wrong information being distributed about what’s being switched off, so let’s try and get to the bottom of it.

By far the most critical pieces of infrastructure to go are the phone lines. By 2025, every phone line in the country will be IP-based, instead of running over the traditional PSTN. That means the landline phone plugged into the wall will be redundant by 2025 (although some communications providers may offer workarounds, which we’ll come to).

The shutdown won’t only affect phone systems; it’s also going to affect any piece of tech that relies on a traditional phone line, including emergency phones in lifts, panic alarms, information displays, door-entry systems, CCTV and EPOS payment terminals.

“It’s a pretty big challenge,” says James Lilley, director of managed customer migrations at Openreach, who is overseeing the switch-off. “There are all sorts of what we call ‘economy special services’ that hang off that network,” he adds, referring to the devices fitted with telephone lines mentioned above. “They’re the ones that probably give us the biggest challenge in terms of migration and moving them over the coming years.”

Hanging up on the landline

Before we get onto that compendium of tech that hangs off the PSTN, let’s deal with telephones themselves. For home customers, James Lilley says that the providers currently supplying phone and internet services will deliver solutions to allow customers to keep using their existing handsets.

“What we’re seeing most communications providers do now is include analogue converters in their [internet] hubs,” he says. “So, you can take that same handset, and instead of plugging it into the wall, you plug it in the back of your router. Essentially, that will convert you to digital voice over the router.” Existing telephone numbers will be ported to a new VoIP system.

Business telephone systems, however, are a great deal more complicated than home landlines, and few companies have much expertise and experience in upgrading and managing them. After all, it’s perfectly likely that many small businesses had a PBX installed a decade or two ago and have barely touched it since. Some telephone systems will still be based on ISDN lines, which are also facing the chop in 2025.

Research conducted by Zen Internet shows that 72% of businesses are reliant on traditional telephony, more so in large enterprises. Yet the research also found that a third of SMEs were unaware of the future switch-off, with 17% of large businesses still in the dark.

Alex Bloor, general manager at Andrews & Arnold (A&A), says that the PSTN switch-off is a good opportunity for businesses to take advantage of the benefits that IP telephony brings – indeed, most of his company’s customers already have. “Our customers are either businesses with phones on desks, in which case they typically want something designed for purpose – and there are some really great, fairly cheap VoIP handsets by companies like Snom,” he says.

“Or, we have customers who put one of our SIP2SIM cards in a mobile phone,” he adds. SIP2SIM basically allows a customer to insert a SIM card in any mobile phone (not even necessarily a smartphone) and have it work like an office phone that’s tied to your desk. When you call out from the phone, it appears with the firm’s geographical “landline” number.

Zen Internet’s Jon Perkins says the company has stopped selling traditional telephony products to business customers, and is focusing on helping them prepare for the switch. “We’re signalling what’s coming and when, and giving them solutions,” he says. “And we’re often taking a bit of a margin hit, so we’re investing ahead of time to avoid what could be a much bigger risk. There’s a [cost] incentive to move customers off traditional copper-based voice services onto digital.”

That incentive applies to the company’s customers too, says Perkins, with customers able to buy a chunk of call minutes much more cheaply than traditional phone tariffs. “You generally save a lot of money [on calls],” he says.

As for ISDN, that was already a diminishing force in businesses, and the events of the past 18 months have given it a further shove towards obsolescence. Perkins describes his company as “exhibit A” for such a migration, having moved from an ISDN call centre to a hosted VoIP platform when its 200 customer support staff suddenly had to start working from home. “Lots of other call centres and colleagues in the telecoms industry have shared the same experience,” he adds.

ISDN’s diminishing customer base means it will barely be a problem in 2025, but there’s one area where it’s stubbornly clinging to life, and that’s in the “specials” market such as bus shelters, traffic lights and other utility devices that are going to prove more stubborn to shift.

The long tail

This brings us to those hard-to-budge devices we mentioned earlier: the burglar alarms, lift phones, panic alarms, traffic lights and all those other devices that rely on an old-fashioned phone line to call home.

Openreach’s Lilley admits that this huge swathe of non-telephony devices is going to pose the biggest challenge, but measures are in place to ensure a smooth migration. “We’ve got people coming into the tent now from a lot of trade bodies, representing a lot of the industries that use this network – like the alarm industry, the water industry and some of the utilities,” he explains. “They’re increasingly working with us to make sure that they’re messaging out to their suppliers the need to make sure that their equipment is compatible with IP.”

Lilley admits that “there will come a point in time where we need to switch this network off and, if customers haven’t migrated, there will be some tough choices to make”.

“The key thing is when we look at the critical stuff like health pendants, for example… they’re the ones we really, really need to make sure as an industry that we’re identifying and having the right migration policies and support in place for in the coming years.”

Some industries are better prepared than others. Barry Forsyth owns alarms business InstallSmart and points out that his industry has already migrated many alarm systems to either cellular or IP-based systems. “If your alarm was fitted by an accredited installer, they should have been proactive and upgraded those systems to a different signalling path,” he says.

However, he acknowledges that there will still be instances where business owners have ignored messages urging them to upgrade, or where alarm fitters have gone out of business. He’s particularly concerned about fire alarms, as there could obviously be life-or-death implications if they’re not upgraded before PSTN is switched off.

At the same time, Forsyth warns consumers and businesses to be wary of alarm companies using the PSTN switch-off as an excuse to sell an entire new alarm system when only the control box needs replacing. “I can’t think of a product that wouldn’t be upgradable [to cellular or IP signalling],” he says.

One solution for many products still relying on PSTN is similar to what will happen with domestic phone lines – an analogue telephone adapter (ATA) will be used to connect them to the digital network. “I suspect we’ll see a lot of emergency panic-button pendants hastily plugged into ATAs with weeks to spare until the deadline in 2025, and some will work and some might not,” says A&A’s Alex Bloor.

Inevitably, there will be some legacy products that haven’t been upgraded when the switch is finally flicked in 2025. “I strongly suspect there will be cases when someone gets trapped in a lift and stuck there all night… or when an old person trips over and presses the button, and nothing happens,” says Bloor.

“We may well hear some of these stories, but on the other hand, I wouldn’t use that as a stick to beat up BT with. Ultimately, we all knew that the days of PSTN were numbered when VoIP really started to take hold. It’s just one of those things. It’s been a hundred years, for goodness’ sake!

Games battles are a taste of things to come

Barry Collins

26 May, 2020

It used to be the porn industry that led the way in technical innovation – or so I’m told. Nowadays, the games industry is a better barometer. Right now, it’s starting to go through the licensing pains that will soon be felt across the computing spectrum, and you’ll doubtless be shocked to hear that it’s us consumers who will feel that pain most acutely.

I recently wrote a feature in IT Pro’s sister magazine, PC Pro, about the burgeoning games streaming services, one of which was Nvidia GeForce Now. This arguably launched with the most enticing business model – a bring-your-own games service that allows you to play titles you’ve previously purchased on Steam, Uplay or other online games stores. Nvidia provides the streaming infrastructure, for up to £5 per month, you bring the games. 

At least, that was the theory – a theory that upset some of the games publishers, who hadn’t agreed to have their games on GeForce Now and demanded that they were removed.

This brings us to a philosophical dilemma: what constitutes a “PC”? Steam and other stores allow users to install their games library on any PC they own, but it seems some games publishers don’t believe that what Nvidia is offering can reasonably be classed as a PC at all.

I see both sides of the argument. GeForce Now isn’t a PC in any conventional sense. Unlike rival Shadow, which hands users their own Windows instance and lets them install what they like, GeForce Now users never see a Windows desktop. Instead, they pick from a graphical menu of preinstalled games and can play them on demand using a variety of devices, as long as they’ve already purchased the game from a supported stores or direct from the publisher. 

Games publishers, used to being paid afresh every time a customer installs their game on a new platform, are narked that they aren’t getting a cut from Nvidia. And without their games, Nvidia doesn’t have a business. Nvidia, on the other hand, is doing all the heavy lifting. It’s providing the server infrastructure, the bandwidth, and clearly doing all the optimisation work itself, since publishers weren’t even aware their titles were on the service. Why should those publishers expect to be paid yet again when it’s Nvidia that’s bearing all the cost and hard graft?

If your response to that question is a Gallic shrug, a yawn of non-gamer’s ambivalence, don’t be nonchalant: these are the types of questions that will soon have to be dealt with right across the software industry.

Streamed desktops are the future. In ten years’ time, we won’t be buying laptops or desktops with bundles of local processing power and storage, we’ll be buying dumb terminals more akin to Chromebooks. Windows, macOS and even Linux instances will be streamed, and then we’ll have the interesting conundrum of how apps are licensed on such platforms. 

At the moment, for example, if you buy a Microsoft Office subscription or Adobe Creative Cloud, you get to install the client software on as many systems as the licence permits – not very many in Adobe’s case

However, what happens when we’re effectively renting our OS from Microsoft or Apple? Will they adopt an Nvidia-like approach where the OS becomes invisible to the end user and you take your pick from a selection of apps in their stores? If that’s the case, you can expect Microsoft and Apple to demand a cut of app subs revenue and the whole licensing model is up in the air. Or will they go for a Shadow-like route, where you stream a Windows/macOS instance and things carry on much like they do today, with you paying for an OS subscription and software subs on top of that?

Last decade saw the demise of the one-off licence – the idea that you buy a piece of software and have the right to use it indefinitely, as long as you can still find a PC to support it. Aside from Serif’s Affinity packages, I can’t think of a piece of software from a major publisher that’s still clinging to that old model. 

The difficult bit is predicting where we’re headed. The squabble between games publishers and Nvidia is just a warm up for what’s to come, with software publishers trying to retain their margins and the OS vendors determined to take a cut. We’re already seeing this with the Windows Store and Mac App Store. 

One thing’s for sure: it won’t be good news for us, the customer. Just as you have to pay twice if you want to play the same game on Windows, Mac or mobile devices, I can well see that happening with the streaming platforms that will emerge. It’s going to be an ugly, expensive fight.

Microsoft 365 is more than a name change

Barry Collins

14 May, 2020

Over the past two decades, there can be few tech workers who have put in a harder shift than Microsoft’s branding department. Barely a week seems to pass without them changing the name of a product, sometimes putting it back to the original name a few months later, just to confuse the hell out of everybody.

The latest makeover victim is Office 365 – the subscription suite that encompasses Word, Excel, PowerPoint and so on – which is being rebadged as Microsoft 365. One can only imagine the amount of blue-sky, think-outside-the-box, no-idea-is-a-silly-idea brainstorming that went into that one.

In this case, however, I suspect the name change is more than just cosmetic. In fact, it could be an indication of a massive change to come.

While the contents of a Microsoft 365 subscription look very much like Office 365 right now, I wouldn’t mind betting that switching to the more general Microsoft name tag is paving the way for the company to add Windows to the package. No longer will your operating system be priced into the cost of a new PC or laptop. Instead, those devices will come with a 30-day free trial of Windows (much like Office does now), after which you’ll be expected to take out a subscription to keep the operating system active. 

If you’re muttering “not another bloody subscription” as you read this and are about to let out a scream that will be heard two counties away, let me explain why this might not be such a terrible thing. 

First, you pay for Windows anyway. You may not notice it, and you might have been told Windows 10 was “free”, but it’s not. The PC makers pay anything up to £50 per licence for Windows 10, and that cost is added to the price of new computers. If Microsoft were to turn that into a free trial, you’d hope the PC makers would pass on the savings. 

Second, if Microsoft is charging you directly for Windows, it has a responsibility to support it. That means not simply directing you to a website or “chat assistant”, but proper telephone support, because if they don’t fix your problem, you don’t pay them next month. In other words, Microsoft will have a direct financial incentive to sort out its support.

Finally, and this is the biggie, a Windows subscription makes it much easier to move to the model that will shape computing in this decade: streaming. I’m 99% certain that by the end of this decade, you won’t be running Windows on the PC in front of you, but streaming it over the internet. 

Your Windows installation will be hosted in one of Microsoft’s massive data centres, and whether you’re using a laptop, desktop PC, tablet or streaming device plugged into a screen – much like Amazon’s Fire Sticks – you’ll stream Windows over your fibre broadband connection. 

Microsoft will look after backup for you; Microsoft will store all your documents, photos and other files; Microsoft will charge you for all this in one convenient monthly sum and will call it Microsoft 365. Well, at least until the branding department has another brainwave.

Why should we have to pay a ransom for old email accounts?

Barry Collins

19 Nov, 2019

You’ve doubtless read repeated warnings about how to avoid ransomware, but even the companies we think of as the good guys attempt to take hostages – your cherished email address being one of them.

People cling to their email address like their mobile phone number, because they’ve had it from way back when their computer made screeching noises every time they went online; it’s the one that all their friends have saved in their address books; and they use it for all their online accounts. Moving email address is only marginally less hassle than moving house.

The broadband providers know this all too well, which is why you’ll get stung if you try to retain a provider’s email account after you leave them. BT charges you £7.50 per month for the Premium Email service you need to keep old BT email addresses running, while TalkTalk will fleece you for a fiver each month to keep TalkTalk or Tiscali addresses active. When better-equipped webmail accounts are free, that doesn’t half hurt.

How do you avoid getting caught in this trap? My advice is to steer clear of broadband provider accounts in the first place. Gmail, Outlook and the like will probably remain free forever, and you can access them with whichever broadband provider or device you use.

The other alternative is to buy your own domain (, for example) and run your own email, which isn’t as expensive as you might think. The brilliant Zen Internet’s basic Bronze hosting package is £5.39 per month and that includes up to 10 email inboxes on your own domain.

A ‘’ address costs £8.39 per year from Zen, which all added up is still cheaper than paying for BT Premium Email over the course of a year.

Whether you go down the free webmail route or buy your own domain, moving an email account is not as tricky as you’d expect. The key is preparation: don’t shut off the old account before moving to the new one, and give yourself a couple of months with both running to give you the best chance of a smooth transition.

The first step is to import the messages from your old account to the new one. Most webmail providers offer an import tool somewhere in their settings – Gmail’s can be found by clicking the Settings cog, choosing Settings and then selecting the ‘Accounts and Import’ tab. You may want to spring-clean the old account first, getting rid of any messages with huge attachments that you don’t need.

Next, you need to set up two things on your old account: a forwarder that sends all incoming messages to the new account; and an auto-reply that explains to your correspondents that you’re moving to a new address and to please update their contacts. Obviously, emails from stores such as Amazon and eBay, utility companies and even your bank won’t pay any attention to this, so you’ll have to do the manual drudge work of changing your registered email address with key accounts.

On the plus side, you’ll find you get rid of an awful lot of junk mail and accounts that you didn’t want in the first place when you finally turn the forwarder off and close the old account. And you’ll feel like Liam Neeson, having freed your email account from the hostage takers.

Is it time to drop Dropbox?

Barry Collins

23 Jul, 2019

Like the 20-goal-a-season striker who turns up in the manager’s office asking for a new contract, Dropbox is good – and it knows it. That’s why it’s turning the screw on free users, enforcing significant price rises on subscribers and doing its level best to turn the red ink on its profit-and-loss sheet to black.

The warning signs literally started appearing in March, when free users suddenly received alerts that they couldn’t install Dropbox on new devices because the company had imposed a strict three-device limit. Any devices you had linked to Dropbox prior to March would remain so, but if you subsequently tried to add a new one, you couldn’t just swap one of the old devices out – you had to reduce the number of devices on your account to two and then add the new one.

Want the freedom to install Dropbox on as many devices as you like again? Well, step right over here and take out one of Dropbox’s subscription plans, from the bargain price of £5.99 per month. Except that price didn’t last long. Last month, Dropbox imposed 20% price rises across the board, meaning the cheapest subscription plan now costs just shy of £100 a year, or £7.99 per month. If you don’t want to pay a year’s subscription in advance, that’s hiked up to £9.99 per month or £120 a year.

To be fair to Dropbox, it has increased the amount of storage available to paid-for subscribers. Plus users have seen their storage quota double from 1TB to 2TB, and the service has rolled out several new features, including the ability to “rewind” your entire Dropbox should ransomware encrypt all your files and demand you immediately shuttle £500 to Sergei in Moscow to get them back.

That Dropbox is brilliant is not in question. I’ve used it for personal and business files for years and I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times it’s let me down. And because I’ve managed to harvest chunks of extra storage by recommending Dropbox to friends and buying certain devices over the years, I’ve not had to pay for it.

But now I feel like I’m being boxed in by Dropbox. The three-device limit will eventually bite me (I currently have it installed on no fewer than 21 devices, although a good chunk of them are sitting unused in my kit cupboard) and Dropbox is so firmly integrated into my work and personal life that I’d struggle to get by without it. Almost any app or productivity software you can think of integrates with Dropbox – no other service offers the same carefree file syncing.

So at some point soon I’m going to be faced with a choice. Do I pay up and tether myself to Dropbox and its price rises for the foreseeable future? Or jump ship before I’m in too deep? You might reasonably argue that I’ve had a good run on a free service, and I should be prepared to pay for something that’s so valuable to my business. But there’s something about being strong-armed into subscribing that leaves a bad taste. It’s nowhere near as malicious as the ransomware it guards against, but it’s not entirely dissimilar, either: it’s got my data, now it wants my money.

Making tax digital: What does it mean for your tax returns?

Barry Collins

11 Jul, 2019

Making Tax Digital is the woefully abject name for the government’s latest attempt to modernise the way we submit our taxes. It’s not as if we’ve been filing with quill and parchment until now, after all.

However, stale branding isn’t the only problem with the new system. Parts of Making Tax Digital have predictably fallen behind schedule, while even the parts that have been introduced this spring have been fudged. Still calculating your VAT returns in spreadsheets? You might get away with it for a little bit longer.

Whether you’re a small business owner or just filing your own income tax return, you’ll eventually be forced to defer to the government’s desire to do everything via accountancy software. Not much to fear there for the average reader, perhaps, although HMRC has plenty to gain when it comes to avoiding costly errors and detecting tax fraud.

There’s also an upside for small business owners. With the software doing the drudge work that your accountant used to spend hours poring over and billing you for – they can now concentrate on helping you grow your business.

We find out what the recent changes mean for your business, evaluate the software that can help you submit your taxes and find out what it all means for business owners.

VAT’s the way to do it

The Making Tax Digital (MTD) programme set out with a bold timetable. However, as with most government IT projects, things haven’t quite gone to plan. “The timeline changes a lot because of HMRC getting behind on the building of the software,” said Chris Barnard, tax manager at accountancy firm UHY Hacker Young. “Originally it was meant to be VAT for everyone next year and then the year after that was going to be self-assessment, but that seems unlikely now. I can see that being three, four years away now.”

VAT has at least made it out of the starting blocks, although only businesses with a taxable turnover of more than £85,000 are required to keep their records digitally and submit their VAT returns using MTD-compatible software.

Filing online isn’t new, of course. Anyone running a VAT-registered business will be familiar with logging on to the HMRC website once a quarter and filling in the nine different boxes that confirm the amount of VAT you’ve charged on sales, the amount of VAT you’re reclaiming on purchases and so forth. Well, now you need a piece of government-approved software to fill those boxes for you.

You might be surprised to learn that’s all the information the government wants – at least for the time being. Although software such as Xero, QuickBooks or Sage will have all the detailed transaction data on every sale you’ve made that quarter, none of that info is currently being passed to HMRC. Instead, the software will simply populate the VAT return figures automatically, rather than you having to enter the figures by hand or copy and paste them out of your accountancy software.

That might sound like a lot of fuss about nothing, but Ed Molyneux, CEO of accountancy software provider FreeAgent, told us that simply preventing copy and paste errors will be make a big difference to the Revenue. “Where errors tend to occur is in transcribing one thing to another,” said Molyneux. “You know what it’s like, it’s easy to swap digits or miss a digit here and there. [MTD] is better than people fat-fingering numbers into a form.”

But it’s not just about cutting out the typos. “One of the other parts of the rules is those nine [VAT return] boxes have to be digitally linked to the underlying accounting record,” said Barnard.

If you were already submitting your VAT returns using accountancy software, that was already the case, but as Barnard said: “There are tens of thousands of businesses that are just using Excel sheets to do their accounting records, but when HMRC want to do an inquiry, they don’t have the confidence that the numbers they’ve got actually mean anything.”

Xero’s director of partner and product, Damon Anderson, also believes the new legislation will prevent other familiar tax problems for both business owners and the Revenue. “This new legislation enables taxes to be filed digitally and quarterly with greater accuracy and speed,” Anderson said. “As a result, this prevents the end-of-year scramble to harmonise Excel spreadsheets or find paper receipts, making businesses more efficient and more transparent to business partners and to HMRC.”

Wither Excel?

Does that mean Excel is no longer an acceptable means of keeping your company’s books? Not quite. Companies that want to continue to manage their accounts in spreadsheets can do so for the time being, but they will need a piece of “bridging software” to submit the return. Most of the big accountancy software firms are already offering this. “As Excel spreadsheets cannot interact with MTD software, Xero has also developed a bridging software solution to ease the transition for those that aren’t fully online and are worried about looming deadlines,” said Anderson.

The bridging software basically takes the calculated figures from your spreadsheet and populates the VAT return, but the operative word here is “calculated”. You can’t just type figures into a spreadsheet and have them uploaded to HMRC: the Revenue wants to see that you’re doing your sums properly, even if you don’t have to upload the transaction data itself.

“At first, they [HMRC] didn’t want to have spreadsheets at all, but after consultations it was decided that as a compromise, the use of spreadsheets would still be allowed for a limited amount of time,” said Barnard. “If you have a tab for sales, the total sales figure will have to digitally link to the VAT return. You upload the spreadsheet to whatever bridging software you’re using and then you put a cell reference into the bridging software, and that picks a number up from the spreadsheet.”

Eventually, however, businesses will need to migrate to approved accountancy packages.

The bigger picture

Many businesses have been reluctant to move to Making Tax Digital because they fear the Revenue will have access to all their transaction data, according to Barnard. As we explained earlier, that’s not yet the case — MTD only requires the same, sparse VAT data that you were forced to submit previously.

However, there’s no doubt that the long-term goal is to gain access to granular detail of companies’ accounts. That will, of course, provide an enormous fillip for the Revenue’s efforts to clamp down on tax fraud. “Down the road, what is now voluntary information – individual invoice transactions or expenses – will at some point be mandatory parts of the legislation,” said Barnard. “That’s probably two to five years away.

“HMRC is looking to be smarter in the way they do inquiries. In the past it was a random exercise, and they spent a lot of money going out to businesses to do inspections and realising there was a typo on the VAT return or it was absolutely fine. They want to move to artificial intelligence systems like the banks have used to spot trends. If there’s a certain business and their submission falls out of the normal criteria of what that business should be submitting, it will flag up an alert.”

Demanding that businesses use accountancy software instead of Excel spreadsheets has another advantage – there’s an online invoice trail. Whereas businesses might sometimes offer to do a “cash job” and not bother to report the work for VAT purposes, “it’s more difficult now not to record those transactions in the system,” said Barnard. “A lot of the time, a client will want an invoice. That invoice will be sent from Xero or whatever and once it’s in the system that invoice automatically goes on the VAT return.”

Benefits for businesses?

Clearly the government is set to benefit from Making Tax Digital, and it must be good news for the accountancy software firms too: tens of thousands of businesses are now being practically mandated to use their software.

What business owners are probably asking themselves is: what’s in it for us? With accountancy software costing hundreds of pounds a year in subscriptions fees and all the hassle of learning how to use it, is there any advantage to being forced to do your books in this fashion, instead of dumping a pile of paper invoices and receipts in your accountant’s lap once a year and leaving them to get on with it?

Because almost all of the major software packages do a lot of the accountant’s legwork for them – such as automatically creating VAT returns, balance sheets and end-of-year corporation tax calculations – your accountancy fees should (in theory) be reduced, as your accountant doesn’t have to spend as much time doing all that work themselves.

Of course, if there’s one thing accountants are pretty good at, it’s making money, so even if your fees don’t go down, “your accountant should be able to provide a better service”, according to Barnard. “When I first started training, you’d talk to your client about once a year at the end of their accounting year and you were always working with data that was about 18 months old. The client didn’t know what was going on right here, right now. With cloud accounting, they can get management accounts from the software right away. The accountant can explain what the management accounts mean, in detail, and provide recommendations off that, provide more tax advice, and tax planning. There’s a lot more services accountants should be providing now”.

Molyneux agrees that the software should free accountants to make a more meaningful difference to firms. FreeAgent recently surveyed accountants and found that the worst parts of their job were “chasing clients for data, having to fix errors in clients’ data, transcribing stuff into [different] systems and filing tax returns,” according to Molyneux. “The bit they don’t get to spend enough time with their clients on is how to make the business more successful.”

Molyneux says many sole traders and small business owners are spending “hundreds, if not thousands of pounds a year, just to pull together a set of numbers to file a tax return and stay out of prison”.

“Accountants are saying ‘I can’t sell advisory services to people who bring me a shoebox of receipts every year. But I can sell them those services if we can basically assume the numbers are taken care of,” Molyneux added.

And talking of staying out of prison, Molyneux adds that using accountancy software may in fact indicate to the authorities that you’re running your accounts properly, lowering the risk of the dreaded tax inspection. “Just the knowledge that the data has come from a trusted source, like a bank transaction feed, and has not just been keyed into a system… with plenty of scope for distortion is a big step in the right direction for them [HMRC] being able to trust that data. If you’ve got a system that meets certain criteria in its trustability or auditability, you might even get a bit of a green light through the filing system.”

How the cloud cooled my phone’s meltdown

Barry Collins

24 Jul, 2018

Technology is a pain in the posterior. It waits until you’re at the very precipice of breaking point and then breaks. Hence, last week, in the midst of a deadline cataclysm, my phone decided to have a meltdown. Almost literally.

I first realised something was up when I felt a warm sensation in the trouser region. Given that I’m not quite yet of the age when ‘little accidents’ occur, I concluded it must be the phone in my pocket. And given that phone is a Samsung Galaxy, I got it out pretty sharpish.

I tried all the usual overheating remedies: killed all the open apps, restarted the phone, scoured the settings for battery hogs, but nothing was working. A deep dive into the settings revealed that ‘Google Services’ was thrashing my phone’s processor, but with literally no more information to go on, and a phone that was chomping through battery at a rate of a 10% every 30 minutes, I had no option but to thrash it and start afresh.

This gave me flashbacks to the days of Windows XP. Remember when you used to have to reinstall the operating system every year or two because your computer accumulated so much cruft it took 10 minutes to do anything? Well, smartphones have now reached that stage. Once in a while, you need to manually chuck out the rubbish they’re incapable of clearing out for themselves.

I wasn’t too concerned about factory-resetting my phone because I had two backups of all my data. Google keeps a backup of all Android handsets by default and Samsung practically insists on taking a backup of its own for good measure. The last time I moved handsets, the Google backup reinstalled all my old apps on the new phone within minutes. It was like moving home and finding the removal men had put all your furniture back in the right place and made you a cup of tea to boot.

Sadly, things didn’t go quite so smoothly this time. Google didn’t even offer to restore my data during the phone’s setup. And although Samsung stepped into the breach, offering to restore all my apps, photos, contacts and the like, attempts to restore from its backup where plagued with ‘server errors’. I could only restore parts of my data.

At first, the language in Chez Collins was a tad fruity. I was preparing to rip a branch off a nearby tree, go the full Basil Fawlty and give my obstinate Galaxy S7 a ‘damned good thrashing’. But after I’d calmed down and started reinstalling apps manually, I realised this wasn’t such a disaster after all.

Unlike the days of Windows XP, when all our data was stored on the device and a faulty backup was very bad news indeed, these days everything is stored in the cloud. Email, photos, social-media accounts, documents – all you need do is reinstall the app and enter your login details, and everything is basically back to how it was. We don’t look after our own data these days. We get Dropbox or Google or OneDrive or Facebook or whoever to take care of it for us.

My phone’s now running like new with battery life back to almost two days. That mini-meltdown might be the best thing that ever happened to it.

Image: Shutterstock

Hey, you, get me off of your cloud (it’s way too expensive)

Barry Collins

3 Mar, 2018

Regular readers (hello, mum) aren’t used to finding nuance in this column. I heartily subscribe to the Danny Baker maxim: sometimes right, sometimes wrong, always certain. But I’ve been batting this issue around in my head for days and I’m still not sure whether I want to commit to another year’s subscription for Adobe’s Creative Cloud or pick up the phone and let someone in the Adobe call centre have it. So, I’m going full stream of consciousness on the page and hopefully I’ll reach a conclusion by the end of it. Strap in.

Adobe has gradually tightened its grip on my metaphorical testicles over the years. After getting hooked on the gateway drug of Lightroom, I was persuaded to part with a tenner a month for the Photography pack so that I could also get Photoshop. Then I reached the point in my journalism work where having access to InDesign was unavoidable, so I stumped up an extra £20 per month to add that to my portfolio. Then Adobe did something cunning…

Around this time last year, it offered me an unbelievably good deal. I could have the entire Creative Suite for a one-year-only special price of £26.68 per month – cheaper than what I was paying for the Photography pack and InDesign separately, plus throwing in Illustrator, Acrobat and the dozen or so other apps that make up the full Creative Suite compendium. I’ll take it for a year, I told myself, then go back to the original configuration when they shove the price up to the regular £50 a month in a year’s time.

In the meantime, of course, I’ve grown faintly addicted to Acrobat, not only for the brilliant mark-up tools that allow me to proof pages of this magazine digitally, but for the way it autofills the endless stream of PDFs I have to wade through as a director of the mighty Lewes FC. And though I don’t use many of the other Creative Suite apps a lot, I love playing with Audition, Muse and Dreamweaver, and I’m planning to redesign my business site using Portfolio.

So, there I was, ready to sell one of the kids to Angelina Jolie and commit to the full £50-a-month package when Adobe did something that got me very irritated. It laced my gateway drug, the one that hooked me on Creative Cloud to begin with: Lightroom.

Now we have two versions of Lightroom: a more lightweight, tablet-friendly, cloud-oriented version called Lightroom CC and an ominously named rebrand of the desktop app to Lightroom Classic CC. Adobe insists it has no plans to do away with Lightroom Classic, but supporting two versions of the same app is rarely sustainable, and a deeper dive into Adobe’s new pricing suggests that it’s incentivising customers to cut off Classic.

Look at the revamped Photography packs, for example. There are now two versions priced at a tenner a month: one that includes Lightroom CC and a whopping 1TB of online storage for your photos; one that includes Lightroom CC, Classic and Photoshop but only a meagre 20GB of storage. It’s gapingly obvious that Adobe wants photographers to chuck all their photos onto its cloud, instead of storing them locally. That’s the whole “edit anywhere” ethos of Lightroom CC. And once Adobe has your photo collection, it’s got you, in the same way Google has you by holding ten years of your Gmail archive.

I’ve always been a software subscriptions sceptic. Given the dearth of game-changing features over recent years, I’m still struggling to comprehend why I’m paying Microsoft £8 a month for Office 365. Adobe got me because a tenner a month was far more affordable than several hundred quid up front for the standalone applications. Now that’s not even an option – the latest versions of the apps are only available on subscription.

It’s a dangerous time for Adobe to be railroading customers. It’s had the luxury of no discernible competition in several of its key markets for yonks. That’s beginning to change with the emergence of credible rivals such as Serif’s Affinity Photo and Designer. They’re very decent, direct hits on Photoshop and Illustrator respectively, and they both cost less outright than a single month of a full Creative Cloud subscription.

Reluctantly, I suspect I’ll cave in and hand my £50 a month to Adobe for Creative Cloud. But Adobe would be ill advised to think it can whack customers in the keep net indefinitely. Adobe’s move to subscription software “riled a lot of people,” according to Serif’s Ashley Hewson. I’m not sure about that, but pulling stunts such as changing the entire nature of the much-loved Lightroom will. Adobe has to be careful that it doesn’t airbrush itself out of the market.

Main image credit: Shutterstock