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The Best of Technology 2008

These entries were winners this year.

Joel P. Bruckenstein, 12/11/2008

As another year comes to a close, it is time to carefully look back on all of the products I've reviewed (here and elsewhere). After careful review, here are some of the best technology tools.

Here are the ground rules: Software and hardware candidates can be either new products or improved versions of existing products that are capable of having a positive impact on an advisory practice.

Industry-specific products qualify, as do general-purpose products. Rookie of the Year contestants are new products used by financial professionals that may not yet be perfected, but that either break new ground or hold great promise.

Before we go any further, let's not forget the annual disclaimer: Morningstar has no involvement in the selection process, so please direct all accolades and complaints directly to me. Morningstar or I do not necessarily endorse any product mentioned in this article. This is just my way of highlighting some products that are particularly worthy of recognition in 2008. And no, I don't present the winners with actual awards. Winners will have to be content with bragging rights until we do this again in 2009.

Hardware Product of the Year
In the current market environment, which shows no sign of improving in the immediate future, I expect advisors to be a little more cautious in their technology spending, as they should be. In such an environment, low-cost items that can produce an immediate, identifiable productivity increase (and hence a good ROI) will be in demand. Two hardware products I reviewed here earlier this year, the Logitech Cordless Desktop MX 5500 Revolution and the CardScan Executive clearly fit that description, so I'm going to honor them both as Hardware Product of the Year Awards.

As those of you who read my June 12 article might recall, I got serious about reviewing mouse/keyboard combinations when the previous favorite, the Microsoft Optical Desktop Elite for Bluetooth, died on me. At first I was highly skeptical that I would be able to find a suitable replacement, but after completing my tests, I decided to continue using the Logitech Cordless Desktop MX 5500 Revolution with my primary computer, so I have now logged six months as a full-time user.

If anything, I'm a much more enthusiastic fan of the Cordless Desktop MX 5500 Revolution today than I was when the original article was written. The mouse design, which appears somewhat radical to the uninitiated, is without a doubt the best I've ever used. It is very comfortable and highly responsive. I probably don't use all of the programmable mouse buttons as extensively as I should, but at least they are there, and unlike some on competing products, they don't get triggered by me unintentionally. I do use the scroll wheel extensively, and I really appreciate the hyperscrolling feature.

I find recharging this mouse particularly convenient. Charges last quite a long time, but I tend to put the mouse in the convenient charger every night, so it is always fully charged in the morning. Power consumption on the keyboard is fine. On the odd occasion that I need to change batteries (or recharge the mouse), the little battery meter near the Windows clock usually alerts me before the situation gets critical.

Perhaps the best argument for this product today is productivity. I've done informal tests on myself and others with this keyboard/mouse combo. Once a user learns their way around the product, and customizes it to their needs, every single "tester" has experienced an increase in productivity. Obviously results vary, but if you are currently using an inferior product, such as the base equipment that comes with most computers today, I'd estimate that the minimum improvement you'll experience is in the neighborhood of 5%. That may not sound like a lot, but when you consider that this increase is 5% a day, every day, the payback period for even less highly compensated employees should be less than one month. That's quite a good ROI. As an added bonus, supplying yourself and your staff with quality keyboards and mice improves comfort, improves moral and lessens the chance of injury. In summary, the Logitech Cordless Desktop MX 5500 Revolution is a winner!

CardScan Executive, our other hardware winner, is really a hardware/software combination. The product consists of a business card scanner, along with some proprietary software that "reads" the business card and puts the information into a database. Once the information is in the database, it can be exported to other databases such as Outlook and ACT!

CardScan takes a seemingly simple, mundane task, and automates it. This might not sound like a big deal, but if you regularly collect a lot of business cards, it can be a huge timesaver. Since it is likely that many readers will be redoubling their prospecting efforts in the coming months, I suspect that you will be collecting many more business cards. Rather than enter the data manually, wasting time and perhaps making errors, let CardScan do the heavy lifting for you. I've looked at other scanners capable of scanning business cards, and they are OK for the occasional scan, but if you have a high volume of cards, nothing touches CardScan. On the software side, the same holds true: CardScan offers the best business card scanning software.

CardScan is another example of a modestly priced product that can save you time and money, in this case through automation. I like CardScan enough to name it a co-winner in the hardware category this year. PAGEBREAK

Software Product of the Year
Although it was not reviewed in a column here this year, it would be a miscarriage of justice were I not to name MoneyGuidePro: G2 as the software product of the year. Since its release a few months ago, MGP: G2 has been receiving rave reviews from existing MoneyGuidePro clients and new users alike. It is easy to understand why. MGP: G2 makes it much easier for clients to understand the financial planning process, including the trade-offs it often entails. At the same time, it has made the program smarter, more responsive, and faster. The net result is that advisors can now offer their clients better, more understandable financial plans, and they can product those plans more efficiently, hence less expensively.

One new feature of note is the "Goal Importance Scale". Earlier versions of MGP offered the ability to rank and fund goals in order of importance relative to each other as opposed to chronological order. The original MGP ranking goal ranking system worked well, the new system is much better. Rather than rank goals in relation to one another in absolute terms, the new 10-point system offers additional flexibility. Goals that are ranked 1, 2, or 3 are classified as "wishes," with those ranked higher being considered more important than those ranked lower, so within the "wishes" category, a 3 would be more important and funded before a 1. Those ranked 4, 5, 6, and 7 are classified as "wants," and those ranked 8, 9, and 10 are classified as "needs." In addition, rather than attaching an absolute dollar amount to each goal, MGP: G2 allows clients to specify a dollar range. The data, along with other factors, is then fed into the "SuperSolve" calculation engine. This automated process can often optimize all factors automatically to arrive at an acceptable plan based upon the parameters set. If not, the advisor can run what-if scenarios to rapidly arrive at workable solutions.

MGP: G2's new modeling and calculation techniques, combined with its clear user interface, result in a fine financial product that allows advisors to provide their clients with meaningful financial plans in significantly less time. No other product is more deserving of the Software Product of the Year Award. PAGEBREAK

Rookie of the Year
I was sorely tempted to give Rookie of the Year honors to Jott, service I love and use, but in the end, I decided to award the prize to Google's Chrome browser, because I think it just may have a significant long term impact on computing in general, and our industry in particular. Chrome clearly qualifies as a rookie because it is new, and it is not yet perfected, however, it is intriguing. Chrome could, in a sense, be a prototype for the operating system of the future for web applications.

If you think of Chrome as a sort of operating system for applications like Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendar, and Picasa Web, Google's interest in browser development becomes easy to understand. It also helps explain why Chrome may be significant for the financial service industry because advisors are using Web applications as well.

Advisors are increasingly turning to Web applications. MoneyGuidePro: G2, our software winner is a web application. EISI another popular and highly regarded financial planning package also offer a Web-based version. Of course Morningstar offers Advisor Workstation, a comprehensive platform with CRM, portfolio management and some financial planning capabilities too. Wouldn't it be nice if developers had a more feature rich, responsive platform on which to operate better, more sophisticated applications for advisors?

Well, I for one think Chrome is a step in that direction. It is fast, it is uncluttered, and it is innovative. It remains to be seen how far Google can advance the capabilities of Chrome, and it remains to be seen how competitors like Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Mozilla's Firefox will respond, but anything that helps improve web based software should eventually benefit advisors and their clients. For that reason, Google Chrome deserves recognition as Rookie of the Year in 2008.

Congratulations to our winners and a happy holiday season to all. I'll be back with more on technology in 2009!

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