Every year two things happen in the world of technology overall and especially in the world of small businesses.
1. Technology remains the same (cell phones, computers, web browsers – ho hum)
2. Technology evolves and gets better (think iPhone, Netbooks, Google’s Chrome – match them to the list above)
What this means for your business is that if you want your business to grow through leveraging technology you simply can not continue to rely on the same old technology you have always used.
For example, the 10 notebook computers you purchased 3 or 4 years ago, for your sales team, might be quite functional. However, new and more powerful software, better and more wireless options and smaller notebooks are now available and could dramatically boost the productivity of your team.
What are the top 10 technology trends you need to be on the lookout for in 2009, for your small business? Let’s take a look:
1. Netbook Adoption Accelerates
Mini computers, weighing around 2 pounds and the size of a large book, are ideal tools for busy executives and professionals on the go. They are not as powerful as traditional notebooks, the screens are a lot smaller and the battery life is not as long. However, for simple web browsing, emailing and other light computing needs – they are going to be used more and more by many professionals.
If you need a portable computer for basic computing tasks and find that your main notebook is too heavy and bulky and your smartphone’s keyboard and screen are too small, a Netbook could be something for you to consider. With the rise of hosted applications (cloud computing, software as a service, etc) using a Netbook makes even more sense as the requirement for a large hard disk and synchronization of data will not be an issue.
Growth of netbooks has accelerated sharply. For example, more netbooks were sold in Q3 of 2008 than the wildly popular iPhone. This trend toward netbook adoption should continue in 2009 as entrepreneurs and professionals see the advantages.
2. Built-in Wireless Broadband Usages Widens
Many of us use external wireless cards that provide cellular phone connectivity for mobile computing just about anywhere in the United States. This connectivity, with service from AT&T, Sprint or Verizon Wireless offers access to the Internet from a train, hotel, taxi or just about anywhere – especially handy when WiFi is not an option.
Instead of having to use an external wireless card, most every notebook vendor sells an option to embed broadband wireless access into their notebooks. No longer will you have to fumble with an external card, but you can now have relatively fast access to the Internet built into your computer. If access to the Internet is a must, ensure your productivity is not hampered by using wireless broadband in 2009.
3. Cell Phones Get more Software
Google’s newly launched Android cell phone and Apple’s iPhone have ushered in a new way of buying cell phones. Instead of wireless cell phone carriers controlling the applications that reside on cell phones, Google and Apple have changed this model. The Android and iPhone software are not controlled by wireless carriers but controlled by their respective software vendors. Google and Apple are working directly with developers to ensure applications are developed for their respective platforms.
In 2009 you’ll still see more cell phones released in the traditional model (such as the BlackBerry Bold and Storm), but you’ll also see more cell phones on the market led by software vendors. Why is this important for your business? Smartphone communication is not an option but a standard business tool. The software options available on these devices, as exemplified by the breadth of tools on Apple’s iPhone, increase productivity for businesses.
As Google’s Gmail forced other email providers (Yahoo Mail, Microsoft Live/Hotmail) to enhance their services, Google’s Android and Apple’s iPhone will force the cellular market, overall to do more for customers – consumers and businesses.
4. Unified Communications Increase
Large companies are investing in unified communication (UC) systems from Microsoft, Avaya and Cisco. These systems place the power of telephony onto the computer and include an integration of telephone, CRM, chat, address book, calendar and other things. Many companies are also developing feature rich and low cost UC platforms specifically for small businesses. Many of these systems work in conjunction with voice over the Internet solutions and allow one to use a telephone, PC or smartphone to access the UC features.
If you want to ensure that your small business, even with minimal resources, has the productivity of a larger business, integrating your communication tools is critical. For example, if customers call your office, you should be able to see their profile on your computer screen automatically. Being able to greet the customer in a more personalized manner and even knowing about the last interaction with the customer (order, returns, complaints, etc) is important.
Another example: If you get a fax, there’s no reason why you should not be alerted to the fax and even see the fax from your smartphone. Being able to respond to customers as soon as possible boost your customer service, responding to vendors or employees in hours and not days boosts productivity.
5. Online Data Backups Proliferate
We all know that we should back up our data — but unfortunately not everyone backs up their data. In 2009 you’ll see vendors offering more online backup solutions. Instead of backing up your data to a hard disk, DVD or other local media, the data is sent over the Internet and stored on the remote servers.
There are many “consumer” oriented backup solutions, many free. In 2009 these consumer backup solutions will offer options for more storage and more enhanced backup solutions for small businesses – through the Internet.
When (some might say if) something happens to your data (accidental deletion, disgruntled employee theft, etc, etc) a good backup solution will ensure your customer records, contracts, personnel files and other data can be retrieved. Online, or cloud computing backup solutions, makes the backup solution completely automated and hassle free.
6. Social Media Becomes Strategic
Social media is not new to any of us, but we are not using it as strategically as we can. In 2009 expect more businesses to use social media as a way to communicate with customers. While web sites and email newsletters are still important communication tools social media tools as a standard (not exception) communication tool will increase.
For example, more people will be aware of Twitter (beyond just geeks) and start to use it to receive information from businesses they want to keep in touch with. LinkedIn is a powerful tool for finding connections, but users often under-utilize it. In a recent conference, almost 80% of the hands went up that they were LinkedIn users and the same hands stayed up that they really didn’t know what to do with LinkedIn.
It is important that you learn as much as you can about enhancing your use of social media in order to network with other businesses, find new customers and better communicate with existing customers.
7. Online Video gets Cheaper and More Widespread
I recently bought a Flip video camera and am amazed at the quality of the video it produces. While a $500 or $1,500 traditional video camera is the best option (better video quality), their size, expense and complexity limit their use by most business persons. Cell phone videos are simply too grainy for use.
As more companies produce low cost and quality tools for video production and sharing of those videos (such as YouTube, Flickr, Vimeo and Blip.tv) businesses can leverage video as a powerful marketing tool. Video can complement a blog, email newsletter or Facebook page quite nicely.
8. Video Conference Solutions Expand
Although Cisco’s Tele Presence is too expensive for many small businesses, there are video conferencing solutions to consider that are a lot cheaper but feature rich. The majority of these solutions include software and a web camera and communicate over the Internet.
The systems of 5 and 10 years ago, with grainy images and low quality are much different than the feature-rich and higher quality systems of today. Being able to connect with customers, prospects, vendors or employees “face to face” via video is often better than simply email, telephone or instant messaging. A plane ticket is expensive and the trip takes time, but video conferencing is quite doable. There are dozens of good, inexpensive, video conference solutions – Skype and Sightspeed are two you might want to try out.
9. Hosted Software Applications Go on the Fast Track
Just last week I threw away several years worth and dozens of old CDs and floppy disks of really old software. I even had copies of Windows 95.
When I think of the physical software I have in my library now, compared to years ago, I don’t have many CDs. Why? Hosted applications continue to be used more and more because of its benefits over traditional software.
Traditional software has to be installed on a server, rolled out to individual computers, could cause other applications to crash and adds more complications if remote employees must use the application. Hosted applications, or software as a service (SaaS), on the other hand, removes all of these complications. All you need is a web browser to access the hosted application. The downside? If you lose access to the Internet you lose access to your application.
If your business is on a fast track of growth — be it customers, employees or more offices — hosted applications can definitely boost your productivity.
10. Online Presence Gap Widens
Whether small businesses need a web site or not is no longer an issue of discussion. In fact, the conversation has moved from web sites and email marketing to blogs and social media for business. Those businesses that strategically use online media to communicate and market their businesses will have more loyal customers and can better attract prospective customers.
There is no question that online search is the way that just about everyone searches for a solution. If you’re a florist in Atlanta, Georgia, your next customer is going to type in florist and their zip code into Google. If you’re a tennis racket repair shop in Akron, Ohio, your next customer is going to type in “tennis racket repair” and their zip code. You must be online and visible if you want to thrive and beat your competition.
Intuit’s Future of Small Business Report (Phase Two) reads, Despite the emergence of platform companies and the services they provide to small businesses, less than half of all small businesses had an online presence as of 2006. The costs and technical skills required continue to be a major impediment to small businesses embracing the Web.
While the online communication gap will continue to grow, the reasons for that gap are different. It’s not cost and technical skills that will keep the “have nots” from boosting their online presence. The reason for more businesses not embracing online communication tools is the lack of understanding of its importance for their business, the perception of its complexity and the lack of understanding of the benefits.
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About the Author: Ramon Ray is the founder and Editor of Smallbiztechnology.com. He is also the founder of the Small Business Technology Summit held in New York each year. He is the founder of Taste of technology, an ongoing series of small business technology events held each quarter.