Joe Entrepreneur sits at his computer reading through the day's e-mail. When he's done reading a message, he simply waves his hand, and the software automatically scrolls down to the next one. The phone rings. It's his accountant, and she wants his latest financial information--right away. With a click of the mouse, the entire month's finances are condensed into a coherent, one-page summary that he fires off via e-mail. Then, because he realizes it's just two days before his business trip, Joe goes online with a high-speed ADSL connection, views a hotel property, then books a reservation without leaving a credit card number because his computer has the latest "smart card" technology.
Welcome to the small business of the not-too-distant future. These high-tech tools are just some of the exciting advances industry insiders predict small businesses will be using in the next three to five years. Many of the technologies are already here; they're just being fine-tuned.
Central to these upcoming products, say technology executives, are the enhancement and development of communications tools. As we enter what some are calling the "era of communication," we will see not only the proliferation of technologies like desktop videoconferencing, corporate Intranets, and paging and wireless communications but also the emergence of new ways of interacting, resulting from the merger of computing and communication.
Consequently, industry insiders believe small businesses can expect to use more efficient communication channels, particularly the Internet. "Clearly, the Internet is going to become more pervasive in the next few years," says Jacques Clay, general manager of Hewlett Packard's extended desktop business unit. "Small businesses will use it to communicate with customers, sell products via their Web pages, and create very targeted advertising for local, regional or international audiences."
Sam Jadallah, Microsoft's vice president of small and medium-sized business sales and marketing, envisions enhanced business-to-business communication as well. "Small businesses will find suppliers on the Internet, bid for business or submit offers to suppliers," he says. "There will be a huge movement to empower [entrepreneurs] to communicate more effectively."
Another trend, say experts, will be the development of smarter, more intuitive software that interprets and reacts to body language. They also anticipate the evolution of applications that don't just store information but format and analyze it in a fashion that's easier for small businesses to act on.
"The emphasis will be on turning information into knowledge you can use," explains Richard LeFaivre, vice president of Apple Computer's technology group. "That means software will be able to analyze documents, do intelligent searches, extract relevant information and simplify it. Future software growth will be centered around knowledge manipulation and access technologies."