10 Ground-Floor Tech Businesses to Start Now

Podcasting

Audio downloading isn't new, but podcasting makes it simple. Your grateful public uses free podcasting software such as Apple's iTunesor Juice Receiverto download your MP3 voice or music files, which they listen to on digital music players or PCs at their leisure. A fine way to distribute customer information or training, it's also spawning homegrown radio stations.

  • GPS phones: GPS-equipped phones aren't just for keeping track of teens and getting driving directions anymore. They can help you cut sales and supply costs, too. Right now, you probably don't know exactly where all your sales and delivery people--or the company vehicles they're using--are. But their cell phones do. And with the right phones-like some Nextel models-and the right software--like Xora's--you can get powerful new options for dispatching, time and route tracking, staff and delivery scheduling, and emergency response. Down the road, GPS phones will be used to report mobile equipment diagnostics or just to let colleagues know when you're running late for a meeting.
  • Instant messaging: Like so many new forms of media, IM first achieved superstar status among consumers. But now the world's largest tech company couldn't run without it. "There are about 3.5 million instant messages a day within IBM," reports David Marshak, Big Blue's senior product manager for real-time and activity-centric collaboration. "But the important number is zero-I get zero voice mails from co-workers."

"You use IM for problems you want to solve right now, and the entrepreneurial world is in no way slower than the corporate world," Marshak notes. Additionally, IM suppliers are now tailoring their products for small business and bundling an array of communications alternatives, one of which is ....

  • Ubiquitous telephony: Here's the deal: Talk for free to anyone anywhere with Skypeand an internet connection. Or for a couple of pennies a minute, you can call anyone with a conventional phone via the SkypeOut service. Voice quality is very good, and you can get every telephony feature conceived by man, from local phone numbers to answering services. What's not to like?
  • Wikis: Think of a wiki as a collaborative document on the web. Wiki server software lets participants freely edit web page content with any browser. Ward Cunningham whipped up the first wiki by himself in 1995, and an estimated 1 million wikis are now collaborating away. They deliver a constantly refreshed view of a group's collective wisdom on a given topic without a confusing flood of e-mail. Wikis are quietly cropping up in businesses that tap them for internal projects and have spun off a cottage industry of software and service providers, such as JotSpotand Socialtext.
  • Hands-on video: Apple created a sensation last fall when it started podcasting TV shows to their new video iPod. But now, both live and pre-recorded programs are appearing on the most popular electronic device in history--our beloved cell phones. Only time will tell when the tiny screen is ready for full-blown TV. But there's certainly no shortage of big-ticket deals being cut or new TV-friendly devices being released.

Digital Video Broadcast Handheld technology, which is optimized for streaming video to energy-efficient handhelds like Nokia's new bigger-screen phones, appears ready for prime time. Video-enabled phones will be arriving in the tens of millions in the next couple of years, predicts Sam Leinhardt, CEO and co-founder of Penthera Technologies, which creates software for DVB-H networks. New technology always brings new opportunities, says Leinhardt, but trying to predict them "is like asking me 15 years ago, How can the internet be used?"

  • No child left off the internet: Maybe you laughed when you heard the MIT Media Lab was creating a $100 laptop for schoolchildren, but MIT has governments worldwide intrigued by its "laptop in every home" idea and will begin manufacturing them soon. Media Lab prototypes sport innovative displays, free Linux software that runs in flash memory, and peer-to-peer Wi-Fi networks. What if tens of millions of previously disenfranchised children wind up with internet access? What a market that would be. "Nobody's ever installed computers this densely," notes Michael Bove, director of MIT's Consumer Electronics Lab. "Get them out in sufficient numbers, and the business case will be pretty obvious."
Eric Bender is a former executive editor of PC World magazine.
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