As a small-business owner, manager or informed employee, it's more important than ever to stay on top of the latest technology. But with all the buzzwords out there, it can be a hassle to figure out what's what and which trends are here to stay. Here, we offer our explanations of the technologies that are reshaping the way we do business.
1. The cloud. The cloud is just another term for the Internet. So cloud computing is simply online or Web-based software and services that are often cheaper and easier to use than purchasing licenses and maintaining software on your own machines. This can apply to everything from financial software to document and file storage. But beware -- not all cloud solutions are alike, and security, reliability and scalability will vary.
Then there's the banter around "private cloud" and "public cloud.” A private cloud is either a secure internal network running "behind the firewall," where employees can access applications and data from a central location such as an intranet, or a service in which the cloud provider stores your data offsite on a dedicated server.
2. Crowdsourcing. It sounds gimmicky, but crowdsourcing basically entails outsourcing work to a crowd of people. There's real business being done through crowdsourcing sites such as crowdSPRING, CrowdFlower and Trada. To crowdsource a project, you submit an open call to a community of experts, such as software developers or graphic designers, and receive a variety of solutions or ideas in response.
However, crowdsourcing isn't always cheaper, better or faster -- and there's no guarantee you'll get back quality, usable material. "The overlooked cost is the need to filter through the crowd's ideas to determine which ones have the potential to solve the problem," says Laura Schoppe, president at Fuentek LLC, a consulting firm specializing in intellectual property and technology transfer. "The idea also must be free and clear to be adopted,” she adds. To see how small businesses are using crowdsourcing, click here.
3. SEO. Search engine optimization (SEO) is about driving traffic to your website. It consists of various practices meant to improve the chances that people coming from search engines like Google or Bing will find your business online. For example, if you sell home aquariums in Buffalo, you want to make sure your website appears high on the list next time someone does a search for “home aquarium, Buffalo.”
Tactics include using strategic keywords across your website, tagging content and coding the site to make it SEO-friendly. However, be sure to steer clear of questionable practices that try to fool the system, or you could get blacklisted by the search engines.
Also, a big part of SEO is having a clearly defined target market, and optimizing your site to reach it rather than a general audience. "Most SMB decision-makers have a target market within 15 miles of their office," says John Caughell, marketing coordinator for Argentstratus, which provides hosted productivity software for health care organizations. "Optimizing your website to reach people 6,000 miles away … seems like a waste of resources."
4. Unified communications. UC is perhaps one of the most misunderstood tech terms. An industry website describes it like this: “UC supports the enterprise to manage various types of communications across multiple devices and applications, while integrating with back-office applications, systems and business processes, with the goal of improving business agility and results, leading to increased revenues, decreased costs and improved customer service." Huh?
UC is really this: merging more than one type of communications tool, such as Web conferencing and instant messaging, into a single interface or integrated system. Skype could be considered a UC system because you can switch back and forth between video and phone calls. Unified messaging (where voice, text and email messages all filter into your inbox) and "presence" technologies are also commonly found in UC systems. Do you need it? That depends on how often you need to connect and collaborate online.
5. Virtualization. This technology has been around for many years, but it's still confusing, particularly since you can "virtualize" pretty much any piece of hardware or software. In other words, you're creating a virtual version of it rather than having to get the actual version. And yes, it's legal. The oldest form is operating system virtualization, which allows a piece of hardware to run multiple operating system images at the same time, so that you don't have to buy and maintain as many machines.
A consulting firm describes it like this: "Through virtualization induced containers, applications can be isolated from both the hardware and one another, preventing configuration conflicts that often complicate their introduction into IT systems." I prefer this definition from the technology site ReadWriteWeb: "Do you have a Mac? You can run Windows on it, too. How? Virtualization."
No doubt, this is a short list of the tech terms that drive small-business owners batty. But it's up to you to interpret the buzz and determine which technologies you should invest in. "As a buyer, I look for value, not buzz," says Kevin Elliott, CEO and founder of mobile app developing firm WeLike LLC. "Often, things I buy were buzzing … but only after I determined that there was substance did I buy."
Polly Traylor is a former high-tech magazine journalist with CIO and The Industry Standard, among others. She writes about business, health care and technology from Golden, Colorado.