From the December 2002 issue of Startups

Ever get the feeling that you're not alone? When it comes to the technology you use in your business, you're in good company with other home office entrepreneurs. Technology research firm International Data Corp. (IDC) recently released a study and survey called the SOHO Market Overview 2002 that covers, among many topics, technology use. Statistics and percentages give us the big story about what business owners are using. But what we really want to do is bring it all back home.

Some pieces of hardware are right for you and some aren't. For a no nonsense view, we talked to Michael J. Martinez, author of Practical Tech for Your Business (Kiplinger Books). Each section quotes an IDC statistic; we follow up with a breakdown of who needs it and who doesn't, and what to look for when buying.

Cell Phones

IDC says:
76.4 percent of home offices own cellular/PCS phones, compared to just 59 percent of small offices with fewer than 10 employees.

Who needs it:
"When a homebased entrepreneur is the only person running the business, he wants to be in contact no matter where he goes," says Martinez, who sees more and more entrepreneurs forgoing a landline phone altogether in favor of a heavy minute calling plan on a mobile phone. Features to look for in a phone and calling plan are long battery life, plenty of anytime minutes and good roaming coverage for out-of-town travel. Bell and whistles like wireless Web capability has limited appeal. Don't pay extra for it if you're not really going to use it.

Who doesn't need it:
"I think everybody should have one," says Martinez. There aren't many entrepreneurs who couldn't find solid business uses for a mobile phone. If you don't ever leave the office or don't want your work to follow you around wherever you go, a landline could be all you need.

Hot Cell Phone
Manufacturer: Samsung
Model: SPH-N240
Web:www.samsung.com
Features: Basic mobile phone, weighs 3.2 oz, 5-line backlit screen, up to two hours talk time
Street price: lists at $99, varies with plan activation

Printers

IDC says:
20.45 percent of home offices own monochrome laser printers, but 79.5 percent own color inkjets.

Who needs it:
This is a popular hardware category for obvious reasons. Anybody can find room in his or her budget for an inexpensive color inkjet. This works great for the occasional color printing project, billing or other printing duties. Basic personal monochrome laser printers can be had for as low as $200. Laser printers are a wise option for businesses that don't require color printing.

Who doesn't need it:
This is more a matter of which type of printer fits into your business. "It really depends on the volume of printing more than anything else," says Martinez. The cost of inkjet consumables like ink cartridges will catch up to you fast if you're in a print intensive environment. You'll save your pocketbook in the long run by paying a little more upfront for a good black-and-white laser printer.

Hot Printer
Manufacturer: Canon
Model: i550 Color Bubble Jet
Phone: (800) OK-CANON
Web:www.usa.canon.com
Features: Prints up to 18 ppm in black and white, 11 ppm color, 1-year warranty
Street price: $149

Local Area Networks

IDC says:
20.7 percent of home offices use a LAN.

Who needs it:
Think of this statistic as "20 percent and growing." Wired Ethernet networks that require laying down wires are pretty much obsolete on the home frontier. The affordability of Wi-Fi LANs has spurred adoption of wireless networking in home offices everywhere. Martinez says, "Shop around for price more than anything else, because quality isn't as much of a concern." He adds that 802.11b is sufficient for most home offices with DSL or cable broadband connections. Those in need of greater bandwidth and security can look to the faster and more expensive 802.11a option.

Who doesn't need it:
This isn't too hard. If you only have one desktop computer, you don't need to network it. But if you have multiple computers or a laptop, or need to share your Internet connection with other family members, Wi-Fi is the easiest way to go.

Hot Wi-Fi LAN
Manufacturer: Microsoft
Model: Microsoft Networking Wireless Base Station
Phone: (888) 218-5617
Web:www.microsoft.com
Features: 802.11b router with wireless access point, 2-year warranty
Street price: $159

Laptops, Multifunction Machines, Digital Cameras and Handhelds

Laptops

IDC says:
37.5 percent of home offices own a notebook computer.

Who needs it:
Laptops are an obvious choice for mobile warriors who need to take all their business with them while traveling. The power gap between desktops and laptops has decreased considerably in recent years. "If you can afford a laptop, you have a lot more flexibility to work," says Martinez. Look for one that's powerful enough to keep you going for a couple years without upgrading and still light enough to haul through an airport.

Who doesn't need it:
"Need" is a strong word. Maybe working from your kitchen table or porch isn't an absolute necessity, but it can make your workday more enjoyable and productive. Couple it with a Wi-Fi network, and you're connected no matter where you wander around the house. If you and your budget are well settled in with a desktop, a laptop may be at the bottom of your to-buy list. Desktops still have the advantage of being easier to upgrade if that's a concern.

Hot Laptop
Manufacturer: Dell
Model: Latitude C400
Phone: (800) 759-1250
Web:www.dell.com
Features: Mobile Pentium III 1.0 GHz, 12.1" display, 128MB RAM, 3.6 lbs.
Street price: $1499

Multifunction Machines

IDC says:
24 percent of home offices use multifunction printers.

Who needs it:
Multifunction machines, though they can have their drawbacks, save space and cover a lot of different office tasks like copying, faxing and scanning. These machines are one reason why standalone fax machines are a dying breed in home offices. You also get a lot for the money compared to buying separately. Look for a convenient set of features like a built-in flatbed scanner if you plan on scanning irregular items. Decent multifunctions start as low as $200.

Who doesn't need it:
If you do a high volume of any one of your printer's extra multifunction features, you may be better off with a standalone version. Need to scan a ton of photos all the time? Get a standalone flatbed scanner. Need to handle some high volume copying in house? Get a standalone copier. Same with faxing.

Hot Multifunction
Manufacturer: Hewlett-Packard
Model: HP PSC 2210
Phone: (800) 752-0900
Web:www.hp.com
Features: Printer/scanner/copier/fax, prints up to 17 ppm in draft mode, 1-year warranty
Street price: $399

Digital Cameras

IDC says:
32.5 percent of home offices own digital cameras.

Who needs it:
There's a bewildering array of digital cameras out there for sale. Martinez suggests selecting one based on your photography comfort level. Advanced users will like the features found on cameras in the $500 and up range. Point and shoot entrepreneurs will be quite happy with a basic camera in the $200 range. For do-it-yourselfers, they can be used for everything from product photography to spicing up brochures.

Who doesn't need it:
While nearly a third of home office entrepreneurs own digital cameras, there may be a much lower number who actually use them for strictly business purposes. They tend to find their way more into personal uses. "Unless you're doing Web design or have some key interest in digital photography," says Martinez, "I don't really see it as a core expense."

Hot Digital Camera
Manufacturer: Olympus
Model: D-550 ZOOM
Phone: (800) 622-6372
Web:www.olympus.com
Features: Point and shoot, 3 Megapixel, 2.8x optical zoom, USB auto-connect feature
Street price: $349

Handhelds

IDC says:
16.9 percent of home offices own smart handheld devices.

Who needs it:
A PDA can keep you organized, especially when you're out about town or on the road. Martinez only recommends wireless handhelds with Internet access for those entrepreneurs with a clear need for one. "I would avoid a wireless PDA unless you're really mobile, like if you have a car office instead of a home office." Others will find a budget and business personality match somewhere in the wide ranks of Palms and PocketPCs available.

Who doesn't need it:
Personal preference might keep you away from PDA ownership. A cell phone and a day planner may cover your bases just fine. More and more entrepreneurs, though, are leaving their laptops behind and hitting the road with their PDAs instead. If you spend all day in the office and have no trouble keeping yourself organized, a PDA is probably unnecessary.

Hot Handheld
Manufacturer: ViewSonic
Model: Pocket PC V35
Phone: (800) 888-8583
Web:www.viewsonic.com
Features: Weighs 4.2 oz, 300 MHz processor, 32MB flash memory, 64MB RAM, SD slot
Street price: $299

Wrap Up
The IDC study makes some obvious points, such as the vast majority of home offices have printers. It also illustrates the growing trends in home networking and notebook purchasing. Both those items have become more affordable and more powerful. PDAs and digital cameras are still somewhat specialty items. No two home offices are exactly the same, and the technology you invest in depends on the needs of your business and yourself.

"The home office is very basic. It's just your connection to the outside world more than anything else. Computers are so powerful at this point that you can really have it all right there in very few items: cell phone multifunction, maybe a PDA and a laptop or desktop," Martinez says. Whether you're just starting, adding to or upgrading your home office, choosing your tools carefully is key for your business and your budget.