Great Expectations

RFID, E-Commerce and Storage

RFID

RFID-radio frequency identification tags that can help companies track the movement of goods through the supply chain in detail-has been big news in 2004. Major retailers like Target and Wal-Mart are starting to require their largest suppliers to implement RFID. For most growing businesses, this is a trend you'll be reading about in 2005 but not actually adopting until a few years down the line. "It's something that will take some time because, at this moment, it's expensive to do," says Duparcq. You can put the RFID hype meter on lukewarm for now. Keep an eye out, though, as the technology improves and prices come down.

E-Commerce

E-commerce has been the redheaded stepchild of retail ever since the Internet bubble burst. It's not exactly an overnight Cinderella story but has quietly been doing very well over the past couple of years. Look to 2005 to be a year of growth and expanding Internet offerings. Technology market researcher eMarketer predicts that U.S. online retail sales in 2005 will reach about $88 billion, up from an estimated $72 billion in 2004.

While online sales only account for a small percentage of retail, the repercussions are much greater. "What you sell online may only represent 5 to 10 percent of what you sell overall," says Duparcq. "But your online presence and how you educate customers may affect up to 50 percent of all retailing because of lead generation, generation of traffic into stores, selection of products, and shopping around for products before walking into a store and buying."

With e-commerce taking on an important role in day-to-day business functions, it's a good time for you to re-evaluate and revamp your Web site for the coming year. Online customers now expect professional appearances and smooth surfing. The growth of local paid search services, such as the one Google offers, can direct valuable local traffic to your site and, from there, to your brick-and-mortar store. The Kelsey Group, a market research firm, estimates that 10 percent of local searches are made with an intention to buy something (whether or not a transaction ultimately occurs). For Internet advertising, those are pretty good odds. An informative, well-designed Web site will be key to turning surfers into buyers.

Storage and Backup

They're not as glamorous as some of the technologies we've looked at so far, but storage and backup are as important as any of them for growing businesses. Keeping, organizing and protecting data should be at the top of every entrepreneur's to-do list. Backup devices have been available for a long time, but they haven't always been easy to set up and use. The trend for 2005 is for storage systems that are truly user-friendly.

One example is the MirraPersonal Server M-80. An appliance that starts at $399 (street), it allows for automatic backup, file sharing and remote access. This sort of device will become common as entrepreneurs seek user-friendly but powerful ways to store their data. Keep an eye out over the coming year for more and more companies, small and large, to offer similar solutions for growing businesses.

We're in a business technology renaissance. Affordability, power, features and ease-of-use are intersecting in categories from wireless to laptops. Next year will be a good time for established businesses to go for the upgrades they've been putting off. Looking into the crystal ball, we predict an interesting and profitable year for growing business technology.

Keeping Tablets
Don't look away-the tablet Pc is definitely one to watch in the coming year.

Combining a laptop with the characteristics of an old-fashioned notepad is a compelling idea. Tablet PCs can have slate forms, desktop dockable forms or convertible forms that look more like a regular laptop. All appeal to different entrepreneurs and different types of businesses. For example, those who need to carry a computer around a warehouse tend toward the lightweight slate style. Those who don't want to say goodbye to their keyboard make the convertible laptop style an increasingly popular choice.

Manufacturers will refine tablet hardware in 2005, but don't expect any radical design changes. "The exciting thing is the additional software that has come out to support ink and handwriting," says Ted Clark, vice president of mobility at Hewlett-Packard. As more applications reach the market, tablets will make more sense for you to invest in. The ability to dock a tablet and use it with a larger external monitor lends a lot of flexibility to its use. Looks like 2005 could be the year tablets go mainstream.

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This article was originally published in the September 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Great Expectations.

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