With all the hustle and bustle of running a business, you may have fallen out of touch with what's hot in technology and which of the latest and greatest gadgets can help you in your business. But never fear--from hardware to tech services, we've compiled these tips to bring you up to speed.
What's Next for Business Tech?
1. At Work--and at Play
At the 2005 E3 trade show, the big news was the extreme capabilities of the next Xbox and PlayStation consoles--these machines will more closely resemble home media computers rather than game devices. And with flat-screen monitors that double as TVs and cell phones that double as PDAs and MP3 players, the convergence of tech for work and play may reach a crescendo in the next few years.
What does this mean for your business? Maybe you'll return to the heady dotcom days and offer your employees a game console for break times. After all, you can also use it to play back video and digital photos in meetings. And a cell phone that plays music could be handy in traffic, but one that plays MP3s of the latest business audio book can also keep you informed on the go. So don't pooh-pooh the latest consumer devices as having no potential for business use--with a little imagination, you can mix business and fun.
2. Prepare to Get Mini
The mini computer packs a full-fledged PC into a package the size of a laptop battery, and can be used at your desk or as a portable computer--they're smaller than the slimmest laptops, and they don't have the limited capability of a PDA. And they come equipped with all processing power, memory and ports you'd expect in a regular computer, minus the bulk and weight. Some have docking cradles and can be used as tablets, while others feature slide out screens, but they're all small enough to be able to slip into a purse or pocket. Unfortunately, they're still cost prohibitive: A mini PC can cost as much as $4,000, whereas a regular computer with the same processing power can be purchased for less than $500. At this point, mini PCs are really a fashion statement for the ultimate early adopter, but keep your eyes peeled because once prices drop, they could change the way that everyone does business out of the office.
3. Next Gen Cell Phones
3G, or third-generation, cell phone networks are popping up all across the country. And they're not just for making phone calls. Current releases offer a variety of capabilities, including on-demand video services that let you watch streaming video clips on your phone, built-in camcorders that record video, still cameras to snap pix, MP3 players to play your favorite music, and mini SD cards, Memory Sticks or Multimedia Memory Cards to save and transfer it all between devices. 3G Smartphones sport mini keyboards to save your thumb from cramping up during marathon text message sessions, feature Windows Mobile OS and can be Bluetooth or Wi-Fi-enabled. GPS-equipped cell phones also just made their debut. Use them to get driving directions while on the road or to keep track of employees.
4. Inventory Gets Smart
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) embeds tiny data-packed radio transceiver chips into all kinds of goods and containers. Like a talking bar code, an RFID chip can talk to a scanner several feet away and tell it far more than a printed label, even from inside an unopened carton. The technology has been around for decades, but has only recently come into use. The Department of Defense and Wal-Mart are already taking advantage of RFID. Once pricing gets friendlier and some standards are worked out, the technology will trickle down to smaller retailers and businesses.
"When transportation companies begin reading carton and pallet tags as shipments are loaded, transferred and delivered, this could provide smaller retailers with the same level of tracking that UPS and FedEx provide," says Bert Moore, director of IDAT Consulting and Education, a Pittsburgh technology consulting firm. "Better tracking will allow managers to better schedule work flow and inventory."
Better yet, the technology may offer innovative firms a new technology to play with. "This is an innovative technology similar to the Internet," says Mark Roberti, editor of RFID Journal. "When that happened, we saw a wave of innovation from small companies. This is far more dramatic than connecting computers. You can now make any object smart."
5. Roaming With VoIP
Imagine not having to use your cell phone minutes when talking at home, in the office or near a Wi-Fi hotspot. Or, if you have terrible mobile coverage in the office (or at home), imagine being able to walk into your office and have the phone automatically switch from the poor wireless connection to your VoIP network. VoIP-to-mobile service is the next big idea for phone service, and it could prove to be quite the money-saver for entrepreneurs. While some phone manufacturers have developed or are developing phones that can handle both wireless and VoIP calls, the reality of this service isn't quite here as the technology is still developing and there's much infrastructure to be developed by providers. But it's something to keep your eye on--be an early adopter and you could save big bucks on your phone bills.
6. A New Way to Go Wireless
WiMAX is a new wireless option for entrepreneurs either unserved or under-served by fixed-wire cable, DSL or T1. With WiMax, data travels through the air at the same rates of a T1 line. It may not be in your town yet, and technically, it won't be anywhere until year's end, when the WiMAX Forum starts certifying the interoperability of this kind of transmission gear. But pre-WiMAX services are already available in dozens of cities nationwide at cut-rate prices. Both startup and long-standing wireless ISPs are switching over to better wireless transmitters at a pace analysts expect will bring WiMAX to America's 50 largest urban centers and countless rural areas by the end of the year.
In 2006, once WISPs can mix and match gear from multiple suppliers, commercial rollouts will zoom, says Jeff Thompson, president of TowerStream in Boston. WiMAX users won't notice that watershed because, unlike Wi-Fi, customers don't buy access points. But the point of standardization is to drive down equipment costs--and in open markets, those savings tend to filter down to customers. Ultimately, Thompson says, you'll pick up a small WiMAX modem for Wi-Fi prices at Best Buy or CompUSA, then choose from a variety of service providers.
Start Controlling Your Tech--Before It Controls You
7. Increase Communication With Far-Flung Employees
It sounds basic, but the first step in setting up a technology solution for working with offsite employees is to figure out just what you need to do with your extended work force. Most growing businesses with multiple work sites will have two particular needs at the top of their list: the ability for employees to talk with each other on a minute-by-minute basis and the ability to have access to files away from the office. To add to the challenge, these needs have to be met at a price point that won't strain the budget.
Meeting these requirements doesn't require deep secrets or complex technology. Basically, it's about e-mail, telephones and IM. For e-mail, outsourcing can provide extra features, higher security and web access. For IM, you can use the many free solutions offered online. And if you want access to customers no matter what IM platform they're using, try chat clients like Trillian that allow you to cross platforms. And for that pesky file-sharing problem? Look for in-house servers that offer secure web access and online file sharing.
8. Use Wiki to Ease Collaboration
Chances are, you may be familiar with wiki by way of Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia fed by contributions from thousands of people. A wiki is a web page that multiple users can collaborate on--it's generally basic in design and easy to use. Now, like the blogging phenomenon, wikis are starting to work their way into the business arena.
Ross Mayfield, CEO and co-founder of Palo Alto, California-based Socialtext, a group productivity and wiki solution provider, says wikis have two main benefits: They boost group productivity and also act as a business knowledge base where information is logged and easily accessible. The constantly-changing nature of wiki means it may never be completely finished, but it does remain up-to-date. Mayfield says candidates for wiki use include companies that generate a lot of documentation through groups, are team-project-oriented or seek a collaborative writing environment. Just freeing your inbox from the heaps of cc'ed e-mails and boosting productivity can be worth the investment.
9. Reining In Employee Tech Time
Consider this: A 2004 study by The ePolicy Institute and American Management Association found that 10 percent of employees reported more than half their day is spent working on e-mail, up from 8 percent in 2003. Eight-six percent of the respondents said they engage in personal e-mail at work. And a staggering 90 percent of employees spend up to 90 minutes daily sending IMs.
But before you unplug your e-mail server, consider that although these tools are distracting, they also empower productivity. So rather than taking Draconian measures, seek to control, manage and leverage technology so you get more of the good and less of the bad effects.
Nancy Flynn, executive director of The ePolicy Institute, recommends a three-pronged approach employing policies, training and enforcement, including software to monitor online activities and penalties for rule-breakers. Your e-mail policy should define whom employees can communicate with, as well as when and for how long they can do it for personal purposes. Training should explain why the policy is necessary--and don't forget the penalties. Choose wisely, because you may have to apply them.
10. Create a Continuity Strategy
You never know how much you depend on technology until you don't have access to it anymore. If a disaster strikes, you may not only suffer direct losses of data and hardware, but indirect losses due to downtime. But with some foresight and planning, you can avoid sustained downtime--and lost profits.
First, create a broad, holistic plan to ensure business continuity, not just disaster recovery. This plan should involve every part of your business, such as processes, operations, assets, employees and so on. Your overall goal: to prevent business disruption--then minimize it if it does occur. To this end, you should:
- Conduct an impact analysis. How much downtime, loss of productivity, loss of data, loss of revenues and so on can your company sustain? For how long?
- Develop a plan for dealing with mission-critical (revenue-impacting, customer-facing) functions and business-critical (back office, supply chain, e-mail) functions under various disruptive scenarios. Determine which business technologies to employ.
- Educate your workers about the plan before a crisis occurs.
- From time to time, revisit the plan to make sure it remains practicable and viable.
11. Do You Really Need That Tech?
Before you make a large tech expenditure, make sure you actually need whatever new technology you want to buy. Inventory all your current PCs, printers and software, and look for opportunities to consolidate purchases, standardize configurations and root out duplication. A recent study of IT purchasing by New York City consulting firm McKinsey & Co. included one example company that had 30 percent more printers than it needed. The company was also able to reduce PC configurations from 10 to three. To continue spending smart, pick a team of people--be sure to include at least one IT expert--and meet with them regularly to discuss what they need and how to save on it.
Protecting Your Business and Your Data
12. No More Passwords
Biometrics is the use of body measurements to identify people. These technologies rely on the uniqueness of the human body to identify individuals, literally measuring your biological features and behaviors. The technology can scan your fingertips, hands, face, iris, retina, voice pattern or even behavioral characteristics. Eventually, passwords may become unnecessary since biometrics provide a convenient replacement and don't require memorizing obscure combinations of letters and numbers.
Fingerprint identification is making its way into portable devices like cell phones, PDAs and laptops--hardware that's vulnerable when lost or stolen. Since businesses can't afford to lose their data, fingerprint readers make more sense than password protection. The appearance of fingerprint readers in cell phones is the most recent development (coming soon to the US), but they already exist on some laptops and PDAs. External fingerprint scanners have been available for a while, and are growing in popularity.
13. Protect Yourself From Identity Theft
What can you do to make sure your business information isn't stolen? How can you make sure that no one charges personal purchases to your accounts and ruins your business credit history? Limit the employees who have access to sensitive information, screen outsourcing companies thoroughly, and always encrypt sensitive data on your computer network. One form of business ID theft happens when criminals forge payroll checks against your business accounts, so always guard check stock like cash. And don't use preprinted check stock; instead, encourage direct deposit, and shred sensitive documents on a regular basis.
14. Catch 'Em on Camera
Wherever you need an extra set of eyes, a wireless video surveillance camera can help. Don't expect to see sharp details, especially in poor lighting situations, but do expect cameras you can monitor remotely via internet. Just plug them in wherever there's a power supply (although cameras without power cords are on the horizon). Just don't forget to enable your Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) and password protection to keep your video signal away from wireless snoops.
15. Don't Let Power Surges Wipe You Out
A power conditioner is a device that hooks up between an electrical outlet and your electronic equipment to keep the flow of electricity constant. A UPS device, or uninterruptible power supply, is basically a battery back-up. It buys you time in case of a catastrophe because if the power goes down completely, the UPS kicks in and gives you a few precious minutes to save your work and shut down your computer. Higher-end UPS devices often come with handy software that automatically saves your work and shuts the computer down as needed.
Besides protecting you against full power outages, a UPS also acts as a surge protector, guarding against the sags and spikes that can cause equipment headaches. For added protection, look for a UPS with a phone jack. Running your modem line through a UPS protects your computer from "back door" damage. Don't forget that lightning strikes that cause sudden electrical spikes can travel through phone lines as well as electrical lines.
16. Back It Up Daily
It's crucial that you back up your business data every day. If you have a small amount of data (less than 1 Gigabyte), recordable CDs are inexpensive--you should be able to buy a year's supply for less than $200 at most office supply stores. You can save even more money by buying CD-RWs that can be erased and re-recorded over and over again.
Regularly check to make sure that you can actually recover data from your backup disk, tape or CD-ROM. Try downloading specific files from the disk onto your home PC or a computer that is configured differently from your office server. And make at least two backup disks, tapes or CD-ROMs, and keep one in a secure offsite location, protected from natural disasters and theft.
One more thing: Don't forget that whomever hosts your website may also suffer a disaster. If the computer server on which your website is located is destroyed, your site is gone. Make sure that your ISP or web hosting service gives you a CD-ROM containing all the HTML, Java scripts and other software code for your site. Whenever you update or change your site, be sure to get an updated CD-ROM for the entire site.