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Plug In or Tune Out?

Discover which of the year's hottest gadgets, trends and technologies make sense for your small business, and the high-tech shape of things to come.
January 6, 2010
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/204536

From versatile smartphones such as the Motorola Droid and BlackBerry Bold 9700 to cutting-edge e-readers such as Amazon's bestselling Kindle 2 and Barnes & Noble's nook units, 2009 was awash in technological innovations. But talk about New Year's revolutions: Even at this early stage, from USB 3.0 devices to 3-D televisions, it's apparent that 2010 will be just as slammed--if not more so--with new advances in small business tech and gadgets. But despite hogging the lion's share of the headlines, the newest, shiniest gadgets aren't always the most realistic or affordable solutions for today's entrepreneur. In the interest of practicality, here are five essential technologies and types of consumer electronics no small business owner in 2010 should be without, as well as five more you'd do just as well (at least temporarily) to press the pause button on.

Plug In
Smartphones: A must-have accessory for modern business owners, these high-powered cell phones essentially serve as a portable office in your pocket, giving you one-stop access to contacts, calendars, calls, e-mails, and the Web wherever you travel. Thanks to increasing broadband connection speeds; more comprehensive e-mail and text and multimedia messaging capability; better multitasking abilities; and growing support for third-party apps that add an endless array of functionality, today's top models all make a sound investment. While you can expect to spend roughly $200 (with contract) for leading units like the iPhone 3G S, the outlay quickly pays itself back, especially if you also leverage built-in audio and video recording and social networking capabilities to create content, connect with consumers and promote your brand. Among the hottest recent innovations here is Qik, a mobile app that lets you stream live video right from your handset. New models for 2010 will offer advancements like sharper and brighter OLED screens, brawnier processors, more intuitive interfaces, Wi-Fi connectivity and next-gen operating systems such as Android and webOS. Google's new Nexus One (a speedy, intuitive phone with lots of potential for expansion) is expected to be among the year's hottest new models.

Netbooks : While we've touched on the benefits of netbooks before, it bears reiterating. Units such as HP's Mini 311 and Toshiba's NB205 can make great value-minded solutions for your mobile workforce, especially with the advent of Microsoft's Windows 7, which provides greater performance and stability. While these systems tend to go light on muscle, making them unsuitable for advanced computing functions such as editing high-definition video or premium desktop publishing, most business owners won't mind. That's because the systems' low- to mid-range capabilities serve just fine for everyday e-mail, word processing and Web surfing activities, as well as 80 to 90 percent of most other routine professional tasks. This year's hottest units will introduce touchscreen capability, dedicated graphics cards, additional computing power and even sleeker and lighter frames at lower cost. Look for tablet PCs like Apple's upcoming model to give these devices a run for their money, however.

Bluetooth headsets: Prized for their convenience, given that the gadgets enable effortless hands-free calling, these wireless earpieces can save you from accidentally starting a 20-car pileup when attempting to phone the home office while barreling down the freeway. Just one word of advice: Tech etiquette demands you take them out of your ear when not in use, as leaving one in while wandering the streets is a major fashion faux pas in the geek chic canon. Among other options offered by new models in 2010 will be better-fitting and more comfortable designs, longer battery life/talk time and enhanced noise filtering, so you can chat away without busy background environments providing an unwanted soundtrack.

GPS navigation systems: While critics debate the value of standalone models such as those offered by TomTom and Garmin, there's no getting around it: These gizmos, which provide on-screen and spoken turn-by-turn directions, remain among the tech industry's most useful accessories. Thankfully, increasing inclusion of GPS units as a built-in feature on leading smartphones is helping to buoy the category as a whole, and save countless professionals the embarrassment of missing crucial meetings with clients or investors. The free Google Maps Navigation app is a must-have for any Android phone owner, while other smartphones may require the purchase of third-party software apps to access premium functions. Either way, though, these devices can help you get where you're going in more ways than one, with 2010 bringing greater ubiquity for the category as a whole across mobile gadgets from portable media players to tablet computers.

Budget digital camcorders: Looking for an affordable marketing platform? It's hard to beat the reach and impact of video aggregators such as YouTube and Metacafe, or the power of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. With video quickly becoming the leading coin of the social media realm, now's the time to consider picking up a mini HD camcorder like Kodak's Zi8 , Creative's Vado HD or Flip's second-generation Mino HD. Not only do the sub-$200 devices shoot high-def video that's good enough for your company's blog or website. They also provide a ready means to build buzz, generate a following and possibly make headlines around the Web. In the next 12 months, you can plan on seeing even less expensive units with more storage space, better low-light performance and longer recording times. Coupled with the fact that some TV reporters are even using the devices to shoot footage for broadcast distribution, what can we say? It's high time you gave the category a close-up.

Tune Out
E-readers: Despite the popularity of devices like Amazon's Kindle family or Sony's Reader series, these gadgets remain in their infancy, have several interface quirks to work out yet and still represent a small share of the overall publishing market. Costs are presently prohibitively high as well, making such units best suited to road warriors with a voracious appetite for information--not everyday business users. Granted, 2010 will bring numerous new models from Heart/Sprint's Skiff to Asus' dual color touchscreen-equipped unit. But with software solutions such as Blio already promising to offer access to e-books regardless of platform, it exposes the category's Achilles heel: Why buy a single dedicated device to enjoy digital literature when a multifunction one you already own (e.g. a smartphone) offers immediate cost savings and more benefits?

Solid state drives: Solid state hard drives offer several upsides over traditional storage solutions, generally being speedier, more reliable and less prone to hardware failure. But costs are still strikingly high (you'll literally pay thousands for a 1TB drive vs. around $100 for a similarly sized standard model), making it more reasonable to create routine backups using traditional hard drives for a fraction of the price. While asking prices are sure to drop as the year goes on, realize. It's still going to be a ways before the cost/benefit tradeoff weighs out reasonably on anything except smaller models, e.g. those that come in sizes of 128GB or less.

Blu-Ray Players: Don't go replacing your collection of corporate training videos with high-definition Blu-Ray discs just yet. Not only does sharper-looking video seldom offer much practical benefit to the typical business owner, but it also comes with a higher price tag attached. Moreover, these devices still haven't reached critical mass in terms of consumer uptake, meaning the amount of content providers producing material in the format remains smaller than in the DVD market. Also worth keeping in mind too: As we'll see in 2010 and beyond, streaming video will continue to rise in popularity, which may largely negate physical media-based content's relevance in the very near future.

Tablet PCs: Certainly, there's been renewed interest in tablet computers (touchscreen notebook PCs) courtesy of Apple's recent rumored efforts in the space. But don't forget: We've seen these types of systems before, and while they may appeal to certain niche markets (graphic designers, architects, artists, etc.), the average small-business owner may not enjoy any upside here. That goes double given that the units--typically mid-range systems in terms of tech specs--are caught between smartphones on the low end of the spectrum, which are rapidly increasing in power, and full-size high-end laptops, which are rapidly coming down in price as well.

Cloud Computing Solutions: The benefits of cloud computing are numerous, among them options to store and access data remotely, take your workspace nearly anywhere and collaborate virtually in real-time with clients and colleagues across multiple continents and time zones. However, while a fan of services such as Google Docs, Zoho Suite and Microsoft Office 2010 myself, there's no getting around it: Killer apps remain in shortly supply and there are still major potential security issues to be addressed here. On the bright side, with the impending launch of Google's Chrome OS, which puts Web-based applications first, we could see major advancements in the field before 2010 is through. No arguments on this end: Cloud computing is important, and almost certainly the way of the future. It's just that today's small-business market remains a considerable ways yet from completely untethering from the traditional desktop.