For small businesses, the new millennium has arrived about a decade late. The big year for innovation was supposed to be 2001, when things like artificial intelligence and a worldwide-networked office were said to be to coming to market. But it has taken an extra 10 years of digital toiling to make some of these tools a reality.
In 2011, small-business owners will face a staggering array of new technologies and services. These won't be for-geeks-only stuff. These are mainstream business systems from the tech giants -- tools you may want to consider adopting or you could get left behind.
Here are my thoughts on the top business technology trends for 2011. You'll need to be familiar with these if you want to stay on the cutting edge of your market.
1. The Web on your phone might be as fast the Web in your office.
The biggest game-changing tool for 2011 is a new generation of fast wireless cellular standards known as 4G. By midyear, most mobile consumers will be able to receive service that's similar to the robust, plugged-in Web access found in an office. All the major phone carriers will be offering it, including Verizon Communications Inc., Sprint Nextel Corp., AT&T Inc. and T-Mobile USA Inc. Look also for offerings from start-ups, such as Antelecom Inc., Clearwire Corp., Xanadoo Co. and Towerstream Corp., and from cable companies like Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable Inc.
However, coverage is likely to be spotty and comparing plans could be a struggle, at least in the early days. The cost may be as high as $60 a month per employee and sharing a Web connection won't be an option. But those willing to brave the trials of moving to a technology early may not only be able to say goodbye to their existing data provider but they may never again need a hard-wired Web connection. The mobile business race really begins in 2011.
2. Day planners won't just track your schedule.
Starting next year, smart Web-based business-automation tools will find their way into business software and begin offering opinions on everything from how you should manage tasks to how you arrange meetings and budget projects. Already, Google is adding a sophisticated feature to its Gmail Priority Inbox email services that is designed to help users sort emails in order of their importance. Companies such as Intuit Inc. are adding financial modeling tools to QuickBooks and Mint.com that are so sophisticated that they can guess when you will lose money.
Startups are also offering tools to help firms write documents and create content. The leader now is StatSheet Inc., a Durham, N.C.-based technology company that specializes in sports content. In October, it introduced a Web-based service that automatically creates legible articles, analysis and data with nearly no direct human involvement. What does that mean to you? For better or worse, you may soon face the daunting prospect of managing memos and business correspondence that, in some ways, write themselves.
3. Work life might be controlled by the touch of a finger.
Call it the iPhone effect for businesses. A new generation of Apple Inc.'s iPad-inspired, touch-controlled work tools will go mainstream in 2011.
A range of office standbys from printers to desktop PCs will add iPhone-like touch-pad controls. A slew of touch-enabled kiosks, displays and machine controls will be cheap and widely available.
The effects are likely to be profound. Touch-enabled screens, just like on iPhones, will allow for a wide swath of new features and functions to be built into just about any business device. Printers will not only connect to the Web but will also produce custom news feeds. Touch-enabled PCs will support both traditional office software and sophisticated inventory and business-management tools that once required pricey custom hardware.
Aggressive first movers are already making an impact. For example, San Francisco-based Touch Revolution is developing a line of mobile-phone savvy touch-enabled control modules that are being adapted to everything to office systems to kitchen appliances.
By this time next year, your fingers may not only do the walking around the office. They may do the talking as well.