Small-Business Tech Tools

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iphoneAs 2011 reaches the midway point, reality has set in on many of the enthusiastic promises made by gadget and gizmo makers in the euphoria of New Year?s Day celebrations. While many of the products and technologies unveiled at January?s International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas are now dazzling users worldwide, others may never make it past the prototypes made for the show. Some products, like 3D HDTVs, have received lukewarm public acceptance, but others, like Apple?s iPad 2 tablet, have become standard-bearers.
So what technologies will give the enterprising entrepreneur an edge in 2011? We now have a pretty good idea.

Tablets
The year 2011 is truly the year of the tablet, not because people are replacing their PCs with tablets en masse, but because the number of choices has exploded. There?s now a tablet for almost every home or business need, ranging from low-cost units running Google?s Android operating system to expensive devices with hideaway keyboards that run the same Windows software as desktop PCs. The tablet market is being driven by Apple?s iPad and iPad 2, which are backed by hundreds of thousands of applications for everything from managing medical records to managing flocks of angry birds in Rovio Mobile Ltd.?s popular game of the same name. In a very short time, iPads have become popular note-taking tools, communication devices and entertainment platforms. Major newspaper and magazine publishers have created iPad editions that enhance the content with videos, special features on the Internet and provide readers with the opportunity to talk back.

However, tablets that run Google?s Android operating system, such as the Motorola Xoom and the new 10.1-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab, have the support of Android applications, many of which are on a par or are superior to their iPad-compatible counterparts. Tablets are working their way into automobiles, oil rigs, and, yes, even into sewers. At the recent New York International Auto Show, Volkswagen showed off the Bulli, a concept all-electric compact van that has an iPad mounted next to the steering wheel. The removable iPad controls the car?s audio and communications features. At an auto industry forum held just before the auto show, analysts predicted that tablets will be the new standard in rear-seat entertainment, replacing DVD players or other video devices.

There?s even a new family of tablets for oil rig and sewer workers. The ultra-ruggedized Xtreme tablets from Xplore Technologies Corp. are so durable and watertight that you can wash them in the kitchen sink with the dishes. The new iX104C5 series of Windows 7-based Xtreme tablets have heavily rubberized, shock-absorbing shells and modular components that can be removed without tools, a necessary feature in order to meet military specifications. There?s even a supersealed ?clean room? version.

The drive to get independent software writers to develop quality tablet apps has triggered a sudden wave of corporate generosity. Research In Motion, makers of the popular BlackBerry line of smartphones, surprised attendees at the recent BlackBerry World Conference in Orlando, Fla., by giving everyone its new BlackBerry PlayBook tablet, a device worth at least $500. Not to be outdone, Google and Samsung bestowed five thousand 10-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab tablets to attendees at the recent Google I/O Conference in San Francisco.

They may never replace desktop and notebook computers, but in 2011, tablets have established a firm foothold in corporate offices and boardrooms.

Videoconferencing
Ten years ago, the mention of the word ?videoconferencing? was enough to send even a teetotaling IT manager to the nearest tavern. At that time, a good corporate videoconferencing solution cost thousands of dollars to set up
and sometimes required an expensive leased data line.
Today, videoconferencing can be as easy as opening a laptop, pulling out a tablet, or picking up a cellphone. Many new smartphones, such as Apple?s iPhone 4 and tablets like the iPad 2 and the BlackBerry PlayBook, have video-capable cameras on the front and back. Many notebooks now come with webcams built above the display panel.

How big is the potential videoconferencing market? So big that software giant Microsoft Corp. saw the writing on the video wall and reached deep into its deep pockets for $8.5 billion to purchase Skype, a popular and easy-to-use platform for making inexpensive audio and video calls over the Internet. At the May 10 Microsoft/Skype press conference, Skype CEO Tony Bates said Skype began in 2003 as a voice and text service, but noted that 40 percent of Skype?s traffic now consists of video calls.

?In 2011, setting up an office videoconferencing system is as easy as setting up a flat-screen TV and clapping a small webcam on top or in front of it. For example, the $150 Logitech TV Cam for Skype is specifically designed for Skype-enabled Panasonic HDTVs. The TV and camera handle the Internet connectivity ? no computer is needed. The webcam supports 720p high-definition video and optimizes transmission to match the quality of the Internet connection, thus avoiding jittery video or other problems.

Cloud computing
Sorry is the plight of the business traveler who drops and breaks his laptop or leaves the flash drive with the presentation for his big meeting on his kitchen table. He could have been saved if he had copied key data to a secure spot in cyberspace, otherwise known as ?the cloud.?

The 2011 version of the cloud isn?t just for storage. It?s for productivity and creativity as well. For example, while Google Docs does allow you to upload files for cold storage, it also allows you to create them. Using any device with a Web browser, you can, for example, create a new document, collaborate on the editing with someone in a distant city, save it as a Microsoft Word or Adobe PDF file and then email it. Unless Google?s servers go down, your data, which you can download and back up elsewhere, is safe behind your password and readily available.

There are hundreds of other ?cloud? services that allow businesses and entrepreneurs to manage finances, inventory and other aspects of their business. For example, Intuit offers QuickBooks Online, which lets businesses manage their accounting in the cloud. The subscription-based online service can be used to send invoices, record sales, collaborate with their accountants and perform many other tasks from any computer with a Web browser.

Social networking

There was a time when Facebook, now the world?s largest social-networking website, was just a place for college students to flirt. Sure, the flirting still happens, but now Facebook is a core part of the public relations efforts of just about every major corporation.

Drumming up new business or spreading a brand name via Facebook can be a minefield. The corporate page you might set up to sell a new product could devolve into a customer complaint center and a generator of ill will. At the National Automotive Dealers Association/ Information Handling Services (NADA/IHS) Automotive Forum 2011 in New York, Bob Carter, Toyota?s group vice president and general manager, said the smart way to use social media is not to try to force a message through. ?Social media is a difficult environment? to get forth a message, but it can be a very effective multiplier of messages that?s [already] out there,? he said. In other words, social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and Yelp should be used to enhance the strong points and popular brands a company already has.

So what?s the bottom line in technology for the savvy business worker? Take one tablet, stick your head in the cloud, get ready for your video closeup and network, network, network.?