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8 Tech Trends Defining the Future of Small Business


8 Tech Trends Defining the Future of Small Business

Hand Print
Hewlett-Packard, Lexmark and Canon have touted their web-enabled printers for years–but the hardware wasn’t all that useful or necessary. That has changed. Now, thanks to the current crop of mobile devices, you can send documents to printers directly from your smartphone or tablet. Instead of lugging along a load of collateral materials on your next business trip or stuffing a lot of just-in-case papers into your briefcase, you can store the documents on your device and print them as needed.

“Whether it’s a real estate agent on the move who needs printed copies of contracts or an insurance agent who needs to print several forms quickly, printing without a PC has become more of a must-have than simply a premium,” says Tuan Tran, vice president of Hewlett-Packard’s imaging and printing group.

Touch Me
The trend that started with smartphones and tablets has leapt off the small screens: Now desktop computers, printers and more can be managed by a touch of the finger. And innovations in the technology have helped bring the price way down. Formerly enterprise-only solutions like touch-controlled office kiosks, interactive point-of-sale terminals and even sophisticated employee inventory systems are now within reach of the smallest small businesses. One worth a look? The ViewSonic VX2258 touch-controlled monitor (about $340) can be installed in a store or medical waiting room as a low-cost interactive kiosk.

The Uncomputer
Tech-savvy companies that need more desktop computers but don’t want to spend big for the firepower should consider a different breed of machine: zero-client PCs. These cheap, small units are, quite frankly, weaklings on the processing front–until you network them to a full-power computer nearby. Zero-clients have been big-company tools for some time, but recent price drops mean that a shop with just a few seats can zero out its PCs.

“Sectors where data security, IT productivity and endpoint reliability are critical are a very good fit for zero-client computing–specifically, health care, financial services, hospitality and retail, along with local government and education,” says James Buzzard, vice president for marketing at Pano Logic, a zero-client PC manufacturer in Redwood City, Calif.

Speed Up
Innovations in wireless communications come and go, but with service providers investing heavily in blazingly fast Long Term Evolution (LTE) networks, it looks like the technology will be around for some time. Though Verizon Wireless was once the sole LTE provider, now players from AT&T to Google-backed startup Clearwire are stepping into the arena–which means several choices will soon exist for accessing the web while on the go as quickly as you can in the office.

“The emergence of LTE speeds has revolutionized the mobile experience for small businesses,” says Walt Rivenbark, area vice president for mobility applications consulting at AT&T Mobility. “Salespeople will benefit by being able to collaborate remotely with their peers, easily review and share large files and help prevent service technicians from making a second trip.”

But you may not want to sign up for LTE immediately. The service has its problems: Coverage is still spotty, and there can be brutally expensive usage caps. But, sooner rather than later, the technology may be so robust that a single mobile data connection will work in the office and on the road, allowing businesses to drop their pricey internet service for a single cheap LTE deal.

Auto Zoom
Thanks to the likes of Ford, GM and Toyota, even small-business owners can stop thinking company cars and start thinking company fleet. Auto manufacturers have started offering low-cost business-oriented tracking tools and productivity features that mirror the logistics packages of big-time fleets.

“Factory-embedded productivity tools help fleet owners present data like where vehicles are, driver behavior and dispatch options. And they make that information accessible from any computer,” says Ed Pleet, product and business development manager for connected services at the Ford Motor Company. Ford’s Crew Chief vehicle management app starts at $425, plus $32 a month.

Just be careful: Though fleet management tools are helpful in figuring out which delivery guy can handle that last-minute pickup, improper utilization could make your staff feel like you’re spying on them.

Talking Point
No, don’t toss your keyboard quite yet. But do think of voice-control technology as an always-at-the-ready assistant that can help out when you’re driving, caring for patients or knee-deep in hands-on work. “Voice-recognition tools also can be effective in workplaces with document-intensive work flows,” says Vlad Sejnoha, chief technology officer at Burlington, Mass.-based Nuance Communications, which offers the Dragon Go! voice-recognition search app. “For example, the federal government has mandated the use of electronic medical record systems to capture and share patient information. But they tend to be hard to use, template-oriented and a good option for voice recognition.”

But be prepared to put some time into practicing with the technology before you unleash it on your business. Those misdials that get served up by your car’s Bluetooth? You don’t want the same thing happening with sensitive business docs or in client communications.

Author, Author
Plenty of people will feel itchy at the thought (the editors at Entrepreneur among them), but there are machines out there that can write. Not just type or print, but actually turn bits of data into full sentences.

Durham, N.C.’s Automated Insights has put its writing program to work to create more than 400 websites, 700 Twitter feeds and 400 mobile apps. The 13-person firm creates every single grammatically correct word of this network by machine, and founder and CEO Robbie Allen believes automated authoring has a home in almost any business. “We originally started out focused on data-intensive content like sports,” he says. “But now we realize we can use the technology in anything from financial services to health care.”

Gumby Screens
Imagine a PC screen that can bend around a column or along the curves of a car’s interior. Consumer-targeted tools like bendable iPads are still years away, but moderately flexible screens, such as those from Norcross, Ga.-based NanoLumens, are already available. The company’s NanoFlex products can conform to curved surfaces in retail spaces, lobbies, transportation hubs or hospitality venues.

“It’s all about more screens,” says Nick Colaneri, director of Arizona State University’s Flexible Display Center in Tempe. “Everywhere you look: at work, sides of cars–anywhere.”

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