From smartphones to GPS navigation systems, technology is everywhere in 2011. Professionals' growing need for mobility and access to real-time information, helping fuel increasing demand for mobile devices and spur the ubiquitous growth of apps, online services and social networks.
But while everyday shoppers are rallying behind high-tech phenomena such as 3D TV, streaming multimedia and location-based savings and services, trends in business gadgets and technologies are charting a somewhat divergent course. In the coming year, the focus will instead lie on more intuitive and powerful portable productivity solutions, tools which facilitate greater virtualization and accessories that make everyday tasks and mobile communications simpler. As a bonus, many also incorporate features popular with the general public, such as casual videoconferencing, breezy wireless connectivity and fully customizable content.
Following are five trends that promise to define 2011's best business gadgets, each likely to filter their way into any enterprise in the coming months:
1. 4G Connectivity
Wireless-cellular carriers such as AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile are all embracing the high-speed 4G Internet bandwagon. Expect each to trot out a variety of handsets which utilize turbo-charged networks that allow small-business owners to enjoy Web surfing and downloads at speeds three to four times faster than current 3G standards.
Choices will be numerous, ranging from the QWERTY keyboard-enabled HTC EVO Shift, capable of acting as a mobile hotspot for up to eight WiFi devices, to the Samsung Infuse, which adds an attractive, oversized 4.5-inch display.
Regardless of whether you need a brawny, dual-core processor-powered model like the Motorola Atrix (capable of docking with a full-size screen to double as a laptop), expect marked speed boosts across the board. This will not only aid modern executives accessing more online information and multimedia than ever, but also provide a ready platform for impromptu videoconferencing from a number of handsets.
2. Tablet Takeover
With 80 or so tablets making an appearance in the first week of January alone, and Google's new Android 3.0 (alias Honeycomb) operating system optimized for use with these units, it's becoming painfully obvious. Following upon the iPad's success, manufacturers are convinced that these touchscreen units, more portable and intuitive than standard laptops, are the future of mobile computing.
Name any consumer-electronics giant from Asus to Lenovo, Sharp to Sony, and they've got models coming, with notables like RIM's BlackBerry Playbook, Motorola's Droid Xoom and LG's G-Slate just the tip of the iceberg. (Samsung is even rolling out the Sliding PC 7, a 10.1-inch mini-laptop with its own slide-out keyboard, which seeks to create a new niche somewhere between tablets and netbooks.)
Not one to give up the fight, Apple's own iPad 2 (or its second generation product) is rumored to be launching in April with dual cameras for FaceTime video calling, slimmer styling and a higher-resolution screen. While business uses for such devices have largely been confined thus far to presentations, Web surfing or graphic design functions, things are expected to soon change. Given new offerings from Microsoft, HP, Toshiba and other companies, you can likewise count on much wider support for these platforms from productivity software makers going forward.
3. Apps Everywhere
Call them apps, widgets or good old-fashioned software programs. From Apple's new Mac App Store to the debut of TVs by Samsung, Sony and Vizio with full Internet connectivity and support for downloadable apps, expect to find them everywhere. You'll likely find them easy to browse, sample and enjoy virtually anytime, anywhere from a burgeoning range of devices ranging from notebook PCs to eReaders, Bluetooth headsets and even cars by Ford, BMW and Toyota.
Using these bite-sized, value-priced applications, you can instantly transform your smartphone into a portable translator, invoicing system or inventory management platform, or research a prospective client and make lunch reservations on the way to work. Although it's easy to become overwhelmed by the countless entrepreneur-friendly options being offered for download, such as the database management tool FileMaker Go and customized brand-building solutions like Mobile Roadie, upsides are plentiful. Think streamlined controls, budget pricing, on-demand accessibility and, of course, the ability to add an effectively infinite range of useful and unexpected features to supporting gizmos. Enter the age of the Swiss Army gadget.
4. Online Communications
Yes, small businesses with a global or virtualized work force could pay for dedicated videoconferencing solutions, or even high-end new 3D telepresence solutions like Panasonic's VC500 HD Visual Communications System. (Or just spring for the Lenovo L2363d, a 23-inch monitor which includes a webcam capable of projecting three-dimensional images.) But right off the shelf, numerous smartphones and tablets like the HTC ThunderBolt and Fujitsu's Oak Trail tablet (which runs on Windows 7) will come with dual cameras and video calling features built in.
Enterprises on a budget can also turn to TVs which support free Skype video chats via compatible webcams, while Cisco's umi video-calling system also offers a quickly accessible way to connect team members scattered across the U.S. While all require a stable, high-speed broadband Internet connection and a not inconsiderable cash outlay, each promises to aid considerably in facilitating face-to-face communications without tanking your travel budget.
5. Cloud Computing
While we've yet to see users gravitate en masse towards Google's Chrome operating system, which puts the emphasis on Web, not desktop-based applications, more devices are increasingly coming prepackaged with or offering downloadable access to individual services which store data remotely. Allowing remote staffers to more readily collaborate on group projects, updates to be filed and reflected in real-time right from the field and information to be shared amongst distant parties, the trend will only become more widespread.
Of course along with the notable upsides (remote emergency backup, ready information sharing, synchronicity across locales), there are downsides (privacy, security, data retrieval should a service terminate) associated with these options. But the future of productivity lies with a desktop that travels everywhere you go and can be pulled up wherever the need for work strikes, regardless of whether you're cruising at 30,000 feet or sunning yourself in the Hamptons.
Technology expert Scott Steinberg is the CEO of high-tech consulting firm TechSavvy Global, and a gadget guru and video game expert who frequently appears as a technology analyst on major television news networks.
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