For owners of small to medium-size businesses, keeping pace with the latest and greatest technology can be a lot like chasing after Marion Jones while wearing clogs. It’s a frustrating, seemingly futile endeavor at times. But unlike a mythical race with an Olympic medal-winner, many high-tech tools rapidly are becoming a necessity for any company looking to conduct business in the 21st century.
“It’s as important as electricity and telephones to your company,” says David Perez, founder and president of Lumina Americas Inc., a New York City-based company that helps businesses build and grow their e-business components in the U.S. Hispanic and Latin American markets. “Technology is getting to be about as vital to business as the air we breathe.”
A recent Forrester Research survey paints a similar picture. Forrester, an emerging technology research firm headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, projects that in four years the Internet, and the technology to support it, will become a mainstream utility, like electricity or water.
“The Internet is a fundamental force that will truly transform the way people interact and behave at an individual, organizational, and social level,” says David Cooperstein, research director at Forrester. “The original promises of a networked society – like anytime, anywhere communication – will be fulfilled and surpassed as people tailor the ‘utility’ to suit their needs. Over the next four years, technology standards, user adoption, and a massive build-out will transform the Internet from the ‘new new thing’ to a truly ubiquitous information resource, creating new roles for businesses and government to address new end-user demands for emerging technologies and Internet-enabled lifestyles.”
By 2005, Forrester estimates, 67 percent of U.S. households will have Internet access, fundamentally changing the ways people communicate, shop, and research.
At the office, individuals will begin to rely on their personal digital assistants, cell phones, and digital cameras to become more productive and improve business operations, Mr. Cooperstein predicts. The information utility will also enable executives to access data critical to their business success and realize their career ambitions through online training programs.
Perhaps you’re convinced of technology’s importance to the success and ultimate survival of your emerging company but are unsure what to do first. What follows is a list of some top technology tools and some purchasing tips from high-tech experts and business owners. In some instances, specific products are mentioned, while in others it’s the technology itself that business owners are encouraged to explore.
For starters, Christopher Lindquist, technology editor of CIO magazine, says this is a good time to purchase. “If you’re looking to buy computers, hardware, software, or gadgets, everybody’s sales are down – Gateway, IBM, Compaq. Even if you’re a fairly small company, it’s not a bad time to basically pin these guys to a wall and say, ‘Look, I want another 5 percent off.’ They’ll probably go for it just because they need to move some units,” he says. “It is a very good time for a buyer to play hardball.”
-- Among business owners queried for this article, managing e-mail was a consistent complaint. But it’s a necessary evil, notes James Gutierrez, founder and chairman of MagicBeanStalk, a San Francisco-based college recruiting company. “It is my No. 1 form of communication right now,” he says. Mr. Gutierrez travels frequently and says he couldn’t live without his BlackBerry, which enables him to send and receive e-mail from his existing account while he’s away from the office. Either pager-sized or palm-sized, the wireless BlackBerry requires no modem or antenna. Says Mr. Gutierrez: “I can be on a plane or in a cab and still be doing business. I can carry it around 24-7 in my pocket. I live on my BlackBerry.” The unit costs between $350 and $500, depending on the model. The monthly service fee is $39.95 for unlimited use. For more information, go to www.blackberry.net.
-- Other executives insist they could not live without Palm Pilot, which shares some features with BlackBerry. “I’ve gotten so used to it,” says Mr. Perez, who has version V. In addition to a calendar and address book, his Palm Pilot has software enabling him to cruise Zagat’s Guide to find places to meet clients for lunch, on the basis of location, type of restaurant, or other criteria. He says it also makes him a huge hit at dinner parties. Mr. Perez, a musician, says he can download music onto his Palm and then play it for friends. Palm products come equipped with personal information management software. Prices range from about $200 to $600, depending on the model. For more information, check out www.palm.com.
-- Jorge Utrera recalls the “old days” of just a few years ago when he would set out for work armed with a cellular phone, which he knew would stop working when he hit the mountains, and a pager, which meant having to pull over and find a payphone to return a call. Mr. Utrera, a supervisor for Shamrock Irrigation in Simi Valley, California, says he recently discovered AT & T Wireless voice and two-way text-messaging, which enables him to communicate easily with other workers on the road. “Whenever there’s a low signal on your phone, you can send a text message and it’ll go through. It is key to getting things done the right way.” Business owners should shop around to find the best service provider, plan, and phone for their region and business. Web sites to check include www.attws.com, www.sbc.com, www.sprintpcs.com, www.verizonwireless.com, and www.voicestream.com.
-- Application Service Providers are becoming increasingly popular with small and medium-size businesses as a means to increase efficiency, says CIO’s Mr. Lindquist. ASPs enable companies to outsource the management and operation of software, such as that for accounting and human resources, which would normally be run on in-house servers. Experts say companies can expect to save 30 percent to 60 percent on IT costs, and it’s also a space saver. The downside is less corporate control. Some ASP Web sites are www.netledger.com, www.jamcracker.com, and www.agiliti.com.
-- Many businesses would do well to look into firewall protection, which prevents outsiders from accessing company computers. Inexpensive solutions can be found at lesser-known companies such as NetGear and Sonic Wall. More expensive versions are available from larger, better-known outfits such as Cisco Systems.
-- “I would hope that by now everybody knows to have some type of anti-virus software running on all of their company machines, but every time there is [a virus], it still spreads like wildfire,” Mr. Lindquist says. Norton Anti-virus and PC-cillin are two popular examples.
-- A wireless local area network could mean money saved and a more portable work force for some small and medium-size businesses. In the past year, a new wireless standard – 802.11B – has sped up connections to rival those of Ethernet feeds and machines connected via cable. For under $150, you can buy cards and plug them into laptops and desktops and connect them wirelessly to an access point that’ll cost about $300. That gives employees portability. They can take machines to the lunchroom or home if they have a wireless network set up there. It’s also useful for temporary workers, who can plug in and then go away. Companies also are spared the expense of punching holes through walls. Compaq, Cisco, and Hewlett-Packard are in this game, as are lesser-known players such as Linksys.
-- Wireless broadband could become a big deal in the next year or two, thanks to a slowdown in the expansion of cable modems and DSL connections. Companies such as TeraBeam Networks can hook you up for much less than the price of a T1 line. It’s an especially attractive option if you don’t live in a large city.
-- Jonathan Zuck, president of the Association for Competitive Technology, based in Washington, D.C., points to another trend: “web services,” which enable Web sites to communicate via XML. “This has huge potential for small businesses, in that they will be able to better integrate with larger businesses and each other,” Mr. Zuck says. “Seamless sharing of information is the key to growth this year.”
-- P3P is an important privacy-enhancing technology that small and medium-size businesses may want to implement on their Web sites if they collect information. Privacy represents a competitive advantage in the current environment, Mr. Zuck says. More information can be found at www.w3c.org/p3p, or companies can generate a policy of their own at www.netprivacypower.org/policy.
Tech Tool Tips
-- Don’t believe all the hype you hear. If company reps come to you with a killer technology that promises to save you millions, make sure to check the company’s references and financial portfolio. If it’s public, check the stock price. And remember, if the company is not around in six months to provide technical support, it might not be such a good deal. Ask for a list of other customers and contact them.
-- Try it before you buy it. If possible, get trial versions of the software you want. Certain companies will even mail them to you. Experiment a bit before you spend big money.
-- Budget for support and training for new technology. A general rule of thumb is $2 for training and support for every $1 you spend on technology.
-- Consider niche software designed especially for your type of business. The folks who develop it generally have some knowledge of your industry and could give you an edge.
-- Ask the experts. Before making any kind of investment in technology, research your purchase in consumer and technology publications.
-- Wait a bit if you don’t need to buy something right away. Six months from now, the technology’s sure to be cheaper and the initial kinks will likely be ironed out.