When I started this blog just a few short months ago, I pledged to cover technology with the small business in mind from two distinct angles: applications and products that help small and midsize businesses (SMBs) improve operational efficiency, and software and services that can help SMBs drive new revenue (ala e-commerce and social media tools). With that in mind, I grabbed a glass of virgin eggnog and came up with this list of technology solutions that I believe will be essential for small businesses to evaluate or at least consider during 2012.
- Tablet computers. Of course, I'm not talking the tablet computer as in the concept that Microsoft has been shopping for more than a decade. I am talking about media tablets, with their sleek displays, touch screens and built-in digital video cameras. I am a firm believer that the real innovation in mobile computing solutions continues to be driven by small businesses, because they don't have to wait for all sorts of "approvals" to bring in new technologies. Skype is a prime example; it was an invaluable tool for small-business owners longer before Microsoft noticed it. But I digress. Suffice to say, I believe that solutions using Apple iPad devices and the various Android tablets will prove compelling in 2012. One area I plan to watch closely is their use as tools for store clerks to use while interacting with customers.
- Business intelligence applications. You have probably noticed the term "big data" being used more frequently in discussions about ways that managers can make more informed business decisions or strategy shifts. Big data isn't just for big companies. I think big data will come into play big-time for small businesses over the next 12 months. I noticed that SMB Technology Group recently published some research along these lines. Its research suggests that 16 percent of small businesses and 29 percent of midsize businesses have already bought a business intelligence solution in the past two years. Another 16 percent of small businesses and 28 percent of midsize businesses plan to make investments over the next 12 months. You will see tools from both the enterprise guys (ala IBM and Oracle) as well as applications optimized for small businesses and offered by start-ups.
- Social media marketing tools. This is actually somewhat related to the big data topic, because the reason that interactions in social networks are so interesting to so many businesses is because the services that run them enable managers to pull some very specific profile metrics about who, what, when and why. I know that many small businesses remain leery of social networks and social media like Twitter for two reasons: 1) They haven't really done that much marketing in the past and 2) It seems like a time suck. But for those companies that have already exploited email marketing as much as they can, social media is a logical progression.
- Cloud-driven storage and disaster recovery services. Cloud this, cloud that. I'll bet you are as sick of "the cloud" as I am. Yet, cloud-delivered services that offer capabilities that just weren't previously available to SMBs are pretty compelling. The most obvious example is Salesforce.com, which opened up a whole new world in salesforce automation. Another very relevant cloud category for small businesses surrounds storage, back-up and disaster recovery solutions, which previously were pretty "dear" for smaller companies. Cloud-based disaster recovery makes sense for one big reason: what's the point of backing up to a server that is located in the same site as the one being protected? Or to tapes stored in a basement across town?
- Video-enabled collaboration applications. Video chats and video-enabled IP telephony are creating new expectations for the way that people collaborate in the workplace. As telecommuting becomes more routine, video offers a way to stay better better connected through the next best thing to face-to-face contact. The fact is, conference calls without video are getting kind of tired, not to mention the fact that you might be missing out on visual cues that tell more of the "story" about what someone is saying.