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CES 2013: The business angle

The consumerisation of business IT is well established, so it's no surprise that ZDNet's reporters discovered products and technologies at this year's CES show that may change the way you work in the future.
Written by Simon Bisson, Contributor

The C may stand for Consumer, but much of the technology shown at CES 2013 will end up in business. Some of this hardware will sneak into larger businesses as part of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policies (either officially or unofficially), while other products have a definite small-business focus. With its mix of business and consumer, CES is an ideal place to preview the new tools and technologies that may change the way you work — from mesh-networked LED lightbulbs to toy robots that teach programming. Here, then, is a selection from the many thousands of technologies on view at this year's Las Vegas event.

The Kiosk Retail from Griffin Technology turns an iPad into a point-of-sale terminal.

iPad POS kiosk
Step into a coffee shop and you'll probably be paying via iPad and Square. That's all very well for the store, as it's an approach that's substantially cheaper than a traditional point-of-sale (POS) system, but it's not the most secure of approaches, and customers can be wary of it. So Mac and iOS accessory vendor Griffin Technology has come up with the (US$299-$399) Kiosk Retail, a new iPad case designed to turn the familiar tablet into a fully-fledged POS kiosk, complete with a built-in encrypted magnetic card reader. It's robust and can be tied into a cash desk, as well as to software from ShopKeep.com that can handle all your transactions and manage your inventory. There's also support for other use cases, like handling restaurant bookings — all you need is the appropriate software.

Multidock charging station
Another Griffin iPad accessory shown at CES is a multi-docking charging station. With iPads becoming increasingly common in business, managing a fleet of devices can be a problem. Using the (US$699.99) Multidock, up to 10 devices can be charged and synchronised at once, as well as controlled using Apple's iPad configuration tools. There's also a lockable security bar that reduces the risk of managed devices being stolen while charging. It's not just for iPads: USB charging connectors mean you can also charge Android devices — although in this case you're limited to just using the Multidock as a charging station.

Griffin Technology's Multidock can charge and synchronise up to 10 iPads in a lockable rack system.

Secure file sharing & browsing
iTwin's hardware-encrypted file sharing tools have been around a while. You take a pair of iTwin USB sticks and leave one in your PC at home or in the office, carrying the other with you for secure file sharing. No data is stored on the second key: it simply sets up a secure connection to your home/office PC in order to access your files.

The 2013 release of iTwin Connect takes the concept several steps further, adding support for remote control, for VPN connections to a corporate network and for access to public internet connections via an iTwin-hosted VPN.

iTwin Connect creates a secure connection between a remote PC and your home or office system using shared keys on a pair of USB sticks.

Using the same basic techniques as the original file-sharing iTwin, two USB sticks form the basis of a secure network connection between your desktop PC and your laptop: iTwin routes the connection, and as keys are shared between the USB sticks, your connection remains private. You can access files and applications, and using Windows' own remote desktop tools, you can run applications without data leaving the corporate network.

The result is an intriguing response to many of the issues thrown up by BYOD. There's minimal corporate management required, but the increased security makes it easier to justify giving employees access to files and applications from home PCs or while on the road.

gDoc Binder: Manage collections of files in the electronic equivalent of a traditional ring binder.

Electronic binders
UK company Global Graphics is perhaps best known for its PDF tools. It's recently launched gDoc Binder, a tool for managing and sharing documents. Designed for collating and managing large collections of documents (particularly those generated in court cases and in e-discovery), gDoc Binders is easy to use and customise, with a set of APIs and a store for extensions and binder designs. Binders can contain documents in most common formats, and can be accessed natively from inside a binder, so you can edit a Word document in Word, or Excel in Excel, while still storing them in a format that can be read on desktop PCs and Windows 8 tablets.

Windows 8 tablets & convertibles
Microsoft used offsite meetings at CES to unveil more details of its x86-based Surface with Windows 8 Pro tablet, but it wasn't really at the event. That didn't prevent CES being full of Windows 8 tablets, with new hardware from all of the major PC vendors. The biggest splash, though, came from Lenovo, which rolled out several new touch devices. The 27-inch Ideacentre Horizon Table PC got much of the press, with its lie-flat, multi-user collaborative touch interface (ideal for business and for education), but what really caught our attention was the hybrid tablet/ultrabook ThinkPad Helix.

Lenovo's 11.6in. ThinkPad Helix can be used in presentation, tablet and conventional clamshell modes.

Described by Lenovo as a "rip and flip" device, the Helix is an 11.6in. tablet PC with a keyboard dock. It mixes pen and touch input, and has separate batteries in the screen and keyboard giving up to 10 hours of battery life, according to Lenovo. A Core i5 or i7 processor means there's plenty of horsepower, and the lightweight pen is small and comfortable — while the touchscreen means you can mix and match pen and finger input in tablet mode. Lenovo has designed the Helix to fit into the keyboard dock either conventionally or facing outwards, so you can use the dock as a stand while presenting or watching a video.

External HD with fast cache
Businesses are generating ever more data, which means that storage — and especially fast storage — is increasingly essential. Although solid-state disks (SSDs) give laptops and desktops a speed boost, backup and extended storage still relies on conventional spinning disks. Disk caches can speed things up, but remain small and are inefficient when working with today's big data.

DriveStation DDR: an external USB 3.0 hard disk with 1GB of DDR3 RAM cache.

Buffalo Technology has gone a step further, adding 1GB of DDR3 memory to its latest external drive, the DriveStation DDR. With a USB 3.0 connection and at least 1TB of disk capacity, it's a fast way of adding low-cost, high-speed storage to a PC or a small server. Speeds are comparable with SSD, although there's a caveat that you need to complete all cached writes before shutting the drive down — which takes around seven seconds, so you may want to connect the drive to a UPS in order to protect essential data. Prices for the DriveStation DDR are US$119 for 1TB, $149 for 2TB, $189 for 3TB.

1TB flash drive
If you've got a lot of data to move from site to site, networks can be slow and thumbdrives are often small — 32GB and 64GB are common enough, but anything more is rare. Later in Q1, however, memory specialists Kingston will unveil a massive new 1TB thumbdrive — one that packs massive storage into a volume not much larger than a standard USB 3.0 drive (although it's big and weighty enough not to fall from your pocket or leave on a coffee-shop table).

Later in Q1 2013, Kingston's DataTraveler HyperX Predator will reach a massive 1TB in capacity.

The DataTraveler HyperX Predator hardware we saw at CES was still a prototype, but we were able to use it with standard laptops — and with a Microsoft Surface RT tablet (see below). Pricing is still some way off, but with over 900GB of usable storage, it's likely to be an ideal tool for moving large databases offsite.

Kingston also showed off a USB 3.0 drive specifically designed for Microsoft's new Windows To Go feature, part of Windows 8 Enterprise. Built using SSD parts and controllers, and configured as a fixed drive, the DataTraveller Workspace drive is intended to give you the performance you need when running Windows from a flash drive on a home PC.

Fast, manageable and secure Wi-Fi
It's a rare business that doesn't need connectivity, and SMBs often end up using consumer-grade DSL networks and home Wi-Fi routers to connect to their customers. It's an approach that saves money, but often leaves networks insecure and unmanageable. A new generation of routers mixes cloud services and high-speed hardware, adding easy-to-use management tools — and in some cases, a programming model that makes adding new features to your network as easy as visiting an online store.

Netgear's latest wireless routers provide support for the new 802.11ac standard, giving you high-speed wireless plus the ability to work with the latest fibre-to-the-cabinet infrastructure via PPPoE connections to broadband providers' VDSL gateways. The new devices also support beam forming for improved range and reduced interference. However, what makes them ideal for SMB networks is Netgear's cloud-based Genie management platform: this provides a graphical view of your network and lets you quickly control access and services, as well as offering a QR-code configured wireless VLAN for customers to connect to the internet without touching your network resources.

A network map from Netgear's cloud-based Genie management platform.

The related Genie+ service adds third-party apps to your router, providing tools for additional network monitoring and security, as well as new features like cloud backup and storage. Genie+ is a development platform, so you can download SDKs and write your own networking software. Netgear certifies software before it's published on the Genie+ store, so you can be confident that it won't be eavesdropping on sensitive data — especially as you'll soon be able to use deep packet inspection, making the SMB router an essential part of the company's security architecture.

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