Weve polished up our crystal ball and asked some industry experts to see what technology trends small business entrepreneurs should pay attention to in 2010.
The news in 2009 was dominated by the gloomy economy, as small business entrepreneurs hunkered down to weather the downturn. Looking forward to 2010, it wont rain money, but there are still some glimmers of a recovery. Not surprisingly, the technology trends shaping up center around getting the biggest bang for your IT buck and quantifying the return-on-investment for your marketing dollars.
Cloud Computing Goes Main Street
So-called cloud computing, where online services take the place of traditional desktop- or server-resident software, was a buzzword in 2009, and the din will only get louder this year.
Even if youve been following cloud computing since it was called SaaS (software-as-a-service) or, showing your age, ASP (application service providers), if youre like most small business owners you still havent taken the plunge. But according to research by Microsoft and others, thats likely to change.
We feel interest and adoption of cloud computing among small and midsize businesses will really take off in 2010, says Christoph Wilfert, corporate vice president and general manager for Microsofts small and mid-market business solutions in the U.S. Our research and conversations with SMBs show they are very interested in cloud computing, but are not yet fully aware how easy it is to employ the technology, its widespread availability and full benefits.
Wilfert notes that the cost benefits of cloud computing are too good to ignore. For example, Microsoft Online Services provide enterprise-grade e-mail communications, Web videoconferencing, CRM and collaboration solutions to as few as five employees through a monthly contract that costs less than an average cell phone bill.
Helping drive the awareness of cloud capabilities will be high-profile product launches due this year, such as Microsoft Office 2010. Office 2010 will blend the traditionally installed version of Office with cloud computing features, says Wilfert. He reports that the suites Office Web Apps will offer lightweight online versions of Word, OneNote, Excel and PowerPoint accessible via a Web browser; these features will be available through Office 2010 to small and midsize business owners at low cost or for free.
The major applications in Microsoft Office 2010 will have online counterparts, bringing cloud computing to the mainstream.
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Office Web Apps will extend the Office experience on the Web and to mobile devices, said Wilfert. Simply put, were there is a browser, there is Office. Weve also stretched our offerings to include Web-based applications to complement Office 2010 and to give SMBs the ability to work remotely at an affordable price.
Microsofts Wilfert isnt the only company bullish on cloud services for 2010. Steve Cakebread, a cloud-computing evangelist and a former president and chief strategy officer of SaaS pioneer Salesforce.com, thinks that small businesses especially could benefit from the trend. Business of all sizes should consider using cloud solutions, he says. However, for small businesses it can be even more effective, because you gain access to world-class solutions but only have to pay for the solution as you need it.
Opting for an online service rather than on-site software can also help a small businesses cash flow, notes Cakebread. Its a subscription, so you can buy annual services and pay quarterly or annually versus typical computer solutions where you have to pay in advance.
Of course, if your Internet service gets interrupted, so, too, does access to any software applications you use via the Web, and the service provider itself could experience a problem, making your applications and data inaccessible. But Cakebread thinks this is less of an issue than the press reports make it out to be.
You will experience service outages it is technology, after all but if you select world-class providers your service issues are typically less than you have in your in house operations, he said. Think of cloud providers like your electrical service or phone service: They do have service issues on occasion, but most respected suppliers have minimum interruptions.
Before making the move to an online service, however, business owners need to know what to expect. With so much hype surrounding the cloud, it makes sense to set expectations, notes Rob Walters, director of product management at The Planet, Inc., the worlds largest privately held dedicated-hosting provider.
For example, the utility-billing model is not always cheaper in the long run. If flexibility is your goal, then great. But if cost-savings is the goal, thats not a given with an online service.
If youre moving business functions to an online provider, Walters advises that you start with something thats not mission-critical, such as e-mail, which is a service most online providers should have down pat. Another ideal choice is backup/disaster recovery.
Moving disaster recovery to the cloud makes it affordable for more businesses, since you dont have to pay to replicate all your hardware, Walters explains. There are also plenty of services you can subscribe to such as CRM that also let you do away with the server-management aspect of software, as well.
Social media marketing efforts will need to pay their own way in 2010, and services such as Delivra make it possible to track the ROI of online campaigns.
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Social Media Marketing, Meet ROI
In addition to cloud computing, the other technology hot-button last year was social media. In addition to a compelling Web site, suddenly every business needed a Facebook presence and then a Twitter feed. Most business owners have no idea if all this friending and tweeting is adding anything to the bottom line. So in 2010, the name of the game in social media is quantifying a return on your investment.
As a small business owner, you want to maximize the return of the time and money youre spending, says Carissa Newton, director of marketing at Delivra, one of the original e-mail marketing service firms. You want to be able to see who is viewing and sharing your social media content and see where those leads are coming from.
Delivras service, for example, lets you embed a video clip in an e-mail or a social-media page of feed, then track the leads that come from that campaign. You can see whos sharing the video and see what networks they are sharing the video on, says Newton. You can see who is watching and, more importantly. who is watching for more than 30 seconds.
Cynthia Francis, CEO of Reality Digital, a provider of social-media marketing tools, sees a continued emphasis on social media in 2010 but with a more unified approach.
In 2010, we see businesses moving away from piecemeal social media marketing tools to a cohesive, integrated strategy, says Francis. Its great to have all these points of visibility, but more than that you need to have a plan. The goal of social media is to have a conversation with your customer, and its better to bring those customers home to have that conversation at your branded site.
For example Harmony, Reality Digitals offering, is an entry-level social media platform that delivers a forum, blog, embedded audio and video and more for a participatory experience for customers.
Cost-Saving Tools Become the Default
Entrepreneurs who survived the downturn did so by watching every penny, and this cost-savings mentality promises to be the new normal, especially when it comes to IT spending. Services that replace an essential but often expensive business function will be hot commodities in 2010.
One such area is virtual PBX services, which can replace a traditional physical phone system with a more feature-rich and affordable solution while delivering the side benefit of making your business appear larger than it is. For example, VirtualPBX.com Inc., the pioneer in the industry, lets a company can give its remote employees an 800 or local number that makes it look as if the individuals are working out of an office. The service routes the calls to whatever phone number the employee prefers, such as a mobile or even a VoIP number.
Similarly, Cbeyond, which offers managed Internet and phone services to businesses in 13 major U.S. markets, rolled out the Cbeyond Virtual Receptionist. This cloud-based service helps small businesses project a professional image to incoming callers, routing calls efficiently and automatically without the hassle or expense of deploying an on-site automated attendant.
Protus recently launched its My1Voice service, which combines a virtual phone service, a virtual receptionist, smart call-forwarding, enhanced voicemail and call screening in a cloud-based solution.
The touch-screen abilities built into Windows 7 will mean more people should reach out and touch their PCs in 2010.
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Other cost-saving tools will continue to gain traction among small businesses in 2010. For example, Skype Limiteds Skype for Business delivers more than just VoIP calls, but also face-to-face video calls, large file sharing, collaboration and more. And the company offers a Business Control Panel that lets you easily set up employee accounts, allocate credit, set up online numbers and more.
Similarly, look for more businesses to turn to online meeting services such as Citrixs GoToMeeting and Ciscos WebEx to save on travel costs.
Reach Out and Touch Your PC
On the hardware front, experts expect 2010 to be a touchy year. The emergence of touch screens and touch-aware apps will accelerate, predicts Michael Deutch, director of product marketing at MindJet, a developer of unique personal productivity and collaboration solutions. Instead of pressing a button, youll control the device with a gesture.
Brought to the mainstream by the Apple iPhone and iPod Touch, touch interaction with PCs, smartphones and other devices will get a boost from products such as Windows 7, which offers native touch-aware abilities, and the new Google Nexus One phone. And if Apple unveils its long-rumored tablet, touch-screen abilities will generate even more buzz.
Jamie Bsales is an award-winning technology writer and editor with nearly 14 years of experience covering the latest hardware, software and Internet products and services.
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