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    Technology for Small Business – Stay connected and in the black at low cost

    Smartphones like Motorola’s Moto Q and Apple’s iPhone can be useful in business.

    Trying to run a business today on yesterday’s technology is a recipe for certain failure. If the most sophisticated device on your office desk right now is an electric pencil sharpener, chances are that your business is overdue for a technology upgrade.

    International Data Corp., a global market intelligence firm, says small and midsize businesses are expected to spend $114.8 billion on technology in 2008, up from $108.3 billion 2007 and outpacing the year-on-year growth rate for projected technology spending by all corporations.

    No, you don’t have to snap up each new gizmo or sign up for the hottest Internet service the day it’s introduced. However, there are many useful and low-cost ways to use today’s technology to help your business stay ahead of its competition without emptying your wallet. The good news is that some of the best tech tools and services have recently come down sharply in price, or are free.

    Social networking for business

    Don’t let the words “social networking” scare you. It’s not a new piece of computer hardware or a new euphemism for online dating — although it does sometimes lend itself to offline get-togethers. Social networking Web sites, once viewed as vast cyberwastelands of idle chatter, have evolved into solid online tools that can help you drum up new business, link with colleagues in the same line of work or reconnect with old friends.

    Some of the better social networking sites for business use include LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com) and Facebook (www.facebook.com). On the other hand, MySpace (www.myspace.com), while also usable for business, tends to be flooded with juvenile chatter and cluttered, poorly organized Web pages.

    The concept is simple: You start by creating a personal online profile with details such as the companies where you’ve worked, your education history and the organizations you belong to. Once posted online, other users with similar histories can find your profile and, if they want, ask you to become a “friend” or “connection.” If you accept, you gain the ability to view not just your new connection’s profile and contact information, but also the profiles of your new connection’s friends.

    What often occurs is that you discover that your new connections are already friends with people you already know, or people with whom you can do business. For example, if you listed Acme Inc. in your Facebook profile, you might get a connection invite from someone you worked with 15 years ago and is now at a company with which you can do business.

    Many professional organizations have carved out their own spaces on Facebook and LinkedIn, thus providing an easy way for members to link in cyberspace. Of course, the best thing about these social networking sites is that they’re free. While it’s easy to build a large network of friends quickly, the best way to use these sites is to dive in slowly. Learn how to use the “privacy” settings to limit other users’ access to your profile to only those you want. Don’t go on a blitz and invite dozens of strangers into your connection list — this dilutes the usefulness of your contacts and results in a steady stream of unwanted invitations.

    Smartphones

    When Apple Inc. introduced the iPhone in 2007, it didn’t break any new technological ground. It wasn’t the first phone with a digital musical player and its Web browser was downright slow compared to competing handsets. What it did, however, was make the art of mobile Web surfing and e-mail reading very easy, and other mobile phone makers are following suit.

    Instead of staggering into a coffee shop or public library with your laptop and trying to download your e-mail via a Wi-Fi wireless Internet connection, a smartphone with e-mail software and a real or on-screen keyboard lets you receive and bang out short responses to important e-mail at all times. A good smartphone can even replace a laptop on a short business trip.

    Other popular smartphones for business include Research in Motion’s BlackBerry handsets, Motorola’s MOTO Q line and Palm Inc.’s Treo phones. Even a trendy phone like T-Mobile’s Sidekick can be a useful business phone because of its very usable keyboard.

    Getting started with e-mail on a smartphone is the hardest part, but even that part is getting easier. Instead of forcing you to enter arcane server settings, many of today’s phones can make educated guesses — usually accurate — about the settings needed for popular e-mail services. Thus, all you’ll need to enter is your user name and password.

    Smartphones also allow you to install your own applications for things like weather forecasts, stock prices, driving directions or phone number lookups. For example, once installed on your phone, Microsoft’s LiveSearch and Google’s Mobile Maps allow you to plot where you are on a map or look up directions to your next meeting. And both can be downloaded for free. Apple’s iPhone application store now contains dozens of free and low-cost applications users can add by using its iTunes digital music and phone synchronization software.

    Walking GPS

    Even if you don’t drive, a portable Global Positioning System (GPS) road navigation device in your pocket can be an essential tool when in an unfamiliar city, especially older cities with short or winding streets. Aside from giving you turn-by-turn directions to your destination, a GPS device can help you find your way to the nearest hospital, police station or tavern, whichever is more important at the moment. When you put a GPS device into “walking” or “pedestrian” mode, it ignores which direction auto traffic is going, thus ensuring the shortest walking route to your destination.

    The Moov 200 from Mio Technology (www.mio.com) is small enough to fit into a jacket pocket when it’s not mounted in your car. The $150 unit has a 3.5-inch touch-screen, a small speaker that barks out instructions and comes preloaded with street maps of the U.S., as well as 3.5 million points of interest, including gas stations, hospitals, hotels and restaurants.

    The Moov 200 from Mio Technology.

    Back up and move forward

    Few businessowners enjoy backing up computer data. Even fewer enjoy paying a professional to recover damaged or accidentally deleted files. Using an online backup service makes sense since your backup files are safe in a distant computer should your home or office fall victim to a disaster or a thief. Not only are today’s backup services easy to use, but some are free.

    For example, the Mozy backup service from Mozy Inc. comes with software that automatically backs up your computer’s files when it’s idle. Thus, if you leave your unit on and leave for lunch, you may come back to find the day’s backup work already done. You can store up to two gigabytes of backup files on Mozy’s servers at no cost. Unlimited storage for a single home computer is $4.95 per month. Business plans start at $3.95 per computer per month, plus 50 cents per gigabyte of storage per month.

    Here again, the worst part of using an online backup service is getting started. Your first backup will be a long one, so be prepared to do without your computer for a few hours. That’s because most home and small-business, high-speed Internet services are asynchronous — your upload speed for your backups is usually much slower than your download speeds. This means that the same file that took five minutes to download from your company’s home office might take 20 minutes to back up online.

    Once your first major backup is complete, however, subsequent ones are incremental. Only the files that have changed are backed up, thus shortening the online backup process to a few minutes.

    Remember, high-tech doesn’t have to mean high priced. Now go sharpen that pencil.

    By Robert S. Anthony

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