When it comes to techie toys, this New Year is full of potential for small businesses - and towering in importance for technology companies. We always expect smaller, lighter and/or more powerful computing, but this year there is a welter of other trends jostling for a business owner’s attention. We asked some experienced entrepreneurs who are also steeped in IT what to watch out for, and the implications for business.
San Francisco based Michael Wolfe is CEO of Pipewise, his fourth startup company. He has advised or served on the board of many more. He says cheap tablet computers are on the horizon: “these things will eventually be cheaper than a hardback book. Many people will skip smartphones completely and move directly to small tablets. You will own multiple tablets optimised for different purposes – we will think of them as replacements for paper”.
The average family home already has six internet-connected devices, and the consumerisation of tablets is only going to increase that number. For businesses, this means more than fun new toys. A sales meeting with presentations on paper is going to look increasingly old-fashioned. More importantly, customers in retail or service situations are going to demand seamless service: the processes of ordering goods and paying for them, with a scan or a swipe, should become utterly painless – technology ought to banish the till queue once and for all!
Chris Mellish, founder and CTO of leading web design agency, Pure Innovation, agrees; and adds that, thanks to tablets, websites are set to change forever. “Touch screens are already here and Windows 8 brings the touch revolution to your desktop. A seismic shift is coming in the way websites are being designed and developed, taking advantage of these devices to deliver a more interactive and visually rich experience. Ironically this change is being championed by one of the big failures of the last decade – Myspace, whose new website behaves more like a tablet application with content streaming and sliding on to the screen. They have made the top web designers stop and think. In the next couple of years, building sites to this standard will have to become routine for all.”
Returning to seamless service, the demand for immediacy and simplicity is also behind several new successful businesses, and the driver for some important new technologies. Tom Ball is a serial entrepreneur with a voracious appetite for new opportunities. His latest venture is NearDesk, a card which offers business owners access to hundreds of serviced offices, meeting rooms or single desks with the convenience of a single monthly bill. Embedded in the NearDesk card is our next tip for the year: Near Field Communication, or NFC.
“This allows NearDesk users to enter rooms, order coffee or make photocopies without endless logging in or totting up different bills”, says Ball. “NFC is now appearing in many mobile phones, and it’s all about making life simpler.” NFC is the clever bit inside Oyster cards (used by millions of Londoners for public transport), and it’s a cheap technology. For small businesses, it will drive opportunities for deeply customised service (for example, tap a loyalty card at a kiosk for a discount) or ever deeper knowledge about staff and customers (for example, who has gone where in a warehouse complex).
All that knowledge creates a burgeoning stream of ‘big data’. Larger companies are working out how to use that information to build a more commercially deep understanding of customers as individuals; but even small businesses can improve each interaction. Pure Innovation’s Chris Mellish says: “Companies are tracking footfall into stores by tracking customers’ mobile phones. They can use this data to make sure they have appropriate staffing levels, to make sure that the store has the optimal layout, or even to monitor the influence their in-store music is having on their customers. If I had to choose one word to sum up the technology opportunity for 2013 it would be ‘experience’. For example, we are working with one company that aims to abolish queuing, instead enabling people to carry out other activities whilst waiting in a virtual queue. At a recent trial in a shopping centre, instead of having kids queue for up to three hours to see Santa, they were able to go shopping with their parents for a couple of hours before joining a 2-minute long queue when it was their turn. Both kids and parents were much happier.”
Then, there is a raft of interconnected tools and techniques which no business can ignore. You will almost certainly already be using Cloud services; where information is stored and processes are run online instead of on the desktop. This reduces the need for capital spend on computing, and also offsets the risk of data loss or other technical problems to your hosting partner: a qualified expert third party. As Pipewise’s Wolfe says, “Trillions of dollars of IT spending are moving from data centres and software licenses to cloud services. Soon you'll be able to read about companies with 10,000 employees who don't have dedicated data centres.”
With that comes the business model of cloud; namely a proliferation of rental, pay-as-you-go, no-contract or “as a service” models. Whether you’re looking for customer management tools, a new website, lead generation or even real people to do stuff for you by the hour, the internet and the cloud puts more talented people and services across the globe at your disposal, for less money, and with no upfront cost or ongoing commitment.
With all your data, knowledge and contacts in the cloud, it makes sense to have access to them whenever and wherever you need them; and that means the continuation of the inexorable growth of mobile services; with more connected devices (phone handsets, tablets, kiosks and app-controlled industrial tools) than ever before. In summary, with the cloud, we will be more connected more of the time on more devices and at a lower cost. This will reduce the cost of starting and running businesses or indeed just trying out new ideas. Equally, it also creates a new ‘arms race’ of competitiveness: businesses must appreciate that anyone, of any size, can enter markets, niches or even take outright punts with greater fluidity.
If you haven’t heard of BYOD, it’ll be one of 2013’s watchwords. It’s delightfully untechie meaning is “Bring Your Own Device” and refers to the rapidly increasing practice of staff bringing their own kit to work. Employees are happiest working on the laptop or phone with which they are familiar – with pictures of their children on the home screen. Companies get increased productivity and lower costs as a result. But with that comes concerns of security and consistency of technologies used.
Elizabeth Varley, co-founder and CEO of TechHub, the community and workspace network for tech entrepreneurs in the UK, Europe and soon the US, says “BYOD is a challenge that’s going to need to be addressed by corporates as it’s a current and growing reality. We’ll see companies cottoning onto this in 2013. Startups like Enterproid, with their Divide product are going to become indispensible in order to manage serious security needs while allowing the freedom of personal device choice for productivity and recognizing the growing individual desire to be constantly connected personally.”
These are just a few of the major trends to watch out for – there are plenty more. Use of video will continue to grow: with good broadband now the default connection for most consumers, is it possible to market yourself effectively without the moving image? And what about flexible screens and wearables: 2013 is the year that we could end up wearing screens on our wrists – or at the very least not breaking our phones by sitting on them. Have a fine, prosperous and silicon-driven New Year!
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