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On the Move

Thursday, May 13, 2010
How To Mobilize Your Micro-Business
By Mark Landsbaum

Remember the manual typewriter? Imagine relying on one today to run your micro-business. How much time—and profit—would you have lost if you had clung to that relic?

Instead, you advanced. The fax. The desktop computer. The laser printer. The Internet.

Gird yourself for a wave of advancements that will make the transition from ancient Underwoods to silicon chips seem like a minor upgrade.

The emerging mobile age promises to expand horizons as never before. Desktop computers have lost market share to laptops because portables free people from a desk. When public Wi-Fi hot spots began proliferating, they brought Internet access to mobile computers, and the die was cast.

Today, everything you once did from your desk can be done from wherever you happen to be, many times with a device small enough to fit in a shirt pocket.

That means you can conduct business anywhere, anytime and in many cases, at a lower cost than ever before.

Laptops, Notebooks And Netbooks

The revolution’s first wave still is building like a tsunami. Notebooks shrunk the full-size laptop concept, making the computers thinner and lighter weight, with a more affordable price. Their increased mobility and smaller screens appealed to business people on the go who wanted computing power.

Just a short time ago, business owners couldn’t use computers in airport terminals or coffee shops. Today those venues offer Wi-Fi Internet and docking stations where the portables can be recharged.

In 2009 this trend accelerated with the unexpected explosion of netbooks. They were distinguished by an even smaller size, as well as the lack of optical drives for CDs and DVDs and smaller hard drives. Their prices were lower yet.

The new netbooks are intended chiefly for Internet access and e-mail, but some still retain other computer capabilities like a Web cam, which is great for connecting with clients face to face over the Internet. However, the smaller netbooks sacrifice processing power needed to run memory-intensive programs like high-end photo editing.

A new category of smartbooks is emerging, designed to be a cross between a smart phone and a netbook. They’re always on and always connected to the Internet for Web surfing, e-mail and Twitter reception via 3G networks, the third generation of cellular technology that provides substantial speed and bandwidth improvements. For example, the Skylight by Lenovo, with its mere 10.1-inch screen, sports a thinner body with 3G and Wi-Fi capabilities.

This downsizing trend has dramatically segmented the portable computer market. As a result, a full range of options is available to the business owner on the go.

Opt for a 17-inch desktop-like screen in a hefty laptop almost indistinguishable in capabilities from a fully outfitted desktop computer. Or choose smaller notebooks for portability. Or go for the runts of the litter, the netbook or smartbook, with just enough wherewithal to fetch and send e-mail and surf the Web. Spend top dollar, or substantially less.

The mobile options for business owners have never been greater.

Cloud Computing
Hand in hand with the burgeoning portable computer market has been the acceleration of cloud computing, which operates from Internet servers, not from users’ computers. By providing applications and storage online, vendors achieve economy of scale. That, in turn, allows savings to be passed on to consumers, who generally pay only for what they use at the lower rate.

Where portable computers freed you geographically, cloud computing frees you from costly software, the need for massive computer storage and office-bound servers.

The programs are available to you online, without installation on your computer. They range from photo editing to word processing and are often available for pennies compared to boxed software. Many vendors also offer substantial online storage at no cost.

Google Docs is a well-known variant, but Microsoft’s Business Productivity Online Suite and several other competitors also vie for your online patronage. Responding to increasing competition, prices continue to drop. The online Picasa photo storage service, for example, was lowered from $20 to $5 per year for 20 gigabytes, with the first gigabyte free.

Business owners can save gigabytes of product photos, inventory records and other business documents by storing them online, which also adds an element of safety against burglary, fire or other disasters.

Cloud computing conveniently complements the portable computer trend by permitting you access to your favorite software and essential data irrespective of locale, and without need of a vast library of installed programs.

A variety of cloud-based services are available, such as free faxing of documents you upload or e-mail. Some, like ScanR, turn a camera phone into a scanner, copy machine and fax all in one.

Intuit, maker of QuickBooks financial software, has embedded a button link to its own apps marketplace into its desktop product. The cloud connection allows curious customers to ease into the cloud without completely abandoning the desktop software.

Some cloud providers charge only for what you use, with little, if any, upfront cost. All you need is Internet computer access. Pew Research Center says that 69 percent of Americans had already used cloud services as of 2008. Gartner Research reports that 89 percent of companies said they expect to expand or maintain cloud computing.

Why does this matter? Because with cloud computing, even if you remain immobile, you can save potentially hundreds of dollars in software purchases and periodic updates. At the same time, you gain the flexibility of access and retrieval from anywhere with either a desktop or portable computer.

Some say cloud computing is the future. You needn’t wait. There’s plenty available today, with more to come.

Smart Phones
Smart phones are the epitome of the small mobile device. They are cell phones on steroids, combining portable computing convenience with a pocket-size telephone and constant online connection. The newest devices incorporate touch-screen operations with virtual keyboards that make clunky, physical keys superfluous.

Their computer capabilities range from complex personal information management to advanced business applications like word processing, spreadsheets and graphics. The iPhone boasts more than 100,000 applications, many free. There are already 20,000 apps for the open-source Android operating system, a serious iPhone competitor.

On top of convenience, you’ll be hard-pressed to find comparable software capabilities for regular computers for less than a buck a pop. What this means is that just about anything you do with your desktop, you can find a smart phone app to do, and for a lot less money.

Android phone apps, like iPhone apps, feature an array of business software, such as GPS maps that provide turn-by-turn, audible instructions. Camera phones double as hand-held scanners, capable of creating then e-mailing photos or Adobe PDF files.

Hardware capabilities continue to evolve as well, with new phones from LG Electronics that even feature a built-in projector. The iPhone’s business capabilities include a gadget that plugs into its headphone jack to read credit cards, enabling iPhone users to make credit, debit and prepaid card transactions with the mobile phone.

Many newer smart phones let you synchronize the contact, calendar and to-do lists on your hand-held with contact management software on your computer. A change made to the records on one is automatically updated on the other.

The full implications of smart phone advances haven’t sunk in yet. But when the Internet was launched nearly half a century ago, no one predicted the innovations it would spawn either.

Here’s a tip: Sign up for a data plan for your smart phone. Paying for prolonged Internet access per megabyte will break the bank. But unlimited access can be purchased for as little as $30 per month from some cellular networks.

Portable Readers And Tablets
Digital reading devices were popularized by Amazon’s Kindle and have since been copied and occasionally improved upon by others like Barnes & Noble and Sony.

The readers began by offering access only to books, magazines and periodicals, and in some cases blog posts and podcasts. These devices are expanding in capabilities and benefits perhaps as much and as quickly as have cell phones.

They’re also more convenient than cell phones for reading. Reading on tiny cell phone screens can be difficult. The screens of e-readers are more book-size, but without the bulk of a laptop computer.

Tablet PCs, like the recently launched Apple iPad, go even further, with color screens for photo viewing and easier reading, Wi-Fi capabilities for Web browsing and e-mail, and literally hundreds of thousands of apps available.

Are any of these readers right for your micro-business? If you travel frequently; if you’re into heavy reading for research or training; if your business requires that you know and use the latest technology—then springing for a reader or tablet now is probably a good investment.

Other Fun Mobile Stuff
Google Voice, a year-old service by Google, allows users to register a single phone number then receive call forwarding to as many numbers as you like, even forwarding them to different phones based on who’s calling. The service also allows screening of callers.

Hewlett-Packard has developed a wireless touch-screen printer that prints from the Web without a PC or even a browser. And Autonet Mobile offers an in-car Internet router that uses 3G wireless technology.

The distinctions among mobile devices are blurring rapidly.

Phones increasingly will become more like desktop computers in capability and computers more like hand-held devices in portability. Hybrid devices that began by performing narrow functions, like the iPod for music lovers, will continue morphing into mini-computers capable of many business tasks.

All that remains is to choose the size and applications that fit your on-the-go business style best.


Mark Landsbaum is a freelance writer and the author of “Streetwise Low-Cost Marketing: Savvy Strategies for Maximizing Your Marketing Dollars” (Adams Media, 2004).

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