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Do these words mean anything to you? Should they?

Not long ago, a good friend of mine who is also an owner of a small business asked me why there is so little happening in computing these days. He’s no technological troglodyte; on the contrary, for the past 20 years he’s consistently been in the forefront. We talked quite a while, as I trotted out various hot technologies. That’s when I got the idea to make a list of current technologies and run it by a number of my contacts in business, just to see what they knew and what opinions they had. The result are unscientific, but (I hope) interesting. The survey was simple, an e-mail message:

I’m doing an informal survey of go-getters in business (like you) about your “IT quotient” – what you know and think about some new technologies. When you’ve got a minute (just one!), here’s a representative list of currently ‘hot’ or relatively new technologies. For any that are familiar, comment on what you think might be the use of the technology in your business: podcasting, VoIP, blogging, grid computing, RSS, wikis, and utility computing.

I won’t report statistics because the people surveyed were in different industries and varied a great deal in the corporate use of IT. However, some of the individual responses are revealing and, I think, representative.

Podcasting

While conceptually similar to old formats like audio training tapes, podcasting uses the Internet (via RSS) and the wildly popular MP3 players (especially Apple’s iPod) as convenient form of audio distribution. Not surprisingly, there weren’t many opinions. In fact, only one: “My kids said I should check out podcasting for company announcements. I don’t own an iPod, and the kids won’t lend me theirs.”

Most of my contacts had heard about podcasting but didn’t know exactly what it meant. Although some big companies, such as Oracle and IBM, are already using podcasting as a means of disseminating company information, there are questions about the effectiveness of audio-only presentations (especially for selling purposes). Still, as a technology, podcasting is inexpensive and awaits creative niche uses.

VoIP

Voice-over Internet Protocol is approaching the mainstream–a true alternative to the standard phone system. I wasn’t surprised that about two-thirds of my contacts responded to this one. Here’s a typical comment:

“We do a lot of international calling and our consultant says that VoIP is the way to go.”

There is also the negative side: “When they get rid of the slurred speech, get the breaks out of the transmission, and have better availability–then we’ll listen to a VoIP pitch.”

Both sides have their points. VoIP is still technically more complex and less robust than POTS (plain old telephone system), but that’s changing. It is generally less expensive and allows for an all-digital, all-Internet approach to communications. For smaller businesses that rely heavily on long-distance phoning, this is already a must-check technology.

Blogging

Blogs are not new, but the idea of using them in business is acquiring legs. Blogs are online, ongoing commentary (something like a journal or even a diary) typically focused on one or a few topics. The responses to this technology fell into two camps:

“Very powerful way to keep up a flow of information to the troops. As the company owner, I’ve found it a good way of personalizing what we’re doing, even for employees half a continent away.”

“Who has the time to write something every day, or at least time to write something useful? I could hire somebody to write one for me, and it might read better, but I’d still have to take the time to tell them what to write.”

Both cases are business owners or executives who have considered corporate blogging as a means of providing a stream of personal comments about company matters. One feels comfortable with regular writing; the other does not, and therein lies the key to blogging.

Grid computing

The few who responded to this question were aware of the technical nature of grid computing–using multiple (sometimes thousands) of computers to work on computational problems–but most were skeptical about using it in their (smaller) businesses. One response from a midsize-engineering company executive was, “We continue looking at grid computing. The software is improving and we have enough machines, but I don’t think we have the expertise to make sense of it.”

In short, even for niche players, grid computing is still expensive and difficult.

RSS

Really Simple Syndication technology has been around for a few years, but only recently has it become widely used–wide enough to attract the attention of businesses. RSS software can be used to provide an efficient way of distributing company information such as memos, policies, and product data.

“We used to send company product information by e-mail, but when the spam storm hit…well, our company e-mail often wound up in the trash. So we switched to RSS. Employees get the headlines and can choose which ones they want to read in detail. We don’t have to compete with a lot of other junk.”

Wikis

So what’s a wiki? A common question, although quite a few people know about Wikipedia. No one responded with how they might use a wiki in their business. That’s a shame, because a wiki is an inexpensive format for collaboration on documents, ideas, policies. The www.wiki.org site defines a wiki as “the simplest online database that could possibly work.” Wiki comes from the Hawaiian word for quick, and in this case it means sharing information through creating and editing (with permission) a Web page. Its biggest advantages are simplicity, low cost, and global access through the Net. Especially for internal company use, a wiki just might solve a lot of collaboration issues.

Utility computing

What if a small or medium business needs really big computing horsepower–for example, something that grid computing can accomplish, but not by itself? The business can go to a utility computing provider (for example, HP or IBM) and rent the service, paying only for the time used–much like a getting electricity from a power utility. While only a few of my contacts were familiar with utility computing, most of them were very much in favor of it: “It beats the old application service provider (ASP) approach, because the service terms are shorter and less expensive. We get to do transaction processing in half the time, and a third of the expense.”

With the exception of VoIP, none of these technologies were well understood by the people I contacted. They’d heard of them, but few (roughly 30 percent) had taken the time to think about using the technology in their own business. Does that mean they have a low IT quotient? Is there room for improvement? What about you–for the sake of yourself or your business, should you learn more?

Nelson King writes Pursuits bimonthly for ComputerUser.

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