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The tech trends of 2005

Business owners and experts tell us what the hottest product and service categories will be in 2005.

Smart business owners are always on the lookout for products that can keep their ships sailing smoothly. We asked a number of business owners and experts what the hottest product and service categories will be in 2005, and here’s what we came up with.

Security blankets: SMBs of all sizes will have to keep an eye on upgrading their security capability in 2005. Advanced storage technologies such as disk-to-disk data protection (which provides continuous backup capability) and preventative measures such as in-house spam servers will also be sought after as SMBs strive to protect the good data and keep out the bad data. Also, even companies not publicly traded may want to make sure they’re compliant with legislation like Sarbanes-Oxley, HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996), and GLBA (The Gramm-Leach Bliley Act). All of this makes compliance software a not inexpensive (three figures per user in most cases) but essential buy for some businesses.

New and improved: Companies minding their budgets will turn a deaf ear to most pitches for product upgrades, but some truly are crucial. Take, for example, Microsoft Small Business Server 2003, which is greatly improved over its predecessors NT 4 and Exchange 5.5, and offers ROI (not to mention reduced cost and hassle of migration) that will dazzle any SMBer running a cluster of PCs.

Remote access: Web-hosted thin-client solutions (via which all software is run and maintained remotely) will continue to be cost-effective options for small businesses. They don’t require any upfront investment beyond the monthly subscription fee, they require no hardware or technical expertise to deploy and use, and they don’t put a strain on your system or your computers. Everything from servers to design applications to network monitoring tools can be hosted off-site, and with hardware prices plummeting, thin-client providers are ready to make deals.

Help wanted: It’s natural for smaller businesses to try to do their own troubleshooting. This approach can be a roll of the dice, to say the least. Does that mean hiring your own fulltime tech support? Not necessarily. Online tech support is being offered more and more frequently, sometimes as a standalone service and other times as part of a hardware maintenance contract. In most cases, tech support can peek into your computer via the Internet and fix the problem while you watch, for as little as $10 per fix-up. Compared to pricey onsite maintenance or listening to Mantovani for an hour while on hold to phone support, online tech help might be the wave of the future.

All in one: If there’s one thing every small-business owner loves, it’s saving money, and application consolidation is increasingly being touted as a means to that penny-pinching end. Consolidating reduces infrastructure complexity, and it decreases the number of vendors you deal with, the number of licenses you need to manage, the number of older “legacy” applications that need maintaining. In other words, it makes life simpler, and cheaper. Whether it’s by going with a single vendor or migrating to more Web-based services, consolidation is quickly coming together.

Automation: The IT personnel (in most cases, it’s not fair to call one person a “department”) in SMBs are continually tasked to do more with less, and automation software is becoming an increasingly popular way to accomplish that. Automating IT tasks like patch management, Windows migration, and software license compliance saves companies money while making any business’s computing environment more secure and productive. And now, with products like HP’s brand-new Automation Manager, companies can have an automated predictive system for managing virtually all its IT services.

Conference me: It may be an expensive service at the moment, but the cost of Web conferencing is due to come down to the budget levels of SMBs. Microsoft will continue to refine its SMB-centric LiveMeeting suite, while the cost of both bandwidth and hardware (such as webcams) keeps dropping. Before long, those telephone conference calls you have now are gonna seem so 2001.

Pay here: If your business has any e-commerce component whatsoever, the right payment processing solutions can make both buyer and seller happy. Depending on your needs, you can get a package that simply drops credit and debit card payments into your account, or something swankier that provides automated mail processing, PC-based cashiering, image-based remittance processing, archiving and retrieval, and plenty of other bells and whistles. Whichever route you choose, the ultimate goal is to speed the payment cycle, reduce overhead, and make your customers happy, both of which mean more good old-fashioned green paper in your pocket.

Blah, blah, blog: Does blogging seem like a self-indulgent waste of time to you? Your customers might not feel that way. Maintaining a blog about your business can help keep the lines of communication open between you and your clients, giving you a chance to gab to your heart’s content about your product, service, or industry, and to give readers an avenue to provide you feedback, news, and tips from the marketplace. Handled correctly (hint: Don’t make your blog a non-stop advertisement), it can be the cheapest, most effective way to show your customers what you’re made of.

Two for one: As single-core processors reach the physical limits of complexity and speed, multicore processors are quickly becoming the rage for many businesses. Essentially comprising two CPUs on one chip, this approach, naturally, makes any computer screaming fast. With chip prices dropping overall, multicore processors can give your computers the power and versatility that only enterprise-sized businesses once had.

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