What SMBs want for Christmas

This Christmas, kids may be wishing for the latest Hannah Montana Doll or LEGO Creator Monster Dino, but SMBs have a slightly different wish list.

It’s not so much about the coolest gadgets, but about new technologies that can help make their employees more productive – with an end result, of course, of improving their bottom line. Here are a few items SMBs would like to find under their Christmas tree this year.

Green technology

Sure, it’s the trendy thing to do, but being environmentally friendly and reducing energy consumption can also save you money. So SMBs are looking for easy ways to do that – from more energy-efficient hardware to multi-function devices that allow them to reduce the amount of equipment they have in the office.

The good news is that vendors – especially server vendors – are really starting to take this green business seriously, said Andy Woyzbun, lead analyst with Info-Tech Research Group. SMBs are going to be able to select green equipment, much like you’d look for an energy-efficient dishwasher or washing machine. “You’ll save money and you’ll look good too,” he said.

According to recent research, HP found that 83 per cent of small businesses say that environmental factors play a role in their decision around technology. So many are hoping for a “green” Christmas this year.

Virtualization on the desktop

Supporting PCs is complicated, and it’s becoming more complicated as SMBs purchase and attempt to integrate different types of software – so more are looking at virtualization on the desktop to ease their management woes. This is a twist on the thin-client approach, said Woyzbun, but the idea is you don’t have to keep everything on your PC, and the “central brain” will know what you need and make that available to you.

Server virtualization will also make its way down to small businesses as vendors aggressively pursue this space, which has traditionally been associated with enterprises and mid-size businesses, said Ricky Mak, associate analyst of customer segments and channels research with IDC Canada.

Mobile devices with Internet connectivity – not just e-mail

Even though laptops are lighter than they were a few years ago, they’re still heavy, and employees still have to lug them around on business trips (which is becoming even more unpleasant with today’s tight border security). So SMBs are looking for mobile devices with rich Internet connectivity – not just e-mail.

Businesses are starting to see the value of devices like the iPhone for employees who need to access Internet-enabled applications on the road, said Woyzbun. While the public seems smitten with the iPhone, we’ll also start seeing more competition. “Most of the devices up until now are pretty lousy for anything other than e-mail,” he said.

It’s not just going to be about mobile computing devices – the laptops and the BlackBerries – but SMBs are going to further explore how to be productive while on the road, said Mak. This includes collaborative software applications that help them connect to their peers while they’re traveling abroad.

More flexibility with mobile devices

SMBs also want some cool new features on their mobile devices that will actually help them get their work done. One example is a notebook tablet PC that can convert from a traditional form factor PC with keyboard into a tablet PC.

“It plays into a lot of small business vertical applications, whether real estate or health care,” said Michael McAvoy, director of SMB and commercial marketing with HP Canada. It gives them the ability to scribble, sketch and jot down notes, and organize and file those notes, providing more flexibility in how they work – whether it be a one-person business or multi-employee company where they’re looking to enable their employees with mobile technology.

Another is voice technology, such as the HP iPaq 510 Voice Messenger, a Windows Mobile-based smart phone. Aside from connectivity to e-mail, calendar and other applications, it has a number of voice commands that will allow you to respond to e-mail with a voice response or have your e-mail read to you (say, while you’re driving).

“Productivity is tied into mobility,” said McAvoy. “As your employees are visiting their customers and suppliers and keeping the business running, it’s critical they’re connected back to home base and the internal network and potential customer lists.”

Better network performance and bandwidth

As more companies depend on the Internet to communicate with their clients and partners, there’s an increasing demand for network performance and bandwidth, so we’re going to see wide area network optimization appliances really taking off, said Woyzbun.

WAN optimization appliances allow companies to increase the performance and throughput of their connections without having to buy additional bandwidth. It’s basically a compression technology, just like for music or zip files, and it purges redundant information – and in some cases gets 10 times the throughput as a result. They’re also getting cheaper and easier to install.

One of the big challenges in the coming year will be the slowing of the North American economy, which could have an impact on IT spending. So CIOs are hoping to keep their IT budgets intact, said Woyzbun.

“The interesting technologies are the technologies that actually solve a challenge or problem as opposed to, gee, isn’t that neat,” he said.

“You don’t have to look at it as a strategic advantage; you just do it in order to compete, for employees, for customers. So the whole idea is finding the technologies that really allow you to support the business.”

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