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Small-Business Predictions for 2011: Robots!

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- We will never know why one year is more important than the next. Years, after all, are some of the most meaningless numbers there are. But for small businesses, the next 12 months are shaping up to be some of the dynamic, dramatic -- and probably destructive -- in recent memory.

This will be the year truly fast 4G wireless networks from Verizon (VZ), Sprint (S) and T-Mobile will become major market tools. Business process software giants such as Intuit (INTU) will see their markets exposed to a new generation of low- and no-cost alternatives. And even the legal profession will face stiff competition from cheaper, digital alternatives. This may also be the year you -- not some fictional star of 2001: A Space Odyssey or Alien or Terminator, but you -- will use a robot to help you make business decisions.

In 2011, machines really will help you make business decisions. They're already doing more than you think.

My predictions for next year:

Prediction 1: You will kiss your business broadband data provider goodbye.
If you bet on one thing next year, bet on this: Ultrafast so-called 4G cellular networks will break the data access oligopoly of the cable, phone and satellite industry. Such major cellular players as Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint are trying to grab the early 4G buzz with products such as LTE and other devices. But a dozen or so other firms across the country and around the world also are offering legitimately fast access to the Web. Some are known names such as Clearwire (CLWR) and Towerstream (TWER). Others are not, such as River Canyon Wireless and Northern Michigan University. Either way, buying access to the Web is quickly becoming like everything else online: fast and cheap. By all means, you should take advantage of it.

Prediction 2: You will not spend a cent on accounting tools.
I don't know what all those nice people at Intuit will be doing in a few years, or where the company's $15 billion in market cap will go. But charging good money for accounting software such as Quicken and QuickBooks is on its way out. The new sheriffs in Accounting Town are the flock of low- and no-cost small-business finance tools on the market: Yendo, Outright, FreeAgent, Xero (XRO), LessAccounting ... the list goes on and on. I have tested most of these tools. And while QuickBooks might have a feature or two the others don't, the others aren't looking to charge you a fortune to use them. If you are paying for the tools you use to file your books at this time next year, you have only yourself to blame.

Prediction 3: You will not spend much on legal advice, either.
Believe it or not, the collapse in the cost of doing basic business tasks will not stop with accounting: The once-untouchable, unstoppable and unavoidable American lawyer will become just another starving blogger, giving away advice on the blind hope someone is nutty enough to hire him or her for a few hours. From Google (GOOG) Docs' free legal templates to low-cost online tools such as Legal Zoom and TheLAW.com to fee-hungry state departments offering low-cost online incorporation and other business tools, getting sophisticated legal advice will get awfully cheap awfully fast. And the discount legal wave won't be limited to lawyers. The entire legal infrastructure will be pressured as well. To get a feel for the changes coming, check out a site called Cybersettle. This service provides so-called accelerated dispute resolution in which sophisticated legal disputes are resolved with a few emails and a couple of hundred bucks. Who will needs to go to court to do something as mundane as sue? Certainly not you.

Prediction 4: You will get advice from a robot.
I saved the most mind-boggling prediction for last: Machines really will help you make business decisions. Already machines that think play a large role in many enterprises. For example, by most accounts, 80% of the financial market trading on such places as the New York Stock Exchange and the Nasdaq are done by machines. And this intelligence is quickly filtering down to small businesses. A German start-up called TheDeadline has created a Web-based personal assistant that guesses which tasks you should do when. Not as sophisticated, but still pretty darn impressive, is WriteMyAds.com, which creates real estate copy automatically. But the company to watch here is StatSheet, the market leader in automatic content creation engines. It creates readable if bland sports stories with nary a human hand involved.

Like I said, buckle up. When it comes to change, 2011 will be the real deal.

>To submit a news tip, email: tips@thestreet.com.

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This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.

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