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It's 2008: Time to Automate

Use my guide to pick the right office automation software for your business.

To paraphrase Roy Batty from Blade Runner: "Time to buy."

2008 is the year your small business should consider purchasing one of the new generation of office automation software packages now flooding the market.

Microsoft

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is shilling its new Business Contact Manager as part of Microsoft Office 2007.

Apple

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is in play with Microsoft Office for Mac 2008, which is expected to be a big part of the upcoming MacWorld show. Web-based business software outfits such as

NetSuite and

Salesforce.com are offering small-business riffs on their software.

NetSuite in particular is offering a splashy IPO based in part on its high expectations for the small-business market.

And that ignores the swarm of start-ups offering similar tools, such as

Basecamp,

Dabble Db and

Zoho DB & Reports ... you get the picture.

If the fact that your competitors will be running one of these systems is not enough to scare you into action, try this: As this economy of ours drags into a recession, the clients we have left will pay slower. Our costs will rise, and our profits will get squeezed.

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Now is the time to find every efficiency you can. Business automation is as good a shot as you have for staying in the game.

Here, then, are my three rules to choosing the right business software package:

1. Get comfy working away from the desktop.

The single most important change coming is that your core business processes are moving from the computer sitting on your desk to a computer out on the Internet.

Everything is getting done online.

If you have not done so already, get yourself a

Google

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Apps account and get your feet wet posting your files on the Web, collaborating on documents in real time and using new search tools to change the way you handle email.

You'll quickly see that certain functions can only be done on your local computer, but the goal here is to get a sense of which parts of your shop can go on the Web.

2. Visualize, visualize, visualize.

Right behind the Web-ification of your small business are the advanced modeling techniques formerly used only by big business.

If you have not done so already, download one of Microsoft's excellent templates for Excel, or go to one of the new generation of

concept-graphing tools.

Again, there are many ways to skin, er ... model a cat. What you want is a visualization system that makes sense for your particular business.

Bottom line: If by this time next year you are still gleaning financial, sales and other information from numeric tabular forms, you're making a serious mistake.

3. Free ain't free.

In utmost irony, the software industry has managed to disguise this single biggest change in business computing as a "free upgrade."

Every software company in the market offers a free or steeply discounted version of its business software, so there's rarely a clear purchase point.

Buyer beware: These new tools seek to get you to register enough critical information -- contacts or financial -- to make it too complicated to move to another product.

Remember how long it took to kill off that America Online email account? It's just like that, except for your entire business.

Start Testing

The solution is easy. Find yourself a test computer -- a machine not directly in the line of business fire -- go to the list at the top of this article, and start installing the demos.

You'll quickly get a feel for what the packages do, where their features match your business problems and the products' limitations and costs.

Just insist that these products do exactly what you want them to do, and there's nothing to be afraid of.

Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.