Macworld's Best Small-Business Apps

Macworld may just have a small-business life after all.

One of the odd dualities at this year's last-ever Macworld Conference and Expo here in San Francisco is that while Apple ( AAPL) itself seems to be struggling, the larger ecosystem of smaller companies that build stuff to work with Apple gear is doing just fine.

Steve Jobs may be ill. Rumors are circulating about a lack of management succession plans at the company. But you wouldn't know it from the other interesting operations here building terrific products.

The fascinating part of all this cool Apple stuff is how deep and wide the swath of third-party development is for Macs at this point. And though the market share of these operations remains tiny compared with Microsoft, there is a palpable feeling of growth here that uncertainty at Apple does not seem to be stopping, at least for now.

Here are my picks for the most interesting products by or for small businesses at this year's show:

Ocarina from SMULE, $0.99.

The most clever item at this show by far is from tiny Menlo Park, Calif.-based SMULE. (That's short for Sonic Mule.) SMULE, whose founders partially came from the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics at Stanford University, essentially turned an iPhone into -- get this -- a musical instrument. Its recent product, Ocarina, turns the iPhone into a '60s-era sounding ocarina, an ancient flute-like wind instrument.

Basically, users blow into the iPhone microphone and the SMULE software turns that audio signal into an ocarina-like sound. Better yet, the software turns the iPhone touch screen into a virtual keyboard that can play all the tones of the instrument. And the effect is surprisingly realistic. Blow. Finger. And out comes "Proud Mary." It's terribly cool.

The bottom line is, if you have an iPhone, you probably have a buck to spend. And you owe it to yourself to download this app and give it a test whistle.

LightSpeed from Xsilva Systems, packages start at $275.

You know something must be cool if a product meant for a niche market like small retailers still makes this list. But that is exactly what Xsilva Systems has done with its new LightSpeed product. LightSpeed is an easy-to-use retail point-of-sale, inventory and business-management product that any technophobe small-business person can use.

What I like about this product was the elegant interface matched with powerful back-office functions. The software can control over-inventory. It interfaces well with existing bar-code and third-party business applications. It connects to online retailer and bidding and other financial modeling tools.

It's a remarkable value starting at less than $300. Retail-store owners tired of hard-to-use point-of-sale software should check out LightSpeed. It's a very nice package.

Pocket Informant from HTC Omni Software, $30.

One thing iPhone ain't so good at is calendaring. Yes, plenty of packages for the phone can deal with an appointment, but woe betide anybody who tries to change that appointment. Yes, it can be done. But syncing to desktop computers is inexact. Meeting changes don't get forwarded to all parties. And getting calendars to stay in the same state is a pain, at least in my experience.

HTC Omni has addressed this problem and done a nice job with its Pocket Informant mobile-productivity suite for the iPhone. The software company built a nice bit of code that fully syncs the standard calendar functions, task lists and other data between mobile devices and desktops.

The product appears to be a good, solid step for small businesses trying to stay organized. Pretty handy little app.

ClearGuard from Moshi, $20.

This thing is so new that it is hard to get good photos of, but Moshi's ClearGuard is clearly a great idea. Basically, the ClearGuard is a $20, thin, translucent vinyl cover that slips over your laptop's keyboard to keep out all that nasty finger gunk. I don't know about you, but some simply awful stuff winds up in my machines.

This washable, durable rubber covering should end all that keyboard abuse. Better yet, my first impression was that the ClearGuard was well-engineered, had minimal effect on typing and did not seem to degrade, at least to start. I will report back about how well it holds up over time. But it is a nice idea.

MicroMemo for the Nano from XtremeMac, $30.

Just what the world needs: a better way to take dictation. But there is something oddly compelling about the MicroMemo, a microphone dock for your iPod Nano. This simple, portable docking microphone turns any basic iPod into a robust digital-voice recorder with controls, great download capacity and decent fidelity. I found this thing very handy in limited on-floor noodling. And it made me wonder if old-school dictation might just make a comeback with this thing. Watch out, admins, you may be getting a voice note sometime soon.
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.

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