Investors may have just faced their worst 12 months since the invention of talking pictures. But 2008 has proved a banner year -- if not
banner year -- for small business tools.
With no more than a whimper, once-impenetrable monopoly of
Office software is officially broken. Now, tools from players like
and dozens of others offer most of the same functions at far lower cost. In some cases, even for free.
These new tools have revolutionized not only the creation of documents but the handling of information. Now project management products like
all offer unheard of collaboration and connectivity to even the smallest businesses.
And this shift has taken place in a world of ever-cheaper small business gadgets and network access. Now
and pretty soon even
will offer entry-level laptops that provide reasonable performance starting at just $350. And they can connect to the web -- if imperfectly -- basically anywhere in the world.
And all that has taken place inside an explosion in portable devices. Suddenly business-class mobile gadgets are chic. The iPhone from
, the G1 from
Research In Motion's
Blackberry Storm from
and the Samsung Touch from
for example, are driving the entire mobile marketplace in terms of style and features
Here, then, are my picks for what was hot in this hottest of all years for small business tech tools.
Business Mobile Device of the Year:
$299 with plan from AT&T
I can hear the wailing from the iPhone faithful. But for the vast majority of small businesses -- which run Windows -- there ere is simply no mobile match right now for the BlackBerry Bold. The device is pricy at $300. But for the money, you get not only a smartphone, but a legitimate laptop replacement.
This baby does it all. The beveled keys optimize data entry to handle real text jobs. Its newly improved operating system offers dead easy email integration, mobile riffs of Microsoft Word and Excel, nice communication, video and other multimedia support. The Bold's VGA screen is perfectly suited to watch movies. And with an expansion slot that can support 32 GB of content, you'll be able to carry a decent collection.
var config = new Array(); config<BRACKET>"videoId"</BRACKET> = 1887841052; config<BRACKET>"playerTag"</BRACKET> = "TSCM Embedded Video Player"; config<BRACKET>"autoStart"</BRACKET> = false; config<BRACKET>"preloadBackColor"</BRACKET> = "#FFFFFF"; config<BRACKET>"useOverlayMenu"</BRACKET> = "false"; config<BRACKET>"width"</BRACKET> = 265; config<BRACKET>"height"</BRACKET> = 255; config<BRACKET>"playerId"</BRACKET> = 1243645856; createExperience(config, 8);
The unit isn't perfect. I missed a touchscreen, which is by now a mobile standard. And your Outlook e-mail folders are not supported unless your business supports pricey Microsoft Exchange servers.
But still, for the crackberry addict -- and I know you're out there -- the Bold is state of the art. Get one. You'll thank me for it.
Best Online Office Productivity Tool:
Plans are free to start, $50 per year per user for more storage and features
It is fashionable right now to swoon over Google's online productivity tools. But I will warn you: expect some maddening features with this software. The code blurs the line between your staff's personal Google identities and their online work selves, which can be frustrating.
Also, Google always is upgrading, whether you want to or not. So change is real and continuous. And you will still need some sort of desktop-based productivity software to be fully functional. There are too many feature limitations to rely totally on Google Apps.
But even given these flaws, Google Apps is the must do small-business productivity and information management as of now. It offers live document collaboration, fully collaborative calendaring and online wiki, Web sites, as well as terrific mobile integration and many,
other features. As confusing as it can be to use, your shop simply must use Google Apps.
Best Sleeper Gadget:
Viewsonic PJ359W Projector
$888 street price
In the year of the $350 business laptop computer, how does a projector make the list? For the money, this unit offers the best bang for the buck.
I, like all nerds, love netbooks like the Dell Inspiron Mini 9, the H-P Mini 1000, the Samsung MC-10 or the MSI Wind. But is there a single winner? No. If you're looking for a quick and dirty tech upgrade, check out those models. But the "best" one will depend on your needs.
Much more compelling, and singular, is this new projector from ViewSonic. The 359W is not the most portable projector by a long shot. It's about the size of a John Le Carre hardcover, and weighs about four pounds. But versatility and usability make up for the bulk.
This unit produces a 2,000-lumen, 1080p-image, which is impressive for a system of this size and cost. This sort of performance was about three times that just last year.
The unit supports true HDMI 1.3 and most other video formats, which means this baby will take just about any video output from a PC or DVD player. Which in turn means, for your money, you get a presentation tool for your sales people; a neat imaging system for a retail environment; and maybe the best way to throw the NCAA Men's Basketball tourney on the wall so you can be a mench for a change. Come March believe me, you're people are going to need a little TLC.
All these tools should help hang in there, keep moving and make the best choices you can.
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.