For more than 30 years, Kevin Chuman has been monitoring the moisture content of soil for California vineyards, a crucial job for grape growers. Knowing when to irrigate, and when not to, can make the difference between a successful crop and a failed one. Up till now, his preferred tools have been “a shovel, a soil probe, and my eyes.” But he may be adding some new technology tools to that list.

Now the pest control advisor for Bronco Winery, maker of various popular wines including Charles Shaw (better known as "Two-Buck Chuck" to Trader Joe's bargain hunters), Chuman is deploying some very smart technology to stay current in a highly competitive market. Through the use of a network of soil sampling sensors, Chuman is able to monitor the moisture content in Bronco's vast vineyards through the Internet, right from his desk.

“We installed this system just last year, so this is the first full year it's been functioning," Chuman says. "We're tweaking the system and making it more and more accurate.”

Intelligent devices in your future

If you aren't using smart devices in your small or mid-size business yet, you soon might be. A study recently released by the Institute for the Future (IFTF) titled The Future of Small Business predicts a growing use of intelligent devices by small businesses. Among its several findings, the study states that “small businesses—traditionally late adopters of technology—will need to aggressively use new technologies to create, build, and market their products and services.”

The study says that small businesses need to increasingly turn to intelligent devices for such purposes as gaining customer insight and improving delivery of goods and services. The group defines these devices as “machines and products ... equipped with computing capabilities, digital storage, and sensors” and notes that sensors and radio frequency identification (RFID) are some examples that are growing more popular among businesses.

In fact this trend is already off to a big start. According to a January 2002 study conducted by Harbor Research, the number of intelligent devices networked for remote administration -- excluding telephones and personal computers -- is expected to exceed 500 million by 2010. One example is swimming pool companies that use sensor technology to alert them when a customers' pool needs attention, in some cases even fixing the problem automatically. This reduces the time technicians need to spend on monitoring, leading to a reduction in service calls.

Not all smart tech is ready for prime time

The IFTF study also mentions the widening use of RFID tags in many situations and its importance in years to come, but some business advisors aren't too keen on the use of RFID for smaller companies, at least at the moment. Patrick Cook, co-founder of the Small Business Technology Institute, who blogs about small business technology, feels that RFID is -- for now anyway -- a “non-event for small businesses.”

“The industry is still struggling to develop standards,” Cook said. “Wal-Mart is pushing for compliance of its specs, while the U.S. is out of sync with both European and Japanese standards, all of which drives the cost out of reach for most small businesses.” In the meantime, Cook feels that small businesses can gain by looking to more affordable technologies, like biometrics, GPS, and remote sensors.

Still, smart technology is turning up in unexpected places. As Chuman needs to monitor soil conditions across Bronco Winery's 4,500 acres of grape vines scattered throughout Madeira County, a vast area to manage, he's found that sensors help him do that from his desktop. “The sensors give me a heads-up on any potential problems," he says, "and it helps me target problem spots, which is great considering how many acres we have to monitor.”