The New-Technology Crib Sheet
Baffled about B2B versus P2P? Can't tell a WAP from an ASP? Never fear. Here's a basic IT primer for anyone who thinks Bluetooth is a swashbuckling pirate
It happens to everyone, sooner or later. Techno-Panic.
Say you're meeting with a vendor or a customer and someone casually drops the latest tech buzzword into the conversation. You've heard the term before, but you're not quite sure what it means. What do you do? Are you confident enough to stop and ask for a definition and risk looking foolish in front of your staff? Or do you let it pass and risk letting the conversation get deeper into the topic, leaving you further and further in the dark?
Technology can be pretty complicated, especially if you're not in a technology-related field. You may not need a maven's grasp of the latest whiz-bang application, but you definitely want to know about technologies that will make your business more competitive.
To help you in your technology quest, we've assembled a crib sheet, including a plain-English description of each technology, as well as our bottom-line take on whether you really need to care.
Application Service Provider (ASP)
What is it? Not a new technology, an ASP is just a different delivery model for something you're already using: software. ASPs offer access to software applications and functions over the Internet. Customers usually pay a monthly fee for Web access to applications maintained and hosted on the ASP's equipment.
What's the big deal? Going with an ASP erases the headache of buying a software license, installing the software on your own hardware, and taking care of routine upgrades and maintenance. The ASP performs all those tasks for you. And it's much cheaper to use the service than it is to buy the software or hardware -- at least in the short term. Many gurus believe the ASP model is the future of software delivery, since it guarantees vendors an ongoing revenue stream and saves customers the up-front labor and expense of implementing software programs themselves.
What's it good for? You can outsource almost any aspect of your technical operation and software needs to an ASP: E-commerce functions, sales and order processing, accounting, payroll -- you name it.
What'll it cost me? Costs are all over the map, depending on what you're outsourcing. At the low end, Intuit's QuickBooks for the Web starts at $14.95 a month. The more robust packages -- such as accounting, finance, payroll, and time-and-billing applications -- typically run between $100 and $150 a month.
Is it soup yet? Many ASPs have folded in the past 18 months, a trend that's sure to continue. You might want to stick with the well-known brand names until the dust settles. But don't even dream of trying an ASP unless you have a high-speed, always-on Internet connection such as a cable modem or at least a souped-up phone line called a digital subscriber line (DSL). Dialing up every time you want to access your information is no fun.
Should I care? Absolutely. ASPs represent the end of packaged software as we know it.
--Lauren Gibbons Paul
What is it? Bluetooth is a wireless technology that operates over radio waves. The technology's promoters say that Bluetooth will allow all your electronic devices to "talk" with one another without messy cable connections.
What's the big deal? Bluetooth is expected to eliminate the tangle of wires behind computers and the jumble of connections from cellular phones, laptops, PDAs, and the like. The technology is being developed as an international standard (by companies like IBM, Nokia, Intel, and 3Com, among about 2,000 others) so that devices that work in New York City will also work in Singapore.
What can I use it for? Imagine syncing your Palm Vx with your PC without having to put it into its charger cradle. Or linking your laptop to your office network from any hotel room -- whether it's business friendly or not. Or printing a photo from your digital camera just by wandering by a Bluetooth-enabled printer and hitting "Print." Of course, those scenarios are all in the future. For now, Bluetooth usage is pretty much limited to a few phones, some laptops, and some pocket PCs.
What'll it cost me? Bluetooth add-on cards that convert some existing laptops and PDAs into Bluetooth devices are available for $100 to $250. The prices are expected to tumble as more Bluetooth applications come on the market, attracting more users.
Is it soup yet? Definitely not. Some analysts are predicting that within 18 months, Bluetooth will be standard fare. But to date the technology remains impractical for the average user. If Bluetooth ever delivers on its promises, though, the results could be quite exciting.
Should I care? For now, no. But Bluetooth is a technology worth waiting for. Corporate pilot projects are under way worldwide, but the technology isn't yet practical for a small-business environment.
--Michelle Bates Deakin
What is it? Broadband is an always-on high-speed Internet connection, more than five times as fast as a 56K dial-up modem. Broadband access generally arrives through a cable modem or a DSL, as well as through a satellite connection.
What's the big deal? The pundits have been promising broadband -- specifically with regard to the bandwidth-hogging applications that it would enable, like streaming video -- almost since the Internet revolution began. And they still insist that once broadband is more widely deployed, it could redefine the Internet, telecommunications, and entertainment industries -- and quite possibly even revive the tech sector.
What can I use it for? With a broadband connection, you can send and receive large data files faster than you can with a dial-up connection. Broadband also lets you add spiffy animation features to your Web site -- assuming, of course, that your visitors have sufficient bandwidth to accommodate those spiffy features.
What'll it cost me? Not an arm and a leg. But at $40 to $70 a month, broadband is certainly more expensive than the cost of an additional phone line, roughly $20 a month.
Is it soup yet? If you like your soup lukewarm. The broadband revolution has started with more of a pop than a bang. For now, broadband is generally limited to densely populated areas. Spotty installation and service on the part of providers have hampered deployment, so it can take months to get hooked up with cable or DSL. Also, a string of DSL providers have landed in financial hot water. Still, industry experts believe broadband will catch on over the next few years as service woes get sorted out and users recognize its potential.
Should I care? Definitely. Time, as they say, is money.
Business-to-Business (B2B) exchanges
What is it? B2B exchanges, also known as "E-hubs" or "Net marketplaces," bring suppliers and buyers together online through automated purchasing transactions. The hope was that the exchanges would offer both buyers and sellers the ability to reach the widest possible audience.
What's the big deal? B2B enthusiasts touted virtual marketplaces as one-stop shops where participants could find up-to-date information, meet new business partners, and close deals faster than ever before. Online automation would mean that a few clicks of the mouse would supplant piles of paperwork, as well as endless phone calls and faxes.
What can I use it for? Buyers can check and purchase from an up-to-the-minute listing of your inventory while you simultaneously track which suppliers have the right product at the best price. With everything online, you have access to market conditions, pricing indexes, inventory listings, delivery schedules, and other critical data that allow you to make informed decisions -- say, filling a last-minute order at a discount from sellers looking to unload excess inventory.
What'll it cost me? Membership fees are the most common charge. For instance, contractorhub.com, an exchange for building contractors and suppliers, charges buyers a $125 monthly fee, and other exchanges are even pricier. Transaction fees (which range from less than 1% to about 8%) run a close second to membership costs. Many of the exchanges charge for extras like technical consulting, inventory-management software, online storage space, and maintenance. An exchange might also request that you provide an online catalog to push your product information to a buyer's site, which could run you $10,000 to $20,000 in software-consulting fees.
Is it soup yet? During the past few years, there's been a mad rush of exchanges popping up across a wide range of industries, but lately they've been shutting down just as fast. Early attempts at automation have been too clunky for most participants to experience true savings. In addition, a lot of the exchanges have targeted firmly entrenched industries with recalcitrant players that have resisted doing electronically what has been working so well for them the old-fashioned way.
Should I care? When their growing pains ease, B2B exchanges may just start fulfilling all that outlandish potential.
Customer-Relationship Management (CRM)
What is it? CRM is a set of software functions that, in theory, tie together every part of your business that interacts with your customers. The idea is that when anyone from sales, customer support, or accounting deals with a customer, all the information about that interaction gets organized in one place.
What's the big deal? Large companies have been using CRM for years in the belief that it results in happier customers, better word of mouth, and -- most important -- more sales.
What's it good for? CRM systems put a customer's history right on the screen for your employees. Sales teams have more ammunition about customers' past behavior or complaints. The marketing department can find potential repeat business more efficiently, reducing customer- acquisition costs. Such systems can even proactively disseminate information to your customers -- about a shipment delay, for example, or a service-agreement expiration.
What'll it cost me? You mean beyond the headache of persuading each department to modify its behavior? The monetary cost is usually determined by the number of users and the size of the package. A full-scale solution can cost $250,000; a simple customer-tracking database can cost $5,000. After that, expect to spend at least $1,000 per user a year on an ongoing basis.
Is it soup yet? The good news is that, having been around since the early 1990s, many CRM systems are quite good and getting better. The bad news is that as more must-have capabilities pop up -- remote PDA access, E-commerce tracking, and such -- implementation becomes more complicated and time-consuming.
Should I care? Absolutely, and the sooner the better. The long-term value of CRM is an easy sell to most small-business owners, but it's a lot easier to install a system while you're small, before individual departments have become entrenched.
--David S. Bernstein
Peer-to-Peer (P2P) networks
What is it? You've probably heard of Napster, most likely regarding its voluminous legal problems. Well, Napster is one example of P2P technology at work. Basically, P2P subverts the old client/server model by allowing computers to connect to one another directly without any intervening server or network. The P2P connection lets users exchange information (in Napster's case, digital music files) in real time.
What's the big deal? P2P brings computers together, making it easier for far-flung individuals to work together. With today's worker likely to be anywhere, there's great promise in something that facilitates on-the-fly collaboration -- allowing, for instance, a group of employees to form ad hoc workgroups regardless of their location. Companies like General Electric and Intel, among others, are testing versions of P2P to help manage their supply-chain projects.
What can I use it for? P2P collaborative software creates a virtual meeting space. Say a New York City manufacturing company is looking to negotiate a new sales contract with its Texas vendors. Instead of relying on E-mail, faxes, or phones to negotiate and exchange information, a company using P2P software can interact in real time, allowing staff to move important documents, communicate using virtual whiteboards, and coordinate calendars, all without ever leaving the office.
What'll it cost me? Installing and setting up a P2P system will run the typical small business anywhere from $30 to $140 per user a month. Groove, currently the in-vogue P2P software, offers a free preview edition on its site, www.groove.net.
Is it soup yet? The jury's still out on P2P. Numerous existing technologies -- like extranets, intranets, E-mail, and instant messaging -- can be used to achieve similar results. And P2P has been shrouded in security concerns. Viruses become more dangerous when an unknown number of external users have direct access to PCs in your organization, increasing the threat of contamination. And for hackers, P2P is an unlocked door.
Should I care? Someday perhaps, but not now. Better collaboration is a worthy goal, but not at the expense of security, especially when there are less risky alternatives. Today, though, there's no need to feel uneasy in your P2P-less office. Sometime down the road, however, you may want to get your Groove on.
Sales-Force Automation (SFA)
What is it? SFA software pulls together customer information for your salespeople (so that they can sell better) and for your sales managers (so that they can manage better). That means that salespeople, and perhaps others in your company, need to get used to entering customer information into the system regularly.
What's the big deal? Large companies have been using client/serverbased SFA systems for some time now, but the cost of the software, plus the implementation and maintenance effort, ran to about $2,000 per user a year, so the return for small companies was rarely worth the cost. The alternative was ACT, a popular contact-management product, but that type of software did not allow the sharing of information. About two years ago two companies -- SalesForce.com and UpShot.com -- introduced Web-based alternatives to the old client/server models. They've brought the cost and headache way down and the return on investment way up for companies with as few as a handful of salespeople.
What can I use it for? You can automate such things as customer contacts, purchase history, follow-up scheduling, leads, and more, so your salespeople will always have the right information at their fingertips. Also, new salespeople can step into old accounts with ease. SFA systems also provide an excellent trail when things go wrong with an account and you need to know why -- whether for internal or legal reasons. Perhaps best of all, sales managers can assess leads themselves and not simply rely on salespeople, who can sometimes give self-serving assessments.
What'll it cost me? Expect ongoing costs of $50 and up per user for either of the popular Web-based products. That's way below the price for client/server systems, as mentioned above.
Is it soup yet? Yes. The Web-based systems have been put to the test at enough sites both large and small that you can feel confident that they'll keep solid records and be easily accessible without huge maintenance headaches. The one problem is modification. The current systems are pretty inflexible -- it's not easy to change the data fields and the reporting structure assumed by the system. So if your sales structure is unusual, try taking a 30-day free trial.
Should I care? Absolutely. In fact, small companies that investigated and rejected SFA four years ago should give it another look. The functionality remains similar, but the ROI looks much better these days.
What is it? Streaming lets you watch a video while it's being downloaded from the Internet, rather than having to download the whole file to your computer's hard drive before viewing it.
What's the big deal? Streaming video has the potential to let your communications pack more punch. Imagine that you're trying to rally far-flung employees. An E-mail or a voice message might be fine, but a video message could carry more weight and emotion. Video can showcase your product or service to your customers in a way that no other medium can.
What can I use it for? Well, the early adopters have come from the, uh, adult-entertainment industry. But B2B applications are doing reasonably well, too. Tighter corporate travel budgets have been a boon to the streaming industry. Large companies in particular are using streaming video to broadcast training seminars and interoffice meetings to widely scattered employees. But streaming hasn't yet caught on with smaller businesses because of the cost and complexity.
What'll it cost me? A lot. Producing and broadcasting a half-hour event averages about $13,000 -- and that's for a bare-bones project.
Is it soup yet? Nope. Before streaming video can hit critical mass, more people need to have more bandwidth. The hope is that high-speed connections will eventually eliminate the jerky movements that have plagued early online-video efforts.
Should I care? Keep your antenna up. Eventually, streaming video should prove of great use in promoting and advertising products on the Web. But small businesses are probably looking at a period of at least two to three years before the potential audience is large enough to warrant the necessary investment.
Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP)
What is it? VOIP is a new breed of phone service that operates over the Internet. The technology allows you to use your computer as a telephone or use the Internet to transmit your call over ordinary phone lines.
What's the big deal? VOIP bypasses AT&T, Sprint, and MCI for long-distance calling. That means you can place domestic calls that are either free or cost mere pennies a minute, and international rates are almost as low. VOIP is also a step toward the geek dream of "convergence," a technological nirvana in which Web, E-mail, phone, fax, radio, and TV come together in one device. That's big enough for Microsoft to promise phone features in its next operating system.
What can I use it for? You can cut your phone bill substantially, especially if you have branch offices, multiple call centers, or overseas customers. Flexibility is another plus. Instead of calling the phone company to order special features, you can reconfigure your phone service as often as you like over the Web -- for example, screening out a persistent bill collector or forwarding only your best customer's call to your cell phone.
What'll it cost me? Pricing is volatile, variable, and not regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. You can download Net2Phone's software at no charge, with free calls and rates of less than 5¢ a minute for many international calls. If you plan to use VOIP to replace your office phones, for instance, Voicenet Communications, in Philadelphia, starts with a $160 hardware fee plus a $19.95-per-line activation fee and a $9.95 basic monthly fee for each line.
Is it soup yet? Not if you expect to dial 911 on your telephone and actually get someone. Most VOIPs have yet to link up with emergency call centers. Sound quality ranges from very good to barely audible. Billions of dollars are being spent on better infrastructure. Plan to keep a regular phone line as a backup in case your provider folds or the electricity goes out.
Should I care? If not now, soon. VOIP cuts costs, and flexible features can make small companies sound bigger than they are. VOIP also promises to reduce the expense and bother of administering a traditional phone system -- unless you like waiting for the phone company to install new lines every time you reorganize your staff.
--Jane Salodof MacNeil
What is it? Voice-recognition technology enables a computer to understand spoken words. You talk to the computer in an office, car, or over a phone line, and the computer reacts appropriately.
What's the big deal? Talk is cheap, and for many people it's easier than typing into a keyboard or pushing buttons on a touch-tone phone. If you like to multitask, voice-recognition software can free your hands. For example, while driving your car, you could tell your handheld computer to search the Internet for directions. Voice recognition has the potential to change how we relate to anything that can be powered by a chip.
What can I use it for? Voice-recognition technology can answer your phone and route your calls, which is great if you have a call center or a service department that gets a lot of routine inquiries. Two-way communication is still heavily scripted, with callers asked to fill in the blanks. But you'll most likely need fewer employees, so your costs could plummet, from as much as $6 for every call that an employee answers to as little as 30¢. You can also buy software to make your computer respond to voice commands, as well as dictation software that will turn your spoken words into a Microsoft Word document.
What'll it cost me? That depends on the application, the vendor, and how much custom programming is necessary. SpeechWorks International, based in Boston, has a basic package for answering and routing calls that starts at about $30,000 plus a 15%-of-cost annual maintenance contract. Large calling centers can cost $250,000. For voice-enabled word processing, you could pay anywhere from $30 for a basic package to $995 for software that understands legalese.
Is it soup yet? Yes, but advances are needed before voice recognition has enough flavor to appeal to everyone. Right now voice recognition is 97% to 99% accurate in recognizing basic language. The technology can handle regional accents and standard variations of most major tongues. But it's still learning grammar and has problems with lingual hybrids like Spanglish.
Should I care? Only if your business receives a lot of predictable calls or has employees who have repetitive-motion problems like carpal tunnel syndrome. Otherwise, be skeptical until applications promise a meaningful effect on your business.
Wireless Application Protocol (WAP)
What is it? WAP lets people use wireless phones, pagers, and other handheld devices to receive E-mail and view some Web pages.
What's the big deal? WAP-enabled devices were expected to eliminate the need to carry separate items for voice communications, E-mail management, and Web surfing. The hope was that WAP phones would help the online-buying craze go mobile, fueling the nation's need for anytime, anywhere "M-commerce" (or "mobile commerce") by enabling users to make Web purchases directly from their cell phones.
What's it good for? With a WAP phone, users can look up restaurant or movie listings on the road and even buy movie tickets or the latest books or CDs. But if you're not selling stuff directly to consumers, WAP's B2B applications so far have been limited. Some businesses are providing their sales representatives with WAP phones for accessing up-to-the-minute information while on customer visits.
What'll it cost me? The devices cost between $150 and $300, but as the phones get better, they are also expected to get cheaper. And during that time their potential business applications should come into sharper focus.
Is it soup yet? The first versions of WAP phones have been roundly criticized. Apparently people don't really need anytime, anywhere M-commerce capabilities. And even if they did, the technology has been notoriously slow and cumbersome, requiring users to click through a dozen tiny screens and wait five minutes to do something as simple as look up a stock quote online. Disappointed users have been abandoning WAP phones in droves. But WAP wonks are hoping that the next generation of phones, which should be available within 12 to 24 months, will fulfill the technology's early promise.
Should I care? Maybe. Even WAP's proponents acknowledge that the technology is not yet ready for prime time. It's worth keeping an eye on, but it's probably not yet worth investing in for your business.
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