Smart phones have been around for quite a while -- since circa 1999. California-based Qualcomm, just before selling its mobile phones division to Kyocera, created the category with its “pdQ,” a palm pilot blended with a cell phone radio that enjoyed limited success due to its bulkiness, but kicked off the idea of having mobile phones be one and the same with your digital organizer. The concept today has entered the mainstream. The latest generation of integrated mobile phones, embodied by the iPhone, is a lot more than just a PDA with a phone; these models are ubiquitous kaleidoscopes displaying a whole new dimension of our communications, entertainment and information worlds.


How relevant are smart phones for your small business?


With a little bit of self-discipline and clear boundaries between professional and personal life, they can be outstanding tools: I have used exclusively smart phones since 1999 and they have afforded me incredible advantages. They can be very powerful to keep you on top of your business anywhere you are, increase your responsiveness and reliability, allow for higher flexibility in your balance of work/life. Although -- beware -- they can also induce you to be “always on” and kill your precious down time.


The key features beneficial to businesses that smart phone provide are:


  • Synchronization of calendars, contacts, tasks, and notes with most personal information management (PIM) software such as Outlook, ACT or Goldmine. This feature has been the biggest advantage of smart phones since they were introduced. Whatever contacts, appointments, tasks, or notes you have on your computer are replicated and synchronized with your phone. If you need to replace the phone it takes just a few minutes to re-synchronize your entire data set and have again all of your information available.
  • Detailed knowledge of who is calling you. Thanks to caller ID, when you receive a call if the caller’s number is in your contact base the full details of the caller will appear on the screen.
  • View and edit documents. Most smart phones come with software that allows for last minute edits to documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. With the right cable, or via Bluetooth, most can even connect directly to a digital projector and display a presentation with no need for a PC.

With subscription to data plans allowing you for mobile Internet connectivity smart phones can do a lot more. If you subscribe to a data plan you can send and receive e-mail directly to your smart phone. A number of different technologies today keep your smart phone e-mail and desktop e-mail fully synchronized, so that what you send or receive while on the road is fully reflected when you get back to your computer.


In addition, data plans allow you to access the Internet. Web browsers available in smart phones are becoming fully compliant with all the various technologies used for Web content delivery -- the iPhone already allows for native browsing of standard websites -- but most sites have special version formatted for mobile phone browsing (e.g. Google, Yahoo, eTrade).


You can also utilize Web-connected applications on your smart phone with a data plan. A simple example is Google maps, a software application that runs on your smart phone and pulls the map data live from the Internet, allowing you to get driving directions, find businesses and more.


If these features can make a difference in your professional life, a smart phone is for you. Beware though that not all smart phones are created equal. Here are a few key elements that can make the difference between a valuable business tool and just another digital toy:


  • Bluetooth is paramount. Keep you hands free with a wireless headset, sync with your PC without cables, link to digital projectors.
  • Great battery life. Once you get hooked on your smart phone you’ll rely on it quite heavily. No battery, no phone. Get one that lasts -- and get a second one anyway.
  • Good speakerphone. It’s likely that your smart phone will become your primary, if not your only phone. There will be times when you’ll need to put calls on speakerphone, and if the quality of the sound is not good, it will be very frustrating.
  • 3G support. AT&T, Verizon and Sprint now have 3G capability in their networks providing really fast data connections. T-Mobile is in deployment phase and should be up and running by year end.

Become more flexible and productive with a Web-connected smart phone, but please remember to keep your downtime for yourself and your family. E-mail can wait sometimes on evenings or weekends, but your kids won’t.


Andrea Peiro is president and CEO of the Small Business Technology Institute, a non-profit organization created to foster the adoption of information technologies among small businesses.