What new technologies and technological developments will the coming year bring? More importantly, are there new technologies that can help contribute to your business success?

To find out, we talked with futurists from a range of research institutions to get their take on the most important new developments the coming year will bring. Taken together, their comments reveal five major technological trends that can help you run your business better in 2008:

1. The iPhone makes mobile mainstream. There’s no question that mobile technology has already transformed the way many businesspeople, and businesses, operate. But, expect to see this trend gain even more power in 2008, thanks in part to the popularity of the Apple iPhone, released with a great deal of hoopla this past June. “We’re on a continuum, moving more and more toward the use of handheld devices,” explains Anita Campbell, editor of the online newsletter Small Business Trends, and an IncTechnology.com columnist. “We’ve picked up speed for that transition because the iPhone makes it sexy and interesting. It’s made entrepreneurs, who are also consumers, much more aware of using their phones to surf the Internet.”

“iPhones -- and all kinds of smart phones -- allow small businesses to work in a much more coordinated way,” notes Anthony Townsend, research director at the Institute for the Future, a Palo Alto, Calif. think tank. He adds that some small companies have been able to expand more rapidly because mobile technology allowed their leaders to coordinate larger teams, even when they themselves were out of the office. “Entrepreneurs can be in the field, working with clients or scouting new opportunities,” he says. “They don’t have to be fixed in one location.”

2. Real $$ from virtual worlds. The U.S. dollar may be struggling against other major currencies, but Second Life dollars are doing just fine. Though many people still think of virtual worlds such as Second Life as elaborate fun and games, there’s real business going on there. For one thing, the virtual world has spawned a legion of entrepreneurs who design digital artifacts, buildings and islands for virtual worlds and sell them for actual cash. “No one got rich on gold in the California gold rush, but plenty of people got rich selling picks and shovels,” Townsend says. “This is the same principle.”

Beyond offering opportunities for digital designers, virtual worlds offer new ways for small and mid-size companies to connect with potential customers and/or employees. “Retail companies are setting up prototype stores to see whether people will come in and how they’ll interact in the space,” Townsend says.

“Some companies use virtual reality to run meetings,” adds Jay Jamrog, senior vice president, research at the Institute for Corporate Productivity. "I’ve seen companies set up virtual tours for new recruits and potential recruits -- it’s something young people like.”

Although use of virtual worlds is sure to grow in 2008, it may be another year or two before it really comes into its own, he notes. “It requires a lot of bandwidth and graphics, and the scalability isn’t there yet,” he says. And it just looks like too much fun.  “There’s a danger that if you’re in Second Life, and your boss comes by and glances over your shoulder, it may appear that you’re playing games at work.”

3. Search becomes mobile, and local. In a report published earlier this year, Institute for the Future researchers noted that traditional advertising to audiences whether they want the ad or not is increasingly ineffective. The report cites a Yankelovich study in which 65 percent of Americans say they feel “constantly bombarded” with ads and marketing messages, and thus are ever more inured to them.

Smart companies skip the marketing blitz and instead look to reach customers just when they want information, using search engine optimization or advertising via programs like Google’s AdWords. In 2008, more and more of these searches will be from phones, or handheld devices. And users will often be seeking a business or service that’s geographically nearby.

“Think about optimizing your website for mobile viewers and iPhone layouts,” Campbell advises. “And don’t forget the simple and free stuff. For instance, make sure your business is listed accurately in local search engines and applications that are integrated with mobile search, such as Google Maps and Yahoo Local.”

4. Software helps with hiring and firing. We’re accustomed to applications that help us with mathematical tasks such as accounting, payroll and inventory management. But can applications help with high-touch activities such as hiring and managing employees? Absolutely, says Kevin Oakes, Institute for Corporate Productivity CEO. “As it gets harder to find people with the right talents, companies are turning to technology to help them with people issues,” he explains.

Integrated talent management applications go way beyond helping just with recruitment and hiring, he adds. “It also allows companies to automate performance assessment, which many companies just do with text documents.” Once hiring and performance data is collected, he adds, that data can be transmitted to learning management systems to help managers later on with such tasks as succession planning.

5. On-demand software and outsourcing create opportunities for very small businesses. On-demand software (also called software-as-a-service or SaaS) has been growing for the past few years and shows no sign of slowing. The growing availability of hosted software, combined with outsourcing opportunities and lessening costs for such things as telephone service means more opportunities for tinier companies than ever before. For example, Campbell says her company outsources research to India that it could not afford to do in the United States.

“New technologies have opened up the range of people who can operate small businesses,” Townsend says. “So we’ve been seeing a marked, long-term rise in the proportion of the economy in that segment. More people are able to run businesses part-time, or turn their hobbies into businesses. And all this infrastructure allows them to do it cost-effectively.”