More small businesses are picking up mobile technology than ever. By the end of 2012, nearly half of companies with fewer than 500 employees will use a smartphone, notebook, or tablet computer to run some part of their operation, predicts technology industry organization CompTIA. And although adoption will be slower among companies with fewer than 10 people on staff, close to one-quarter will go mobile during that same time frame.
With mobile-technology developments flying fast and furious this year, here are five trends to watch, plus two you can ignore (for now).
Trends to Watch
- Tablet computer adoption: Most technology predictions are overestimates. In the case of tablet computers, however, it’s the opposite: Researcher IDC boosted its forecast for the category by 18.4 million units in March; it now expects shipments of 106.1 million for 2012. Separate data from Newtek Business Services suggests 55 percent of small businesses are considering a tablet, slightly more than those evaluating notebook computers. Many tablets are purchased personally, but their owners also use them for professional purposes, such as accessing corporate email or logging into business-related cloud services like Salesforce.com. The net effect is that tablets will force small businesses to face up to security and access issues. They will also open the doors to new applications that let you reach out and support customers in ways not previously possible.
- Commerce on the run: You’ll continue to read plenty of mixed messages about the adoption of mobile payment technology. Market research firm Gartner estimated the number of mobile-payment users worldwide topped 141 million in 2011, which was an increase of almost 40 percent over 2010. Yet awareness of the category is still low. Trevor Dryer, Intuit group manager of product management (who’s responsible for mobile payments and point-of-sale technology), estimates awareness among small business is at about 10 percent. “Now we’re seeing it start to move up,” Dryer says. “Businesses that used to have a credit card terminal are switching to mobile payments because it is cheaper, convenient, and provides other benefits.” Mobile-payment technology also enables small businesses to track sales trends more closely and to target their marketing and customer outreach. In particular, follow geolocation technology, which can alert you when specific customers enter — or are in the vicinity of — your business.
- Customer service anytime, anywhere: Speaking of customers, there are two ways you can expect mobile technology to affect customer service and support. In a pre-sales context, more small retail businesses are using tablets to interact more meaningfully with customers on the sales floor. New York surfboard shop Saturday’s Surf, for example, uses the Apple iPad to show off inventory that it can’t keep on display in its storefront due to limited space. Mobile technology will also allow you and your team to respond to issues much more quickly than in the past. By configuring phone systems to forward incoming calls to smartphones, small businesses can extend beyond traditional hours of support. The downside is that the lines between personal and professional lives will blur even further.
- Web visits via smartphones and tablet computers: Almost one-third of U.S. consumers sneak a peek at smartphones while shopping to see if they can find a better deal, according to a 2011 study by PowerReviews. More than twice that number use tablets to research products from their couch, notes a separate survey by Forrester Research. That means small businesses need to pay far more attention to optimizing their websites for visits via a mobile device by making navigation simpler, streamlining graphics, and giving precedence to certain data (such as your phone number, address, directions, and other frequently requested information).
- Mobile video consumption: Consumption of video on mobile devices may be awful for your wireless data-plan bill, but that hasn’t really slowed the trend. Approximately 28 percent of smartphone users watch a video at least once per month, estimated an Experian Marketing report published in early April, “The 2012 Digital Marketer.” That trend has implications for the way your employees collaborate — users with mobile devices can now be included as part of videoconference calls. Mobile video also offers a new messaging vehicle for small businesses to reach always-connected consumers via video vignettes.
Trends to Ignore
- Voice Recognition: State and federal regulations about texting while behind the wheel may eventually drive more of us to use voice-control software, but applications such as Siri and Google Voice are still novelties. That’s because accuracy still remains questionable, especially in situations rife with ambient noise.
- Ultrabooks: You would also do well during 2012 to avoid computers marketed under the “ultrabook” moniker. Although there are clear guidelines around the category, as defined by Intel, it will be at least 12 to 18 months before features coalesce and you can make apples-to-apples comparisons. Ultrabooks also are likely to depend on the success of Windows 8, which is not expected to hit the market until summertime at the earliest.