Technology

The Apps Small Biz Needs Now


Want to get rich? The company that gives small business owners the tools they need to work smarter and faster will be the next Google

Why doesn't someone invent clothing with very small, powerful magnetic material woven in? That way all the clothes teenagers leave strewn about the house could be automatically pulled toward a designated laundry basket.

Or what about a central trash system, like central plumbing, where all refuse gets whisked away to some underground recycling facility inhabited only by the alligators of urban mythology. Someone should definitely invent that, too.

These technologies would make our personal lives easier. And what about life at work? As a small business owner, I admit I have benefited from some great technologies that help me do things quicker and better. But by nature I'm never really satisfied. I want more. And there's a lot of room for improvement.

Here are a few technologies I feel could help business owners run their businesses more profitably. Would someone please get to work on them?

1. Google Reports

Hey, Google! Want to really take over the world? Once you're done with that little phone project, why don't you turn your attention to reports. You guys are experts in search, right? Well, help us search our databases! All the software applications we buy seem to make this a mystery. We get canned reports that don't answer all of our questions. We don't have time to figure out how to create our own reports. We don't want to mess with report writers. And we don't want to pay those overpriced consultants to write reports for us. We're simple-minded folk. Reporting is a major pain in the butt.

Give us a report interface like Google's (GOOG) home page. Let us type in a few keywords, like "John" and "March sales," and let us see a report of John's sales for March. Or "overdue orders" and let us see at a glance where we're behind. I understand that each application is structured differently, and I know this won't be easy. But you already went to the trouble of indexing all those billions of Web pages and taking photos of the inside of my bathroom for Google Earth. How about something a little more, well, helpful? I'll even watch your ads—as long as I'm getting the information I need quickly.

2. Computers That Just Turn On

Where's the outrage? We pick up the phone—and it's on. We click the TV remote—and the boob tube comes to life. We start the car—and it's ready to roll. We turn on the computer—and we watch our fingernails grow. Forget mortgage-backed securities. I'm pretty sure our current recession is caused by the buildup of unproductive time as we wait for our computers to start up. And—amazingly—it keeps getting slower, not faster. Can someone please address this issue? We've got better things to do.

3. Immediate Data on the Web

Tony is a simple man with a simple request. He wants a place online where his customers can check their open and closed orders. That way they wouldn't have to call his office to ask questions they could answer themselves. It would save time for him and his customers. Poor, naive Tony. His simple request turned into an expensive adventure. He invested in accounting software with so-called portal capability, which lets outsiders access a system through a portal. He invested in servers to host the data in a "demilitarized zone" that would let certain external users access company data. He had to hire those expensive, obnoxious, punk-rock IT people to set it all up (and support it when it stopped working). "Does this have to be so complicated and expensive?" Tony cried. Apparently so.

Tony's not trying to end terrorism or stop the spread of AIDS. He doesn't want to purchase more hardware and create an international incident by placing it in a demilitarized zone. He just wants a simple—and more important, inexpensive—way to provide data online to his customers. Anyone?…Bueller?

4. RFID Already

Radio Frequency ID (RFID) has been promoted as a huge step toward managing inventory. With chips embedded in a product's packaging, physical inventories that once took days could be done in a matter of minutes just by broadcasting a signal that says "Hey, if you're on the shelf, send back a beep!" Processing time would become much more automatic as inventory is shipped. Inventory levels could be checked quickly and reorders made automatically. Tracking inventory would be a snap as long as its RFID chip is talking to a global positioning system. Business owners spend so much time and money accounting for their inventory that any change in how it's done would be a benefit.

So let's go already! The technology is there, it's expanding, and the cost is coming down—but not fast enough. Just ask Wal-Mart (WMT). We could be saving a ton of dough if this technology were inexpensive enough to deploy. Isn't there a country to invade with cheap resources to develop this? Let's think out of the box and get this technology into the hands of small and large businesses.

5. Voice Recognition That Works

Imagine that when you call Visa (V) customer service you can just speak your credit-card number to the automated attendant and it'll be repeated back to you. Impressive stuff. Of course, being asked for the same frigging number five minutes later when the human gets on the phone takes us back a few decades.

Such annoyances aside, voice-recognition technology has come a long way. Big businesses are deploying it successfully. But what about us guys down here? There are some nice off-the-shelf products like Nuance Communications' (NUAN) Dragon Naturally Speaking that can translate even my wife's screeching into a legible Word document. But I don't see many small businesses really taking advantage of voice recognition. Sales guys are still hunting and pecking to do a quote. Order-entry people are keying in orders. Invoices are still being typed up. When will there be an inexpensive voice-recognition interface for popular small-business applications like Intuit's (INTU) QuickBooks or FrontRange Solutions' GoldMine? When will we be able to easily create a voice interface for our custom applications, too? Figure that one out, and you can buy Visa, or at least a piece of it, yourself!


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