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Office IT, from Mad Men to Now and Beyond


Sexist comments. Bourbon at 10 a.m. Lighting up a Pall Mall whenever you want. No, this isn't the Mets locker room. It's the way of life on the TV show Mad Men, and boy, did those guys at Sterling Cooper (the show's fictional advertising firm) have it made. No one cared about cancer. All the secretaries and stewardesses had hourglass figures. And if you were Senior Partner Roger Sterling, you could even pinch one of their tushes with impunity.

How times change. The only tush I can pinch is my dog's. And he's not happy about it, either. I have to steal my drinks from a flask in the men's room. And smoking those Pall Malls? I'll leave that to the President.

But most of us who work in an office have noticed something else on Mad Men: the technology shift. Gone are those big, black phones. Also those IBM (IBM) typewriters. A copy machine was new technology then. If Don Draper, the firm's creative director, was suddenly transported to today's office, he would be shocked by how much of the technology that he used every day in 1963 is long gone.

Would the same be true of a business owner from today hypothetically transported ahead 50 years? Try five years. Because in just that short amount of time, a lot of the technology we use now won't be around, at least not as much. So if you're thinking of investing in something new, you may want to consider a few technologies that are changing right before our eyes.

Macs Invade the Office Let's start with Macs. Apple (AAPL) technology is gaining traction in the workplace. There's a whole new generation of workers weaned on Macbooks hitting the job market. In a recent survey of 750 businesses by research firm Information Technology Intelligence, 73% of respondents said they were more likely to let their users deploy a Mac as their enterprise desktop within the next six to 12 months. That's up from 68% a year earlier.

And a whole new generation of technology helps you run Macs on Windows-based networks or even run Windows and Mac operating systems side by side. Investing in this stuff is becoming less taboo in the business world. The IBM typewriter moved over for the PC, and the PC is slowly but surely sharing space with Mac. And oh, if you're going to buy a PC, make sure it's not running Windows XP or Windows Vista. Because in just a few years all you're going to see is Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows 7 dominating the desktop—or you'll see Google's (GOOG) Chrome or the open-source Linux system. In any case, today's operating system will be yesterday's news.

While you're looking forward, forget about anything wired. Companies are putting in wireless routers and using wireless modems over cables. They're getting wireless headsets, keyboards, mouses, printers, and monitors. We may all end up with brain cancer within the next decade. But at least we'll be able to undergo chemotherapy "hands free." Thanks, Bluetooth!

Presentation tools are also going to change. In Mad Men, the account team has to put on a big presentation with storyboards during a face-to-face meeting with the client. Now we have the Internet, projectors, PowerPoint presentations, and Cisco Systems (CSCO) Web conferencing tools.

Phones Will Have Everything Unless it's an emergency, I wouldn't even buy a new projector. Computer makers and even cell-phone manufacturers such as LG plan to build mini-projectors right into their units. And you know that stupid speaker box on the conference room table that everyone's shouting at so the guy in Hong Kong can understand what's going on at the meeting? Say goodbye to that, too. Computers are being turned into phones, complete with conference-calling capability.

When Don Draper went to California on a business trip last season, no one could reach him for days. Not that he cared to be reached, seeing as he was cheating on his wife. It's a different story now. I see lots of business owners buying GPS devices for their service techs in the field. Don't. They're going to be on all our cell phones sooner rather than later, and you'll be using those old GPS devices as shuffleboard disks.

If Don were traveling just a few years ago, he'd be dragging his laptop full of digital information. That's changing, too. Carrying around data is out. Web access is in. Today's road warriors carry netbooks. I'm not crazy about them, but some people love very low-level laptops and doing everything online. The technology is real and popular and becoming the norm.

One final thing that's going to change in the office: the size of the office. At Sterling Cooper, every manager had an assistant (they called them secretaries back then). Today we have a single person employed as the administrator and doing the work of many. The office will continue to shrink over the next five years. Remote control and desktop-sharing technology let people work from home and abroad. Web sites like Guru and Elance let us find people to do ad hoc work around the world. Hosted applications let us share data wherever we are. Sterling Cooper would look a lot different today, and in five years, than it did in the early '60s.

The characters on Mad Men have no idea what terrible things lie ahead: a President assassinated, race riots, the Vietnam War, Sonny & Cher. And, with the exception of Newt Gingrich's potential run for the White House, our future doesn't look so terrible. Especially when it comes to business technology. So spend wisely.
Gene_marks
Gene Marks, CPA, is the owner of the Marks Group, which sells customer relationship, service, and financial management tools to small and midsize businesses. Marks is the author of four best-selling small business books and writes the popular "Penny Pincher's Almanac" syndicated column. He frequently speaks to business groups on penny-pinching topics. More penny-pinching advice from Marks can be found at www.quickerbetterwiser.com.

Steve Ballmer, Power Forward
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