Do You Need an iPad for Your Small Business?

Aside from a few niches, including publishing, Apple hasn’t been a huge player in the business market. For the past 20 years or so, small businesses have mostly chosen Windows-based PCs over Macs -- and Macs are, after all, more expensive.

Although it’s unlikely that any major changes are in store, Apple has opened a new front in the small-business market with the iPad. While many competing players head for the tablet-PC market, the iPad is the dominant player -- with a user base of 17 million.

The iPad in Small Business: Benefit
At least some of those users are small-business customers. In keeping with trends of recent years, though, end users in your organization and other small businesses are more likely to employ their iPad for both business and home use. With its keyboard-less form, the iPad isn’t likely to replace an office desktop PC; more likely, it will augment your end users’ desktop PC and fill a role somewhere between a smartphone and a laptop.

Nevertheless, the iPad has its advantages in a business setting. Consider these:

  • It helps you go green. Since the devices are meant to be toted around and shared, you can eliminate paper memos, notes and the like. Your business can cut paper costs and add green-initiative bonus points.
  • It offers flexibility. The nimbleness of the iPad creates possibilities for depth in presentations, particularly away from an office setting. It can perform tasks that might have been clunky with a standard laptop, like monitoring core business functions on the go and giving sales presentations. “If going out to, say, show or discuss a property with a potential client or show some photos, it seems like a great way to enrich the interaction,” says Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT in Hayward, Calif.
  • It saves you IT time. The iPad’s accessibility can save IT hours, as you’d now need to spend less time assisting less tech-savvy end users. The iPad can be employed for targeted tasks by workers who might not ordinarily use a laptop or PC, such as warehouse employees managing inventory.
  • It increases productivity. There may also be an unintended advantage to bringing the iPad into a small business environment: Because the device currently only runs one app at a time, it makes multitasking much harder, which, statistics show, could actually improve workers’ output.

That’s right: In addition to saving paper and dazzling potential clients, the iPad may make employees in your organization more productive.

The iPad in Small Business: Security Risks
That said, the iPad, like most mobile devices, presents a bit of risk in a business environment. “The fundamental issue with the iPad is if you’re storing data on it, the system itself is fairly weak at keeping data secure,” says Jack E. Gold, president and principal analyst at J. Gold Associates.

Nevertheless, Gold says that security risks for the iPad are relatively minimal. There is always the danger of losing a mobile device, and there’s the remote possibility users could download viruses through applications. You can take a number of steps to secure data on the iPad, including:

  • Require pass-code usage. Too often, mobile device users never bother to use a pass code. Apple lets you set strict pass-code policies.
  • Use the remote wipe command. This ensures that after a number of failed pass-code attempts, the access key to the device’s data is wiped.
  • Restrict use. You can prohibit end users from visiting certain sites such as YouTube or from installing apps through the iTunes store.
  • Keep up with updates. Make sure you install updates from Apple as the company patches vulnerabilities.

For most IT departments, it’s not a matter of whether you’ll support iPad use. It’s a matter of meeting the demand of end users who want to use it for business purposes. It’s up to IT to make sure that use doesn’t compromise security.

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iPad appears courtesy of Apple

The Drive for Real-time Collaboration

It's becoming a familiar scene in companies of all sizes: A team works closely together, jumping from instant messages to video conferences to over-the-phone meetings. They collaborate and accomplish goals side-by-side every day -- without ever actually meeting face-to-face.

Real-time collaboration tools not only connect teams more effectively, but also provide considerable cost savings to your organization. As a result, IT managers are increasingly recognizing the need for real-time collaboration among team members -- no matter their location. "The value of collaborating is about community. You have to be where people are to make it work," says Jon Arnold, an analyst and principal of J Arnold & Associates.

According to Ted Schadler of Forrester Research Inc., what’s driving the need is the growing trend of distributed organizations, the rising number of remote workers, and the upsurge of business-to-business teams. Here's what experts say you need to know about real-time collaboration tools and best practices for implementation:

1. Know the real-time collaboration tool landscape.
When it comes to real-time collaboration tools, the theme is "synchronous." Tools need to allow teams to truly communicate in real time. Among the real-time technologies becoming mainstays in many organizations are:

  • Advanced messaging. IM has grown beyond chat. Now, employees can send each other files without size limits, switch into video chatting or create a live conference with multiple co-workers on the spot

  • Smartphones. Employees can now stay seamlessly connected to their team via email, texting, document sharing and calls -- all on their smartphones

  • Screen sharing. These tools allow teams to actually see each other’s desktops at the same time. Some services even let you take control of someone else’s desktop, making it easy to work on projects at the same time, on the same screen

  • Virtual whiteboarding. The entire group can share a common sketchpad, easy for sharing ideas and files on a blank canvas

  • Telepresence or Web conferencing. Emerging telepresence tools create the illusion of teams interacting in the same room, even when they are miles apart. Webcams that enable one-on-one video conferencing also fall into this category. Many programs now offer recording features too, which are useful to play back later to note explicit directions and follow up with others

2. Know how tools solve common problems.
All teams don't need all real-time communication tools. And each communication tool does not need to have all the above features. The key is to offer and support the right mix that increases productivity (and ideally lowers costs) without creating distractions. "Look at key processes that can be improved by real-time collaboration," says Smith. "Maybe it's customer service -- like you can speed up the time it takes to answer clients.”

3. Know who is driving virtual collaboration.
Forrester recommends taking stock of so-called "alpha collaborators," or employees who are already using collaboration tools. “They are your greatest resource for identifying new tools, driving adoption and testing new scenarios," reports Forrester.

For employees, the expectations for real-time collaboration tools will only continue to expand. “People are living with these tools in their personal life,” says Arnold. “And they are bringing those expectations to the workplace."

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Hang Onto People Who’ll Help You Advance

Murky employment statistics don’t change one truth for IT departments across the country: Companies are still projecting shortages of qualified IT workers, so hanging on to good employees is more critical than ever.

If you want to advance, you need a quality workforce that makes you look good when it comes to handling projects and day-to-day operations. The first mistake you can make is to think keeping these employees happy is not your problem, says CEO Mark Murphy of Leadership IQ, a training and research center based in Washington, D.C., that teaches executive and management best practices.

“It has been easier for leaders to outsource retention to HR and say ‘That’s an HR issue,’” says Murphy, co-author of The Deadly Sins of Employee Retention. “Every company on Earth says, ‘People are our most important assets.’ But they spend more time monitoring the copy machine as an asset than they do their people.”

You need to think creatively to retain a skilled IT workforce, say Murphy and other experts. Here are strategies worth embracing:

  1. ID your best people. Knowing and understanding your current staff is critical, says Murphy. A Leadership IQ study found that a staggering 47 percent of high performers are actively seeking other jobs. Step one in keeping those employees is identifying them. Create an individual action plan for each of these workers.

  2. Make it personal. “Your retention practices really need to meet individual needs,” says Lily Mok, a research vice president in CIO workforce management for Gartner, an IT research and consulting firm. Understand that while one worker might value flexible hours and workdays, another might prefer the option of telecommuting when it’s feasible.

  3. Provide diverse experiences. Young workers enjoy the excitement of trying different opportunities that help them develop a diverse, marketable skill set. If you follow a traditional set schedule, expecting a young employee to advance in two or three years, the employee will likely leave. “If you miss the window, they’re going to look for opportunities elsewhere,” says Mok.

  4. Conduct "stay" interviews. An annual review isn’t enough to stay on top of an employee’s satisfaction level, say Mok and Murphy. And certainly, an exit interview is too late, since that employee you trust is already headed out the door. Mok recommends a “stay” interview instead. Take the time to talk to your employees about their job satisfaction and concerns. “It could be as simple as a 20-minute conversation once a month,” says Murphy.

  5. Meet pay expectations. The bottom line is still, well, the bottom line. “Money still talks,” says Mok. “When people start looking elsewhere is when they realize their value is not recognized in an organization.” Mok recommends regularly benchmarking pay positions against industry standards to retain competitiveness.

Ultimately, retaining the workers who’ll help your own career is primarily about what Murphy calls “softer” issues. “Our high performers want to work on teams with great people; they want to know the manager has their back,” he says. “It’s really about understanding.”

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Is NFC Technology the Next Big Thing for Business?

IT professionals, get ready for yet another acronym you’ll need to learn, implement and secure: NFC.

Near-field communication, while not new, is becoming a hot buzzword among tech-savvy consumers and businesses alike. This short-range wireless radio technology can turn a smartphone into a digital wallet, but that’s just one of many potential uses.

Some industry experts predict NFC will be the next big thing. And if it is, you might be the one who has to ensure your company is securely integrating the technology.

What Exactly Is NFC?

Here’s a scenario in the not-too-distant future: A customer walks into your store and swipes his smartphone near the cash register’s terminal to complete a transaction. Then, on a nearby bus shelter, he swipes his smartphone against a movie poster to download the trailer to the upcoming film. Later, he sees a friend on the street, and she tells him about her new job. The two swipe smartphones to exchange up-to-date contact info.

This is the promise of NFC, and with major smartphone platforms like BlackBerry, Android and iPhone onboard, it could soon be a quick and convenient way for your customers to buy goods and services. Note: Apple hasn’t officially confirmed iPhone 5 will have NFCs, but analysts say it’s more than likely.

When Will NFC Go Mainstream?

Many experts agree that NFC is an exciting alternative to QR codes, but a few obstacles must be overcome before the technology can be deployed by the mainstream.

“NFC is the one Holy Grail-like technology most likely to make the long-held promise of the electronic wallet a reality,” says Carmi Levy an independent technology analyst based in London, Ontario. “Companies in all sectors, including retailers, financial services organizations and mobile carriers, are all salivating at the prospect of NFC-enabled smartphones that make paying for something as quick and easy as sending a text message.”

Tim Bajarin, president of the Creative Strategies Inc. tech consultancy in Campbell, Calif., agrees that NFC has a lot of positive buzz -- especially among businesses. “There are a lot of uses for NFC -- from getting you into doors at the office, which has been around for many years, to commerce, where things really get interesting.”

NFC Brings New Security Concerns

As with all new forms of wireless connectivity, security is NFC’s Achilles’ heel, says Levy.

“Any time vendors add new ways to seamlessly move data on and off of a mobile device, it’s only a matter of time before hackers and criminals figure out a way to exploit that new capability,” he cautions. “The fact that NFC will be a staple of the next generation of smartphones makes it an even more likely security target.”

NFC’s saving grace might be its relatively short range. The technology works within about 8 inches, so it will be more difficult for criminals to position attacks, explains Levy.

Security isn’t the only challenge that has prevented NFC’s rapid adoption so far. Levy and Bajarin both make mention that the technology lacks a unified standard.

Integrating NFC

If your business works in retail, you certainly don’t want to be behind the curve when it comes to NFC. Now is the time to educate yourself about potential options. It’s smart to talk to your existing transaction terminal vendor, advises Bajarin.

“I’d start by asking your existing credit or debit terminal vendor if they support NFC, and if so, what standards are they backing and what banks are they working with,” says Bajarin.

But even if your business isn’t a retail operation, you’ll have to think about NFC. Because NFC doesn’t require a PIN code, you’ll need to educate employees about the need to immediately freeze financial accounts if a smartphone is lost or stolen. And you’ll need to have a game plan to remotely wipe devices in the case of vulnerable data.

And as with most emerging technologies, you’re better off planning while NFC is the next big thing, rather than scrambling when demand hits.

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Are Free Public Wi-Fi Networks Safe?

You already have plenty on your plate, whether you are implementing and maintaining technology, helping to resolve technical issues or ensuring your company’s data is safe and secure. Now, you can add the proliferation of rogue free public Wi-Fi networks to that list.

Free Wi-Fi connections can be tempting for traveling employees. And hey, you can’t blame them, as one less item on an expense report can make them look better -- especially if your company is tightening its belt. But talking to them about the risks can help protect them -- and you.

How Rogue Free Public Wi-Fi Works
Tech-savvy thieves are taking advantage of users’ thirst for constant connectivity. “The basic idea is someone in vicinity has created a ‘free Wi-Fi network’ that you connect to, but in doing so, you’re allowing them to tap into your info, access your files and possibly steal your personal identity too,” says Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies, a tech consultancy in Campbell, Calif.

“These ‘rogue’ networks are really individuals who have software to hack into your systems -- and because the majority of people’s laptops are not protected, they’re a lot more susceptible than they think.”

In fact, New York-based independent security consultant Dino A. Dai Zovi says he and a colleague, Shane Macaulay, authored a tool called KARMA to demonstrate the risk of unprotected wireless networks. “KARMA acts as a promiscuous access point that masquerades itself as a wireless network,” explains Dai Zovi. “It makes the victim connect to our rogue wireless network automatically.”

Rogue operators will often craft network names similar to the name of the hotel or the coffee shop where your end user is attempting to connect. One careless click and your data is exposed.

Scary stuff. So, what to do?

Tips for Safer Surfing on Free Public Wi-Fi
You’ve got your work cut out for you, and it starts with employee awareness, say the experts. Consider these steps:

  • Avoid free public Wi-Fi. Caution employees to steer clear of freebies. “When I go to hotel, I make sure they have a wired [Ethernet] connection,” says Bajarin. “And if I want to go wireless on my laptop or other devices in my hotel room, I bring an Airport Express with me,” he adds, referring to Apple’s compact wireless router.
  • Be efficient. If you or your end users can’t avoid a free public Wi-Fi network, “get on, get what you need and get off -- and don’t do any financial things until you’re back at home," cautions Bajarin.
  • Use VPN. Only use free public Wi-Fi if you have VPN (Virtual Private Network) access, says Dai Zovi. “Otherwise, everything you do can be easily monitored by anyone nearby.” Citing recent Firesheep attacks, Zovi says that even password-based networks can be attacked by malicious types. Firesheep is an extension for the Firefox browser that can grab your login credentials for sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
  • Give employees your own connection. Another option for mobile workers is to use WAN-enabled laptops, USB sticks with cellular connectivity or to create a mobile hotspot through a smartphone or tablet.
  • Use security software. Make sure all security software is updated regularly, enable firewalls and give employees a means to encrypt sensitive data.

Only through education, secured connections and some common sense can your employees keep personal and professional data safe from cyber-snoopers, waiting to attack through a free public Wi-Fi.

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