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

A Game Plan for Protecting Stored Data

An effective data security policy is critical now more than ever, as data is increasingly stored in a variety of devices. But even though IT decision-makers put stringent security strategies in place to patch operating systems, secure the perimeters of the network and protect data, breaches are everyday news. The potential harm involved, in terms of negative press and financial losses, when companies lose laptops, backup tapes and other devices containing private information can be staggering.

To prevent theft of sensitive assets, it’s critical to follow security best practices and adhere to a set data security policy. Here’s what to consider when creating one for your company.

Use the Right Technologies
As the Yankee Group has observed, storage networks are becoming more complex and have matured to the point of requiring additional perimeter and internal security services to ensure data integrity. In addition to encryption, IT decision-makers should consider implementing the following:

  • Access controls. Corporations must institute data security policies regarding who can access databases. Monitoring software is also key -- it helps track who has accessed data.
  • Filtering software. Tools from various vendors help you watch the way content is accessed -- via email, instant message and file transfer protocol (FTP), for example -- and inspect the content for policy violations. Some tools block or quarantine violations, and others offer the ability to block outbound email.

Put a Strategy in Place
To protect corporate data, your strategy should focus on physical access controls, data network transport protection, host defenses, and system and application authorization, says Rich Mogull, director of research for the Gartner Group.

In addition, you should perform regular audits of your security practices. You should also establish a specific policy for protecting data, data management, backup and audit frequency. It is important too to consider internal access to corporate data: Gartner estimates that 70 percent of security incidents that cause loss involve insiders.

Determine How the Data Should Be Protected 
Extremely sensitive data, such as confidential customer information and credit card numbers, should be encrypted before being designated for storage. Not all data must be encrypted, however, according to Mogull. “Use encryption to protect only data that moves physically or electronically, or to enforce segregation of duties for administrators -- for example, encrypting credit card numbers in a database to prevent database administrators from seeing them," he says.

Ensure Compliance
Companies in certain industries, such as health care, must ensure that their data backup, storage and recovery policies comply with government regulations. The Gramm-Leach-Billey Act and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) require more stringent corporate governance and controls. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act requires corporations to be financially accountable; it doesn't specify the amount of time specific data should be stored or how, but because it does require integrity of data, it motivates IT executives to determine their own policies and be more vigilant about backing up and storing corporate information.

Apple's MacBook Air: A Review for Small Business

At first glance, Apple’s recently upgraded MacBook Air looks no different than the model launched last September.

It’s what’s under the hood that’s garnering the most attention. That and the fact that it’s the first to ship preloaded with OS X Lion, the latest operating system refresh, which adds a number of new features and improvements over its predecessors.

The new MacBook Air is available with an 11-inch LED display (from $999) or a 13-inch one (from $1,299). As with last year’s models, the MacBook Air is just 0.11 inch at its thinnest point and 0.68 inch at its thickest, and it weighs only 2.38 pounds for the 11-inch model (just under 3 pounds for the 13-incher).

A Tool for the Mobile Worker
Because it’s thinner and lighter than most other laptops, it’s ideal for on-the-go businesses -- not to mention it delivers up to seven hours of battery life for the 13-inch version (up to five for the 11-inch). The large, multi-touch glass trackpad is still the best in the industry, especially with all the new gestures added to the OS X Lion platform to help you get more done in less time.

Instead of a hard drive, the MacBook Air models use Flash memory -- similar to what’s inside an iPad -- yielding faster startup times and data access, better battery performance and lighter weight. Flash memory is more durable than a hard drive, but it can’t store as much data as a hard drive. The MacBook Airs start at 64 GB and go up to 256 GB (the latter for $1,599). Even with 256 GB of memory, this is only about half the storage offered by most hard drive-based laptops.

If you do a lot of work in the cloud -- that is, accessing, sharing and collaborating on files stored in cyberspace -- a Flash-based computer may be all you need. But if you need to carry around a lot of files, you may opt for a small external hard drive to use when needed.

Speedy, but No Optical Drive
The new Intel Core i5 and Core i7 dual-core processors are about twice as fast as last year’s models -- which were no slouch either. Aside from the entry-level MacBook Air ($999), which has 2 GB of system memory (RAM), the others have been upgraded to 4 GB of RAM (at 1333 MHz); all machines offer Intel HD Graphics 3000 technology instead of a dedicated video card. For the purposes of this review, I put the old and new 13-inch MacBook Airs side by side and launched and ran the same programs at the same time. Without question, the new MacBook Air was much speedier. (Note: I also updated the older MacBook Air to Lion to compare apples to apples.)

Another issue for some might be the MacBook Air’s lack of an optical drive. Therefore, you can’t load CD-ROM software, play a DVD or burn to a recordable disc.

New Thunderbolt Technology
Also new is a high-speed Thunderbolt port on the right side of the MacBook Air. Thunderbolt allows for incredibly fast transfer speeds between compatible devices (up to 10 gigabits per second, or about 20 times faster than USB 2.0), plus it can also be used to connect high-definition displays, such as monitors and televisions. There aren’t many other Thunderbolt peripherals yet, and it might be some time before we see them.

The new MacBook Airs include a built-in FaceTime camera, so you can make video calls with those on an iPhone 4, new iPod Touch or Mac.

Is It for You?

MacBook Airs aren’t the cheapest solution around. For example, the 13-inch MacBook Air with Core i5 (1.7GHz), 4 GB memory and 128 GB Flash storage costs $1,299. But you can buy a new Dell Inspiron with Core i5 (2.3 GHz), 6 GB memory and 640 GB hard drive for $649.99 (with a DVD drive too). But the Dell weighs 5.4 pounds, is 1.4-inches thick and mostly plastic (compared to the more durable aluminum of the MacBook Air). Plus, there’s an argument to be made about the operating system reliability and vulnerability, Thunderbolt I/O, backlit keys and the differences in trackpads.

However, the MacBook Air is not for everyone, especially if your business runs on Windows software or requires an optical drive. Only after you assess your needs and budget can you decide which laptop to invest in for you and your employees. One thing is clear, though, about this product: Although it’s not flawless, Apple has once again struck an excellent balance between mobility and performance, and is giving its legions of users even more power and features with which to play.

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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."

Photo Credit: @iStockphoto.com/alexsl

Why IT Drives Success in Business

Combine all the belt-tightening in a down economy with an increasing shift toward the cloud, and you might think IT isn’t as relevant today to small business as it was just a few years ago. But in fact, IT is a critical component to driving success, especially given the growing number of malware and other threats, an increased reliance on mobility, and adoption of more consumer devices into almost every business.

“Not investing in IT infrastructure or applications is a mistake,” says Terence Hall, communications coordinator and senior network engineer at BDPA New York, a nonprofit organization for professionals in computer science and IT. “There can be a large expenditure for maintaining IT, but many companies are now offering lower-cost solutions for SMBs. And if software licensing is an issue, open-source software is a great solution.”

Mark E. White, principal and CTO at Deloitte Consulting LLP, agrees: “Most, if not all, businesses need information technology because it’s an enabler to their business -- if not a competitive weapon.” And while you might not need data centers or seem to have the funds, there are smart and cost-effective ways to leverage IT.

Leverage the Cloud

Leveraging cloud sources might mean streamlining IT, notes Hall. But it also means small businesses will find IT more accessible and cost-effective. White agrees that a trusted public cloud provider is an ideal consideration, allowing you to experiment with little risk.

“The cloud has created an opportunity for a CIO or head of IT to do some research and experimentation on a small scale, to try it out first,” explains White. “While large corporations might be able to deploy pilots and prototypes and other research projects, small enterprise very seldom has that capacity. Cloud services let SMBs seek innovation through experimentation.”

Cloud services let you “plan big, start small, fail fast (if the business realizes it’s not for them) and scale soon,” notes White.

View IT as an Investment

The challenge for IT decision-makers in small- to midsized businesses can be convincing management of the critical importance of technology. “Small businesses don’t always appreciate the value of IT as much as they should,” says Carmi Levy, an independent technology analyst based in London, Ontario. “In what is possibly the most pervasive and damaging form of modern-day myopia, they often see technology as a cost and not as an opportunity.”

Smaller organizations need to jump on the IT-as-investment bandwagon as solutions are becoming simpler to implement and more cost-effective, says Levy. “Organizational size is no longer an excuse for limiting IT investment, as companies that deliberately hold back on using technology to drive their business forward will be outcompeted, often by even smaller, more agile organizations that have adapted their culture accordingly.”

What IT Looks Like Today

A well-functioning small business IT department today should be looking to maximize its staff. For instance, Levy notes that transitioning email and messaging from a manual labor-intensive server to a cloud service will free staff to work on other more innovative business solutions. IT might use a cloud solution that lets a sales force operate seamlessly via smartphones and tablets.

The typical IT department these days is also dealing with the growing challenge of “bring your own device” or the consumerization of IT, notes Hall. Managing the deployment of personal devices can provide cost savings. “This can benefit companies by eliminating the need to deploy BlackBerrys or other mobile devices, thus saving money -- if those personal devices can be managed to protect company information,” says Hall.

IT is just as relevant today as it was yesterday -- if not more so. Small-scale experimentation, embracing the cloud and adopting smart and secure mobile services to streamline communications can all help your business remain productive, protected and competitive.

Photo Credit: @iStockphoto.com/skodonnell