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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How to Captivate Your Audience (Instruction 101, Part II)

You have to give a presentation, and you find yourself wondering: “Will anyone be listening to what I say?” With time and attention in such short supply, it’s easy enough to imagine audience members checking their email, napping or, worst of all, tweeting to each other about what a snooze your presentation is.

You can avoid this by knowing how to engage your audience from beginning. Here are six tips from the experts for keeping your audience hooked during any presentation:

1. Make it interactive. Even though you’ve wisely done your homework and know what your audience is looking for, start by asking some questions. “It shows interest from your side,” says Lawrence Burgee, department chair of The Division of Information Technology at Stevenson University. “If I go home to my spouse, it’s better for me to say ‘How was your day?’ instead of just telling her about my day. It works for business associates too.”

Besides, you may learn something you need to know. John Proffitt, senior consultant at the computer support company Design-PT, was conducting a training session on a new phone system with many different features recently. He mentioned in passing that the system would allow users to send calls to a “parking lot,” where any other user could pick up the call. The audience responded immediately. “I had thought I understood how they handled calls, but I didn’t realize this would be a big hit,” he says. “I had to let the students teach me.”

2. Get buy-in. You do this by explaining up-front what your audience will learn during your session, and how this new information will benefit them. “I’ve seen too many presentations where a geeky person launches right into walking the audience through the technical information,” says Burgee. “You have to build rapport first by letting them know you’re there to help them.”

3. Speak plain English. If your audience is non-technical, they won’t react well to technology terms, even those that seem completely clear to you. “It’s easy to be passionate about new technology and wind up talking over people’s heads,” says Mike Scheuermann, associate vice president of Instructional Technology Support at Drexel University. “Showing passion is good, but you have to put yourself in the shoes of your audience.”

4. Remember to “chunk.” Most people can only assimilate information in limited amounts at one time. That may be 15 minutes or half an hour or more, depending on the subject matter. You can help them by taking breaks at regular intervals and dividing your information into modules that the audience can focus on one at a time.

5. Get feedback. Asking the audience to fill out an evaluation form is a great way to find out if you succeeded in engaging their interest. Burgee also recommends following the session with lunch or some other informal gathering. “You get a lot of valuable feedback that way.”

6. Follow up one-on-one. “If I can, I walk around the location right after the class or later that day,” says Proffitt. “You can catch people one-on-one and say, ‘Is there anything you didn’t understand?’ They can ask the questions they thought were too stupid to ask in front of everyone else.”

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Can Video Help Your Small Business?

Video has become a killer app for small-to-midsized businesses. You can now use live video conferencing and collaboration between remote employees, provide streaming video for websites and social networks, and more.

“Video is indeed becoming more pervasive in the enterprise,” says Phil Karcher, a researcher at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass. “Tools like online video platforms make it easy for marketers to embed video on their websites and syndicate content to their YouTube and Facebook pages.”

However, there are a few challenges in keeping up with the Joneses -- from taxing network resources to privacy and security concerns. Is video really worth it for your business? Consider the following:

The Value of Video
Even though it takes some planning on the part of IT, Forrester Research says your business can’t afford not to embrace online video. Video is 53 times more likely to appear on the first page of search results than text-related pages on the same topic.

Unlike television, radio and newspapers, online video also lives forever, is forever searchable and helps create a personal connection with the viewer, as it can generate discussion and debate between commenters. As opposed to other media, Internet video can also be viewed whenever, wherever -- whether the viewer uses a computer, a smartphone, a tablet, a portable media player or an Internet-connected television.

Video Conference for Productivity
Companies are also recognizing the added value of video conferencing, says John Bartlett, principal of NetForecast, a consulting firm that benchmarks, analyzes and helps improve performance of networked data, voice and video apps. “It’s a better way to establish and enhance a relationship,” says Bartlett. “Video enables the ability to read body language when communicating with a client and provides a more efficient way to collaborate with colleagues.”

However, video conferencing presents a bigger issue for your network, says Karcher. “The major gating factor is the network’s ability to handle two-way video, which is more sensitive than one-way streaming video,” explains Karcher. “Desktop videoconferencing puts a lot of pressure on the network backbone, therefore companies that add more video to the network need to think about tools to manage bandwidth and assure reliable performance.”

Choosing a Network for Your Video Needs
Depending on your company’s needs, size and budget, you’ll have to decide if a regular Ethernet connection can handle everything, or if you should invest in a dedicated enterprise-grade pipe to handle your business’s video and other applications.

“Companies need to understand the impact on the network,” explains Bartlett. “If Skype is acceptable to you, then your regular broadband connection might be fine. But an enterprise network, while more expensive, will give you more bandwidth and better-quality video.”

Privacy and Security Concerns for Video
Don’t embrace video without a security strategy in place, cautions Bartlett. You’ll need a secure firewall, and you must “consider tools or services for encrypting video calls so the man in the middle can’t listen in,” he says. “You need to think of how it affects content management, compliance and security -- and you will need tools to search, secure, track and report on video too.”

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Protect Your Company’s Bank Account

Here's a sobering thought for anyone who has a small business account: If your account gets hacked and thieves break in, you're not going to get your money back.

Unlike consumers, small businesses are on their own. The FDIC does not insure small business bank accounts for cybertheft (although it does insure them for other types of theft up to $100,000).

That's particularly bad news because cybertheft is on the rise. Tom Kellerman, vice president of security awareness for ethical hacking firm Core Security, says falsified wire transfers -- the primary type of small business account hacking -- is up 500 percent in the last two years.

The good news is there are some things you the IT decision-maker can do to lower the odds of a break-in. In particular: 

  • Limit the use of wireless. Kellerman says that wireless is a "very easy access point" for hackers. Best not to use wireless at all, but if you need to, use equipment adhering to the 802.11.i IEEE standard.
  • Move away from passwords. Even the best passwords aren't as secure as alternatives like tokens or biometrics. Tokens, which are physical objects like smart cards, are best paired with passwords to prevent fraud. Biometrics, using a fingerprint or voice, are unique to a particular user. (But of course, if you have a Trojan already lodged in your PC, such protection won't offer any help.)
  • Segregate your company’s banking data. Severely limit Web browsing on the PC that connects to your company’s bank account. Anton Chuvakin, principal of Security Warrior Consulting, takes this a step further and suggests that you have one PC on hand that just connects to your bank account and does nothing else. It’s worth it: The price of one PC (under $500) can completely protect your company from having its account hacked.

If Nothing Else, Be Smart
Security analysts say the best thing you can do is educate yourself and any other employees who might access the account on the dangers of phishing scams and Trojans. Since a Trojan causes mischief by lodging itself on your computer, the goal is to not allow that in the first place. So remind users to be extremely cautious about opening any suspicious email, particularly if it's sent over a social network.

Kellerman says that even fairly sophisticated users can be taken in by so-called “spear phishing” attacks, which mimic websites or email addresses of people with whom you do business. So a good way to minimize the risks of such attacks is to limit the amount of people and PCs allowed to access banking information. IT’s rep is on the line if data is stolen, so take control of access points. Says Kellerman: “There’s no point in administration privileges if you’re going to have it for a bunch of devices.”

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Instruction 101, Part I: Get Your Message Across

It’s a moment many geeks dread. At some point in your career, it’s likely you’ll have to teach your peers -- or worse, your non-technical co-workers or customers -- about a new technology.

Doing so can be a real boost to your career, not only because it gives you great visibility within your organization -- and sometimes beyond it -- but also because it will help you increase your expertise. “You never truly master something until you teach it to someone else,” says Jeremiah Dunham, president of the IT support company Design-PT and an adjunct professor at the University of Alaska in Anchorage.

Teaching is daunting, especially if you’ve never done it before. Here are four keys to making sure you come across like a pro:

1. Know your audience. Find out who’s likely to be there, and most important, what they’ll want to learn from you. This is especially vital when teaching a non-technical audience about technology. You may love the new technology or product for its elegant design and functionality, but that’s unlikely to matter to a lay audience that will only want to know how the product can help them do their jobs more easily, increase revenues or save the company money. They may also be worried that newer, more efficient technology will result in layoffs, so make sure you’re sensitive to those concerns.

2. Set the stage. Finding the right location for your teaching session can be tricky. You want a setting where you won’t be interrupted or distracted by nearby noise. “A lab type of environment, where everyone has their own computer, is the most effective setting if you’re teaching a new piece of software,” notes Dunham.

Always visit the room beforehand. “If you’re in a new venue, you need to check out every aspect of it: room size, chair arrangement, lighting, acoustics and any technology you’re going to use,” says Mike Scheuermann, associate vice president of Instructional Technology Support at Drexel University. “If you have a glitch because you didn’t prepare, you can undermine your own effectiveness.”

3. Dress the part. Your audience will feel more comfortable with you, and thus be more receptive to what you say, if your attire reflects theirs. In most cases, this means that you, as a geek, will have to look more formal than usual. But the reverse can also be true.

Early in his career, Lawrence Burgee, department chair of Information Systems at Stevenson University had to make a presentation to 500 public utility workers. He arrived dressed for business, as was required in the company’s headquarters offices, where he worked. But the utility workers, who spent their time out in the field, were wearing jeans and T-shirts. “As I walked through the door, I heard one audience member tell his neighbor, ‘Here comes another suit!’” Burgee recalls. “I set the wrong tone by dressing wrong.”

4. Plan to record. “We encourage everyone we deal with to at least consider recording their presentations,” says Scheuermann. “It provides a great benefit for audience members to be able to go over the material again, whether or not they attended the session face-to-face. There are vast numbers of technologies that let you record with different feature sets, and the less expensive ones can be just as effective. It’s a best practice to always make a recording.”

Mastering these steps should give you as much confidence in your presentation skills as you have in your tech know-how.

Coming next month: “Instruction 101, Part II: Keep Your Audience Engaged.”

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