Take a look around your office. Pay particular attention to the computers that are running your key business functions, such as accounting and sales. If you’re anything like 90% of the businesses I have encountered, the most important functions within your business will be running on the oldest computers. And for a very good reason: your core business software was the stuff that was installed in the very early days, and moving the software from one computer to another is usually outside the capability of most small business owners. The fact is that the most important software for our businesses usually run on the oldest, and most failure prone, hardware.
If we are going to modernise your business, one of the things that we need to address is this problem. How do you make sure that the most important software is always available on the most reliable hardware? And while we are at it, it may also be a good idea to examine if we need this software running on more than one device, for more than one person, or even available to you when you are outside of the office.
The good news is, there are now many new forms of computing devices and new ways of accessing software, that mitigate the problems. Imagine being able to simply pick up an outdated and failing desktop computer, throw it out, then plonk down a new device and start working on your accounts or sales almost immediately… all without having to install lots of software or worrying about what files were saved where. Achieving this capability is one of our aims for this series… but getting to this small business nirvana involves some smart choices.
The first of these choices is to consider what sort of computing device will replace the current desktop. There is now so much to choose from!
Over the past few years – and the last 12 months in particular - we have seen many new types of light, highly portable devices come on the market. iPads, smartphones, e-book readers, Android tablets, netbooks, ultra-thin notebooks, touch-screen flip-tops, are all examples of the myriad of new devices hitting the market. While all of these devices a wonderful and have their place, not all will be right for YOU or your business.
Before we talk about how you choose, let’s do a stocktake of what computing devices are now available, and the benefits and limitations of each.
Desktops: These are the traditional computers that sit under or on top of your desk and they are not exactly portable. The price gap between desktop computers and laptops has closed considerably, so cost is no longer really an issue when choosing between a desktop and a laptop. However, a desktop computer will generally outlast laptops (and all other mobile devices) by several years, making them cheaper in the long run. They also can have much larger screens, making them easier and more comfortable to use for long hours. Of course, their big drawback is they are fixed to a single spot.
Laptops and notebooks: Laptops, or notebooks, have merged to be more or less the same sort of device, although notebook computers (with screens around 15”) are often slightly smaller than their laptop counterparts (with screens up to 17”). Laptops and notebooks no longer sacrifice computing power for portability when compared to desktops and it is fair to say that all are more than capable of performing all of the important functions of a small business. Their real advantage is that you can take a laptop home or on the road, so running your business can be done from anywhere. Unfortunately, laptops are far more prone to be broken or fail than a desktop (precisely because they are mobile).
Netbooks: Netbooks are miniature portable computers, with keyboards that are between 75% and 85% of the size of a standard keyboard, and with small, lower power screens. Their small size makes them very easy to carry around, yet also makes them a little difficult to work on. But they are cheap! Frankly, I would keep clear of a netbook for running important business software, because the ultrabook is a far better option…
Ultrabooks: Ultrabooks are a relatively new breed of mobile computer. They leverage the design improvements of tablet computers (thin, bright screens, lightning-fast solid-state drives, etc), but retain all of the power of a laptop. The result is a full-function computer that can run business software well, that starts up immediately (like a tablet) and that is very portable. The downside is that they are expensive and less sturdy than a desktop.
Tablets: Tablet computers, made famous by the iPad, are computing devices that have no keyboard. Instead, they have a touch-sensitive screen and, when needed, will display a keyboard overlay on the screen. Tablet computers are not designed for performing complex tasks, but rather for consuming and interacting with information. They are bit like a really smart, interactive book-slash-video-library. In addition to iPads and Android tablets, there are now powerful tablets that can run the Windows 8 operating system, making them fully compatible with all Windows desktop software.
The main benefit of a tablet device is that it is ‘always on’ and always with you. The downside is that they tend to be insufficient for running traditional business applications (like MYOB), but this limitation is fading as Windows 8 tablets become more popular, and as more software moves away from being installed on the device itself (ie. Cloud computing). Another problem is that doing serious business work (typing and data entry) on a tablet is not exactly a pleasant experience, nor efficient. Tablets are best at providing access to information, not creating it.
Convertables: These interesting computers are part-ultrabook-part-tablet. They have a touch sensitive screen that can stand upright and be used with a built in keyboard, turning the device into a laptop computer. Or the screen can fold down flat, or be separated from the keyboard, turning the device into a tablet computer. The benefit is that they are almost as portable as a tablet, but can quickly convert to become more like an unltrabook or laptop when serious keyboard and data entry is required.
While all of this new, mobile, cheap computing power is all fine and dandy, the real question is, “Which type of device is best for running your important business functions?” To answer this question, first consider the following:
1. How do I wish to work in the future?
2. How and where will I expect my staff to work in the future?
3. What are the important business functions I need to run, where should the business software that supports these functions be run, versus where should it be accessed from?
The first two questions force you to think about what is possible with the new realm of mobile devices now available. Don’t get hung up about the technology when thinking about these two questions… think about what you want and what may be possible. For example, some businesses require you to be physically present on site to inspect deliveries or to manage production. But what if all the accounting and admin could be done from home, or by a bookkeeper who would not need to physically drive out to your office? Would that make life easier? Would it make the business more robust?
Next, after you have thought about how you want to work within your business, comes a consideration of the software. The majority of small businesses in Australia use software that is installed and run on your computer (what we geeks called a ‘fat client). Later in this series, I will discuss the possibility of selecting software that is not installed on your computer, but that runs in the cloud. Applications that run in the cloud have the advantage that they can be accessed from many different devices, without the need to copy files around. My advice is for you to stop thinking about “software that you install” and start thinking about “what you want to do, and where you want to do it.”
After thinking about the software you need, match it up against the different devices available to you. If there is a task you absolutely have to do - such as working with Excel spreadsheets - and a particular device does not do that well, then clearly that device is not for you!
Does size really matter? If you want to have a full “desktop computing” experience in your pocket, forget about it. The reality is that very small mobile devices, like tablet computers, not only lend themselves to a different way of working, but require it. It’s all about screen size: you will not be able comfortably type up reports or do complex tasks on a device with a tiny screen and no keyboard. No matter how powerful portable devices get, there will always be a trade-off in terms of functionality due to the fact that our big, clunky hands are not getting any smaller! That is not to say to that portable devices are not useful; but they are useful in a different way to a full desktop or laptop computer.
Once you have answered the above questions, you will have a better understanding of what sort of device you need. In fact, many people end up having multiple devices: a desktop or laptop for complex office work, and a tablet for work on the go.
In our next article, we will examine what technical features you should look for when buying a desktop computer, laptop or ultrabook should you decide either of these devices is right for your business. And in later articles, we will examine selection criteria for tablets and convertables. For now, think about the three questions we’ve raised in this article and consider what sort of devices will best fit your needs.