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With a finger on the pulse of a wireless and mobile world, Helen Bradley takes a look at what’s hot on the information technology horizon.

Active ImageSince Maxwell Smart first flashed his low-on-optional-features and somewhat clumsy shoe phone, we have been promised technological advances that would turn the extraordinary into the commonplace.

In part, technology has done just that and the leap from the early days of the internet to the international commerce network we have today is proof. In other areas, technology has lagged behind its early promise. For example, speech recognition hasn’t yet made the grade into a technology we can all adopt—I’m still typing this article, not dictating it.

So what is the technology outlook for the near future in Australia? What will be available and what is still in the promise or vapourware stage? Via industry experts, we take a look at some of the trends in the marketplace to find out what technologies are coming to a desktop or an airport lounge near you.

Mobile Magic

The biggest move in technology in the next few years will be the general trend towards mobile everything. While Australia has lagged behind other countries in the uptake of broadband internet connection, the promise of wireless is set to leave broadband stuck in the mud. With Telstra and other players like Unwired and iBurst vying for the market, wireless is set to go from being available only in hot spots—small localised locations such as offices, hotels, airports, and coffee shops—to being available almost anywhere.

Some services even promise the ability to move seamlessly from one connection point to another without losing service. This will allow personal and business users to sign up with a single wireless provider and receive service over a large geographical area.

Hand-in-hand with the spread of wireless connections is the move towards replacing desktop computers near the end of their lifecycle with laptops, allowing a more mobile workforce access to computers wherever they happen to be. Tools like 3Com’s travel router supports this ‘office on the go’ concept by giving a traveller the ability to establish a temporary wireless network at a hotel conference centre or even in a client’s office.

Foad Fadaghi, senior industry analyst at Frost and Sullivan Australia, explains one of the advantages of the increasing availability of wireless internet is that "it supports a distributed work environment where people can work from home, on the road or really anywhere, more effectively because the speed, cost and availability is becoming comparative to broadband". Wireless will open up more options for a changing workforce.

Although some SMEs have not yet ventured beyond email and general research on the internet, Kourosh Ghassemi, research director at IDC, sees even these small businesses poised to use the internet as a tool for business. "When a major customer puts pressure on a small business to move to an internet-based tool for supply chain management, there are two choices for the business—in or out—and most are opting to move to using online administration tools," he says.

Reaping Benefits

One area in which SMEs are set to reap big benefits is in the flow down from enterprise applications which are now being bundled at a price point and in lite versions suitable for the SME market.

One of these technologies is Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP). This replaces the traditional telephone service and routes voice traffic over the internet, allowing integration of voice and data services.

Ghassemi sees the take-up of technologies like VoIP happening for the larger SMEs. "As these businesses look to renew their infrastructure, which typically happens every four to five years, they’re starting to buy technology that is IP-enabled. The natural progression is to put it to use where the business can benefit from it."

VoIP offers cost benefits where business expenditure on the more expensive end of telecommunications is high, such as those with multiple offices, a mobile workforce, or a high volume of international phone calls. Before the dot-com crash, hosted internet applications were popular but left many businesses high and dry when the companies running them closed their doors overnight. With the general shakeout in the marketplace, hosted solutions are returning and they offer SMEs significant savings by removing the need for large up-front expenditure in software, replacing it with a per-seat per-month fee structure.

Another plus with these solutions is that they offer access from anywhere allowing a central point for a mobile workforce to function within. One of the surprise technologies gaining momentum is open source software. This software is freely available—the code for it is made available by its developers with an open invitation for others to add to it. The leading open source tool is the operating system Linux, and the line-up includes office tools and graphics and web creation software.

Fadaghi lists open source and hosted software as two of his picks for hot new technologies. "Developers are wrapping services around this free software and some of this will be of interest to SMEs, such as the open source based Sugar CRM software."

A benefit of open source software means users can get a good foundation program free of charge, allowing developers to add functionality to it, without the overhead of having to develop the entire program themselves.

Security Message

Instant messaging remains one of the technologies looking for a standard to give it new life before it dies an untimely death. The three main players in the industry, MSN Messenger, AOL and ICQ, all use different standards that are incompatible with each other. This incompatibility is holding instant messaging back from being a valuable communication tool for quick messages and interpersonal communication between workers in an office as well as with customers and clients. If and when a single standard is agreed upon and implemented, instant messaging will have a lot of potential in the small business sector.

As is the case with the advent of any new technology, emerging wireless and always-on broadband connections bring a downside in the shape of increased security threats.

Fadaghi says it is crucial for their growth and survival that SMEs to become more savvy about internet security. "One of the biggest challenges for SMEs is to continue to educate themselves in this area," he says.

"The type of attacks we’re seeing are combinations—they’re more complex than before. An SME can’t simply expect a virus checker to protect it. A combination of tools including spam filters, anti-spyware software, intrusion monitors and firewalls are required to secure networks and the valuable data they contain."

Phone Help

One of the difficulties for small business in taking up new technologies is often the lack of IT expertise within the organisation to understand what is available and the benefits to the business.

To assist small business, the Federal Government has established Industry Techlink, a government funded but privately run service to help small business get started with new and emerging technologies. The service is free for SMEs and you can contact Industry Techlink on 1800 111 485 or at www.industrytechlink.com.au

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