If there is one safe prediction for 2012, it's that mobile devices and apps will become increasingly mainstream, table-stakes technology for small businesses.
A recent survey by consulting firm SMB Group showed that small- and medium-sized businesses plan to significantly increase spending on mobile in 2012, with firms in the five-to-49-employee range leading the way.
Nielsen, meanwhile, reported that almost half of American cell phone users now have smartphones -- 44 percent as of October 2011. And IDC reported that 18.1 million tablets shipped in 3Q alone, a 23.9 percent jump from the previous quarter, 264.5 percent from the same period in 2010.
The mobile revolution is real, but how specifically will it affect small businesses in 2012?
McCabe and Tauschek agree on at least one key trend for 2012: small businesses will begin to adopt mobile payment -- using smartphones or tablets with add-on card readers and low-cost online credit card processing services such as Square and Intuit GoPayment.
"A lot of very small businesses especially haven't really had a mechanism for accepting credit card payment," Tauschek said. "Now they do, with a simple hardware add-on and an app for their iPhone or iPod touch."
Mobile POS (point of sale) terminals could be used on retail sales floors to relieve congestion at fixed cash points, or in more purely mobile environments such as craft and farmers markets, or where a mobile provider delivers a service to a homeowner or business and needs to take payment on the spot.
"This is a huge thing," McCabe said. "Especially as retailers don't have to spend any money [on the service] and the readers are fairly cheap or free. It makes it very easy when you're on the go, and some small businesses are always on the go."
Some retailers may adopt mobile payment simply to make themselves appear more leading edge. For example, Apple's own uber-cool stores were mobile payment pioneers.
Most small business owners can't afford to switch just because it's the cool thing to do, McCabe said, and most won't. But new businesses or those with outdated equipment should consider mobile payment for the business advantages it offers.
Small Business Mobile Becomes the Norm
Small businesses that learned early to use mobile technology to make them more accessible and more responsive to customers have enjoyed a decided competitive advantage, Tauschek said, but that advantage may not last much longer.
He believes that with the huge growth in the installed base of smart mobile devices and the ubiquity of broadband wireless connectivity, 2012 will be the year in which being super-accessible and instantly responsive from anywhere will become an expectation, the norm.
This applies to businesses of all sizes, Tauschek said, but it's especially important for small businesses to be proactive and exploit their nimbleness to gain the advantage over bigger competitors.
"It will no longer be adequate to respond, ‘Yeah, I got your email and I'll get back to you in a couple of days.' Now, you have to be able to say, ‘I'm going to interact with you immediately, over whichever channel you prefer -- instant messaging, social media, voice.'"
Moving Beyond Email
A key prediction from SMB Group for 2012 is that, in the mobile realm, small businesses will start to move beyond basic communications and Web browsing applications.
Many are now looking at adopting time management, field service, customer relationship management (CRM) and even enterprise resource management (ERP) apps, McCabe said, as well as vertical, industry-specific apps in fields such as health care.
"Now they can check on the inventory status of a product or enter time spent on a project -- anywhere, anytime," she said. "It streamlines the way they do a lot of things, and helps them be more responsive to customers. And that is good for business."
Many small business owners may even prefer using mobile versions of popular business applications originally developed for the PC. "This is just anecdotal, but I've had small business people telling me they prefer to use these applications on their smartphones," McCabe said. "In a lot of cases, it's because the mobile interface is so nice and clean."