Small Businesses Mobile Trends for 2010

I’ll just say it up front. The most hotly anticipated mobile tech trend of 2010 is the computer tablet’s coming of age – and it’s all due to a product Apple is rumored to announce in late January.

While we await the secretive Apple tablet, or slate as it’s allegedly called, there are plenty of other mobile tech trends to focus on. What follows is a subjective guide to the hardware trends that could affect how you work when you’re mobile, and to the mobile marketing trends that might change how you interact with customers when they’re out and about.

Working on the Road: From Smartphones to Smartbooks

In 2010, it’ll be easier than ever to leave your laptop at home, yet still stay connected and productive on the go.

More Smartphones and Apps

The year started off with Google’s introduction of its first Android phone, the Nexus One. Google is selling the phone directly either unlocked (meaning it works on a variety of mobile networks), for $529 or for $179 with a two-year T-Mobile contract.

Based on its initial reception (only about 20,000 units sold in its first week, according to research firm Flurry), it’s doubtful the Nexus One will become a serious iPhone rival right away, if at all. Nonetheless, smartphones like it will continue to proliferate in 2010, despite the uncertain economy.

Frost & Sullivan predicts about 250 million smartphones will be sold globally this year, up from an estimated 190 million in 2009.

For small businesses, the real value of a smartphone, aside from e-mail, Web browsing and phone functions, is in the applications, or apps. In 2010, more apps will help you stay connected to your company’s data or be productive while on the road.

For example, Dropbox, an online file storage, sharing and synchronization service, offers a free iPhone app that lets you view files stored in your Dropbox account and e-mail them to others. I’ve found it ideal for those times when I’m away from the office without a laptop and need to e-mail a file to someone. You can expect to see more smartphone apps tied to cloud computing services like Dropbox this year, giving you more ways to access company data from anywhere.

Here Come Smartbooks

A brand-new product category, smartbooks fall somewhere between a smartphone and a netbook. Designed to be an always-on Internet device, as opposed to a fully functional laptop or netbook, a smartbook is super thin, light, and it has a physical keyboard and a color screen that ranges between five and10 inches.

A smartbook has a processor that’s often used in smartphones (but it’s more powerful), a battery that lasts all day and 3G and Wi-Fi connectivity. An early entry into the field is Lenovo’s Skylight, which will sell for $499 beginning in April (or less, with an AT&T 3G data plan).

Smartbooks might make sense for people who prefer a keyboard they can actually type on and who primarily use computing apps – such as Google Docs – instead of standard office productivity software. Given that many netbooks cost less but do more, however, I doubt smartbooks will be a practical choice for most small businesses, at least not for a while.

And Then There’s the Tablet

Rumors have been flying around the Web about the rumored Apple tablet, expected to be announced January 26 and to begin shipping in March or April. The touch-screen device, according to most speculation, should have a 10-inch color screen, an on-screen keyboard, probably 3G and Wi-Fi connectivity, and perhaps a built-in projection capability. It’s also supposed to cost about $1,000 – not exactly an impulse item.

Supposedly, you’ll be able to use the tablet to surf the Web, listen to music, watch videos, play games, and read books, magazines, and other content. If a webcam is included, as is rumored, you could also video chat with colleagues, customers and others – giving you one way to try and write off the Apple tablet as a business deduction.

Tablet PCs have come and gone over the years, igniting little interest except in some vertical industries (like healthcare). Meanwhile, a few other computer makers, including Dell and HP, recently announced tablet prototypes they’re preparing for the market. But if Apple gets into the game, it’s bound to give this struggling product category immediate gravitas.

More options for Wi-Fi networking

Last fall, the Wi-Fi Alliance announced Wi-Fi Direct, a peer-to-peer protocol designed to enable devices to connect ad hoc, for a variety of purposes, without the need for a wireless router or hotspot. Wi-Fi Direct will be similar to Bluetooth, except it should create faster connections and offer a wider signal range.

With Wi-Fi Direct, you could easily print files from your netbook or laptop on a client’s wireless printer or display images or video stored on your smartphone on the client’s wireless-enabled flat screen TV. While both devices in a connection must have Wi-Fi, only one must be Wi-Fi Direct compliant. Look for Wi-Fi Direct certified products around mid-year.

Mobile Trends for Engaging with Customers

The smartphone’s continual rise will give you more opportunities in 2010 for how you interact with customers when they’re mobile.

More Customers Will Use Smartphones to Search for You

Mobile Web use jumped 34 percent from July 2008 to July 2009, according to the Nielsen Co. and reported by Adweek. This means a growing number of your potential customers might be searching for you on their smartphones.

But there’s a potential problem. While devices like Apple’s iPhone have browsers that can display most Web content, not all of those pages are optimized for the smartphone’s small screens, making them difficult to view and navigate on a handheld.

Also, mobile browsers such as Apple’s Safari for the iPhone can’t currently display Flash-based content. If your landing page is primarily a Flash animation, a smartphone user isn’t likely to see it.

So if you want to get business from people who use smartphones, consider creating a separate mobile-optimized site. Search Engine Land

recently listed 10 reasons why you should do this. (Reason number 1: Google maintains a separate search index for mobile content, and it’s fairly empty.)

How do you create a mobile-optimized version of your site? Paid services such as MoFuse ($8 to $199 per month) and MOBIFY are two options (free to $99 and up per month).

Interact With Customers Through Bar Codes

As smartphone cameras gain megapixels, they’re better able to accurately scan bar codes. For businesses with a brick-and-mortar presence, such as retailers, restaurants and bars, this capability can present new ways to provide information, discount coupons and more to potential customers while they’re at your location.

Quick Response (QR) codes, two-dimensional bar codes that can store addresses, URLs and other information, have been popular in Japan and Europe are now getting a push in the U.S. from the likes of Google.

Once you download a QR reader app (many are free) to your smartphone, you can take a picture with your phone of a QR code you see at a business, in a magazine, on a sign or elsewhere. The smartphone QR reader app will then automatically direct you to a mobile Web page, display a coupon or other information, and so on.

In one example of how a small business could use QR codes, a retailer could serve up a list of items in the store on sale only to those who access the QR code.

Creating a QR code is free and extremely simple on Web sites such as Invx, so it’s worth a try. Awareness about QR codes is still fairly new, however, so if you post them at your location, expect to do some customer education.

Location-aware Apps Attract customers Build Loyalty

With GPS becoming a standard feature on smartphones, more apps and mobile sites are serving up location-aware content. For example, the mobile query page displayed on some mobile browsers now features a “Near me now” option, which serves up businesses and services near your current location.

If you’re in an unknown neighborhood looking for a coffee house, you’d just click the Near-me-now button, click “Coffee Shops,” and get a list of cafés sorted by distance. Click a link to a café, and you’ll get information about its location, phone number, payment options, links to relevant Web pages, and customer reviews.

You can help ensure that your business information will be displayed in these mobile Google searches (as well as on Google Maps displayed in computer browsers) by listing your business for free with Google’s Local Business Center.

In addition, smartphone apps such as the increasingly popular FourSquare, which mashes up social networking, location awareness and a city resource guide into a kind of addictive social game, provide yet more opportunities for businesses to engage customers.

Example: A Foursquare user who frequently visits a restaurant and logs into Foursquare while there can become “mayor” of that restaurant, earning perks such as free drinks or discounts (not to mention bragging rights).

If you’ve hoping to attract young, tech-savvy customers, signing up with Foursquare and other location-aware services might just be the ticket. You won’t always be able to control your brand’s reputation, of course. But that’s increasingly true for any business on the Internet these days.

James A. Martin has covered mobile technology since the mid 1990s. He blogs about SEO and social media and is a co-author of Getting Organized in the Google Era (Broadway Books).

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