Welcome to, Um, M-Commerce

by Jamie McAfee

Technological advances usually mean temporary technological disadvantages for small companies. It’s no different on the Web, where consumers may soon be placing orders through mobile phones, rather than computers. Several silicon heavyweights are maneuvering to provide scaled-down Web pages on the tiny screens of hand-held phones, or even dispense with the need for a screen altogether by accepting commands through speech recognition and delivering the answers with text-to-speech conversion. America Online has deals with Bell South and Sprint PCS to provide AOL messaging on both pagers and phones. Microsoft has teamed with Qualcomm Inc. for a new service called MSN 2.0. Oracle has formed a subsidiary called Oracle Mobile to provide mobile phone access for Web operators signing up with the database software company. This great leap forward will probably leave smaller sites behind, at least for a little while, since it takes a lot of techies to write for so many different platforms. Still, some small companies can play, as long as its worth their investment: Founding partners supporting Oracle Mobile include the Zagat restaurant guide, which hopes to offer its advice to hungry travelers looking for the nearest five-star meal.

They Finally Get It
Big computer manufacturers once neglected small businesses. No more. Dell Computer Corp. and Gateway Inc., who together dominate direct PC sales, are both launching wide-ranging service programs aimed at small business. Dell now hosts Web sites and is selling non-computer office supplies at a site called OfficebyDell.com. In the future, it plans to offer personnel recruiting and direct-mail services. Gateway, meanwhile, has invested $25 million in eSoft Inc., a provider of Internet support services, and will start marketing eSoft’s services ­ including Web hosting, firewall protection, virtual private networks, and network management ­ to its small business customers. The Gateway-eSoft partnership may soon provide what the two call “horizontal applications,” such as managing accounting and payroll, for small companies.

Turn and Face the Exchanges
If you aren’t doing business through online exchanges already, you will be soon. Just about every major industry ­ from retailing and automobile assembly to medical supplies and agricultural commodities ­ is rushing to form Web marketplaces. Meanwhile, the major technology companies, including IBM, Microsoft, and Oracle are providing support. Big companies such as Chevron and General Motors will see the biggest benefits, since it will be far more efficient to survey prices and bid through a marketplace that reaches everyone in the industry. But suppliers of all sizes should benefit, in theory, because it will cost less to find buyers. There are still obstacles, however. Exchanges aimed at Mom-and-Pop stores need to convince thousands of owner-operators to invest in computers and start using them. And companies on either the buy or sell side may be reluctant to signal their strategy to competitors by posting purchase orders or price lists on line.

A Start-Up for Start-Ups
If you can run a business by signing up for Web-based services, shouldn’t you be able to create a business the same way? Startups.com, itself a Silicon Valley start-up, is a self-described “virtual incubator” ­ a place where clients are assigned a human project manager and can find templates for business plans and legal contracts, referrals to banking, personnel, and real estate firms, and even online tutorials. One of Startup.com’s backers is Garage.com, another Silicon Valley venture that provides a kind of online showroom where young companies in need of funding pitch themselves to investors.

Live and Learned
For most businesses, employee training is nothing more than a necessary evil. Sending staff to boring seminars during office hours can lower productivity, morale, and ultimately profits. They’ve got to learn the stuff, but there must be a better way.P>Online education often has been touted as just that. The potential benefits are clear: Traditional training courses typically cost 10 times more than online courses and take much longer. Classes can be accessed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, allowing training wherever and whenever, and students can move at their own pace.

“A lot of stuff you listen to in a class is not of importance to you,” says James Shepard, vice president of marketing at Headlight.com, an online training center. “Online training lets you rush through what you know and slow down on topics you don’t. The quality of the material is always consistent.”

However, proponents have been pushing these same messages for years. “Yes, online training is faster, cheaper, and easier ­ but not necessarily better,” says Terri Seppala, senior vice president and general manager of Worldwide Education for Computer Associates International Inc., a prominent provider of traditional training. For one, students don’t tend to retain information they see on line. “Online text is put out without regard to how good it is,” Seppala says. “Content doesn’t always equal learning.”

Live instructors also recognize that learning styles vary from individual to individual. For instance, some are unable to sit in front of a computer and learn. Most online services have been slow to add real-time interaction with instructors. “Our customers prefer live interaction with instructors and peers,” Seppala says.

Ultimately, the best choice may be not to choose at all. “It’s better to have both,” Seppala says. Computer Associates, for instance, offers online supplements to traditional training. So at least someone has learned something from online training ­ the training companies themselves.

Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing addresses the technology needs of small businesses, which are defined as businesses with fewer than 500 employees and/or less than $7 million in annual sales.

Must Read

Get the Free Newsletter!

Subscribe to Daily Tech Insider for top news, trends, and analysis.