Consumer Tech Gives Small Businesses Big Shoulders

When my furnace guy treats me the way a tech-savvy enterprise would, I know the world has changed.

Occasionally, a few events cluster in daily life that make you sit up and realize: "Wow, things have really changed."

As a typical homeowner, with fall in full force, I had the local heating and AC service company come out to inspect and tune up the furnace a few weeks ago. I registered the appointment on the web but didn't think anything was really different, though the experience was much better than calling and being put on hold.

The first big improvement was the call I received from the service technician while he was en route to my home -- even better when he arrived on time. As the technician inspected the units and took care of a faulty thermostat, I noticed more changes. He identified the proper replacement thermostat from a modified iPhone, and then he pulled the part from his truck. Using the iPhone, he compiled the invoice, got my signature, emailed the signed invoice to me, and took a picture of my check. (He also could have swiped my credit card with it.) He topped things off by using it to schedule the spring tuneup.

Intrigued, I asked how the digital technology is impacting his service day. All his appointments are on the iPhone, he told me, as well as the driving instructions. His company had moved everything the field service techs do to the devices and "pretty much eliminated all paper."

In his view, things are a lot easier, and there's no lost paperwork. My view? Wow. To see a small business make such a dramatic impact with IT on everyday tasks and productivity is remarkable.

The impact consumer technologies are having on small businesses was driven home when I went to the local barbecue restaurant for lunch. When the waitress took my order with an iPad and then explained that the restaurant no longer had cash registers, I wondered if I was in a time warp. She further explained that the iPads are convenient when restaurant workers set up their booths at festivals and fairs.

I still remember being slightly surprised when I first walked into an Apple Store and, instead of having me walk back to a register line with my purchase, the salesperson processed it right where I stood using a slightly modified iPhone. Pretty cool. But now the barbecue place and furnace repair guy?

Part of the Apple allure for small businesses is the easy setup and ready access to the company's retail stores (and Genius Bars) -- the same things consumers love. But in the past few years, the improvements to Apple's cloud services and enhancements from third-party hardware and software providers have made Apple products much more business worthy. Offering its iWorks productivity software for free may be helping Apple make further inroads with small businesses.

Google and the Android devices have similar attributes -- all to Microsoft's disadvantage. Though Microsoft software has the broadest footprint and feature sets, new mobile and cloud productivity tools -- from Dropbox to Gmail to those found on myriad websites -- are eroding those advantages. Gone are the days when a small business would set up shop with a Microsoft server and several desktops and laptops. And given the relatively high prices and lagging popularity of Microsoft's mobile devices, it's offering small businesses no compelling alternative.

Today small businesses usually start with a hosted website based on open-source software. Then they leverage cloud-based email, file storage and transfer, and conferencing. It becomes easy to add tablets and smartphones -- and maybe a few laptops to get computing into the hands of employees.

Apple and Android are finally breaching Microsoft Office's enterprise castle, though from the low end. Microsoft has had a firm grip on Office pricing for decades, but this pricing strength is eroding in the consumer market. The latest Surface devices come with Office for free. And with Google and Apple offering small businesses much-lower-cost alternatives to Office, that market may follow. That spells trouble down the road for Microsoft's overall enterprise software revenue and profit margins. The recent suggestion by Microsoft executive Stephen Elop that the company might make Office available on Apple and Android smartphones and tablets provides strong evidence of the mounting pressure.

What's more, Apple and the Android ecosystem aren't telling small businesses they have to settle for inferior functionality. As the furnace and restaurant examples show, they're letting small and midsized businesses improve customer service and employee productivity at a fraction of the IT costs they incurred just five years ago, letting SMBs compete more effectively against much larger competitors.

How have Apple and Android impacted your enterprise? Are you seeing the same changes I experienced among the small businesses you deal with as consumers? How can enterprise IT departments do a better job of leveraging consumer technology? Please weigh in below in the comment section.

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