Technology drives business innovation. As a small business owner, being aware of different trends in technology can help you outfit your business with the latest hardware and software to improve efficiency.
At the dawn of 2018, there are a few new forms of tech that could help businesses, from wireless charging to the addition of Amazon's Alexa to third-party devices. Regardless of what your business needs, these tech trends driving the industry into 2018 will have implications for you and your business.
MDM for small businesses
If there's one trend poised to take the SMB world by storm in 2018, it's the availability of mobile device management for small businesses. In the past several years, "bring your own device" (BYOD) policies have become popular at enterprise businesses. Employees often prefer to work on their own devices, and with more freelance and contract employees than ever before, many companies have no choice but to allow staff to use the devices of their choice. In fact, freelancers now make up 35 percent of the U.S. workforce, and all research indicates that number is only going to go up in the next several years, which means BYOD may become the de facto policy for most SMBs.
While BYOD is good for the bottom line, and for employee comfort among the increasingly remote workforce, such policies raise logistical security concerns. When personal devices are lost or missing, any sensitive business information is at risk. Aside from security, BYOD makes it very difficult to maintain consistent standards, and something as basic as updating company software becomes problematic when employees use their own devices.
Enterprise corporations address security and logistical concerns through high-level MDM solutions, which until recently were prohibitively expensive or required subscription minimums that were out of reach for most SMBs. In the last year alone, however, major tech players have made moves to bring MDM functionality to the small business set. VMware made headlines when the IT security giant paired with Dell, effectively eliminating subscription minimums and bringing its outstanding MDM services to businesses of all sizes.
For companies that don't have in-house IT support, even SMB-accessible products (like those from VMware) can be daunting to manage. Microsoft seems to have realized this, because its latest release of Microsoft 365 Business has built-in MDM features so user-friendly that no IT support is necessary for setup or continued maintenance. For just $20 per user, per month, Microsoft 365 Business subscribers can build in fail-safes for lost devices (and instantly wipe them, even remotely, of sensitive business materials), roll out updates and manage permissions.
The fact that major players (Dell, VMware, Microsoft) are investing in SMB-friendly MDM solutions signals that this trend of comprehensive SaaS products is here to stay, and tech-savvy business owners who rely on BYOD employees should seriously consider adoption in the coming year.
E-commerce isn't a trend unique to 2018, but since 2017 was a record year for brick-and-mortar store closures, it's safe to assume e-commerce will continue to grow in its place in 2018 and beyond. According to Fortune magazine, more than 300 retailers filed for bankruptcy in 2017, and hundreds more closed thousands of stores in favor of selling more online.
In a growing trend that many publications referred to as the retail apocalypse, stores that were once a staple of shopping malls closed in droves, and clothing retailers were not the only brands affected. Pharmacy giant CVS closed an astonishing 70 stores nationwide, electronic retailers like Radio Shack and HHGregg have all but disappeared, Sears Holdings (which owns Sears and Kmart) closed 300 locations, and Macy's closed dozens of locations, with CEO Terry Lundgren saying in a press release, "We continue to experience declining traffic in our stores."
As alarming as these closures are, especially for SMBs that run brick-and-mortar establishments, there are two positives. First, some brick-and-mortar stores are still thriving. Brands like Dollar General, Dollar Tree, 7-Eleven, Aldi and AutoZone all opened new storefronts in 2017, and they weren't the only ones. It seems there are certain convenience and discount products that people prefer to purchase in person rather than online.
The second positive in all these closures is the ease with which SMBs affected by decreased foot traffic can currently set up e-commerce websites. Thanks to drag-and-drop website creation software and secure online payment platforms, it's easier than ever before to reach online customers, and it's also typically cheaper than keeping a physical storefront open.
Blockchain technology is lightyears away from reaching the SMB sphere, but small business owners should be aware of it because it's making big headlines at the enterprise level, primarily as it relates to cryptocurrencies, and it looks as though it will continue to develop and spread to other industries.
The Cliffs Notes version of why blockchain technology matters is relatively simple: Blockchain technology increases security, transparency and accountability by creating a permanent, linear, digital ledger that's decentralized and (currently) impossible to falsify or delete. The main mistake people make when they write or talk about blockchain technology is inextricably linking it to a specific industry. While blockchain is currently only used in a few spheres, this groundbreaking method could potentially maintain electronic ledgers in healthcare, banking, manufacturing and shipping, import and export businesses, and eventually SMBs and government.
Understanding blockchain technology in more depth can be challenging if your day job isn't in technology, but several valuable resources make the topic more accessible. Investopedia offers an excellent overview of blockchain technology, and IBM's Think Academy series on YouTube is surprisingly comprehensive and very accessible, even if you don't know a distributed ledger from a centralized ledger.
Even further away on the small business horizon than blockchain is the development and adoption of digital twin technology. If your business is in the manufacturing or research and development fields, you should read up on digital twins. According to Gartner, "by 2021, half of large industrial companies will use digital twins, resulting in those organizations gaining a 10 percent improvement in effectiveness."
If the term is new to you, you're not alone, but the concept has been around for a long time. In fact, NASA has been using digital twin technology for years, but now, thanks to the increase in IoT and advances in digital twin technology, this innovation is finally trickling into commercial product development.
In its most basic form, a digital twin is an identical digital copy of a physical object or process. Digital twins react in the exact way their physical counterparts would, which gives researchers the ability to test various versions of machinery and workflows and find out the outcomes before any final decision is made. The data-gathering implications of digital twin technology alone qualify as game-changing, but when paired with artificial intelligence and augmented or virtual reality, the reach of digital twins extends beyond the development stage and into long-term maintenance.
Major manufacturers like Siemens and GE are already using digital twins to optimize outputs and bring products to market in shorter timespans with lower R&D expenses. Prior to digital twin technology, analysts could attempt predictions for processes that hadn't been tried yet, but there was a margin of error. With digital twin technology, hundreds or even thousands of variables can be thrown into the mix, and the process can play out to its conclusion before any investment has been made toward actual physical changes.
In coming years, you can expect to see widespread adoption of digital twin technology in the consumer automotive industry (Maserati already uses digital twins), aerospace and energy (GE currently uses digital twins to test jet engines and wind turbines), general manufacturing, and healthcare. Many analysts believe that the digital representation of physical objects will eventually touch every area of consumer and business products, and that digital twin software will gradually become less expensive and more accessible to SMBs, which is why it landed on our list of most influential tech of 2018.
Wireless charging technology has been around for a few years but will likely expand significantly in 2018. At CES 2018, several companies detailed new wireless charging products that would be convenient for any business, including 10W chargers from Belkin for faster charging. iOttie is another company producing wireless chargers with more powerful charging standards compared to past models. iOttie's chargers provide faster charging, plus there's even a model with a 65-degree tilt so you can view your smartphone while it charges.
Wireless charging works by creating an electromagnetic field in a specific area – on a charging pad, for example – from which your device's battery draws a charge. There are different forms of this technology. One of the more well-known forms is Qi (pronounced chee). While some devices support the Qi standard, others may require an adapter.
In addition to new types of charging pads, over-the-air wireless charging could provide an even more convenient charging option. Ossia, a battery technology company, has developed an over-the-air battery called the forever battery. This battery, which supports AA batteries, has a tiny antenna that receives energy from a transmitter that is also placed in the room.
The CEO of Ossia, Mario Obeidat, said that the vision for this technology is to provide batteries with energy in the way Wi-Fi provides our devices with internet access. This technology is still being developed, but if it can be applied to batteries in smartphones, tablets, and laptops, it could have a major impact on how we use devices.
5G is the fifth generation of cellular capability. It's been a long journey since 1G – or analog cellular – was released in the 1980s. 5G promises faster speeds than 4G LTE with little to no latency. 4G latency, or a delay in data transfer, is about 50 milliseconds, which is half the latency of 3G. 5G will drive latency down to around 1 millisecond, according to Huawei.
This advancement is a major step in the development of the internet of things (IoT). It will support and assist an army of interconnected devices, which will include everything from your vehicle to your refrigerator. While there is a lot of hype surrounding 5G, there is no clear-cut formula or standard for 5G yet.
All the major telecommunications companies have said they're working toward developing this technology, but it's very much still in its infancy. For example, Verizon has said it will roll out commercial 5G service in Sacramento, California. AT&T announced it would have 5G service in 12 cities this year.
As it develops, 5G and IoT will have a major impact on business and communication. Expect to see major telecommunications companies define this technology, begin testing and implement it in 2018.
Amazon's Alexa expanding
One of the major trends of 2018 is integrating voice assistants – like Amazon's Alexa and Google's Google Assistant – into third-party technology. Amazon announced recently that it would offer a business version of Alexa for both small businesses and enterprises. With integration into third-party devices, the business applications of Alexa could widely expand.
- Laptops – HP, Asus and Acer announced they will offer Windows laptops with Alexa voice controls. The computers will come powered with special Intel audio processors to let them accurately listen for and respond to verbal requests from users. The new technology would bring all the convenience and ease of Amazon's Dot or Echo to the computer – users can play music or podcasts, have their schedules dictated or order supplies.
- Cars – Panasonic announced at CES that it is adding both Alexa and Google Assistant to car infotainment systems. While this type of technology may have less of an impact on businesses compared to the Alexa-capable laptops, it's a signal that business uses for Alexa could extend outside of the office. In addition to integrated infotainment systems, Alexa fans can purchase a dongle to add Alexa to their current vehicle.
- Security – Alexa is also being integrated into security systems. Canary, a security camera manufacturer, announced its cameras would integrate with Alexa. Users will be able to stream video from a Canary camera to an Echo Spot, Echo Show, Fire TV or Fire TV Stick. Much like the car integration, Alexa's security usage may not be immediate and is an example of the potential business applications for this type of technology.
Keep in mind that your business's Alexa account would sync with your employees' accounts. So, using these third-party devices, and integrating them with existing Alexa and Prime accounts, would be simple. [Read related article: Amazon Business: What It Is and How it Can Benefit You]
Augmented and Virtual Reality
Another major tech trend for 2018 is the advancement of augmented and virtual reality technology. While a lot of this advancement has come in the entertainment and retail spaces, AR and VR will have an impact on business as well, particularly in the manufacturing world. Vuzix unveiled AR glasses at CES that (surprise, surprise) comes with Alexa voice assistant features. While they are still being geared toward consumers, the AR glasses are the latest example of a tech trend that will eventually have a major impact on businesses.
Additional reporting by Mona Bushnell.