George Peppard said as his character Hannibal Smith on The A-Team, "I love it when a plan comes together." Several trends, if not a plan, are coming together in interesting ways in technology for small businesses. Mix equal parts of online applications, netbooks, and constant wireless networking together, and you get new ways to do more work in more places for less money.
Let's look at the three trends bumping into each other. First, wireless networking of various kinds has been around quite a while. Anyone reading this not use Wi-Fi (802.11 a/b/g/n) on a regular basis? Add in 3G wireless networking for data over cell phone networks, such as Web access for the iPhone, and today you have trouble finding places not to be connected. In other words, for US$60 per month (and up), you can be sure you're connected to the Internet if you're anywhere near a Wi-Fi hot spot or mobile phone tower.
Second, let's add in the relatively new notebook form factor called the netbook. These tiny, as in trade paperback book size, portable computers usually run low power processors and often have limited storage space because they leave out the hard disk to conserve weight and battery life. Just about the hottest thing going in portable computing lately, these netbooks have enough horsepower for the majority of laptop users. Add in the price range of US$250-$400, and you make very portable computing very affordable. No, you can't edit video or crunch big numbers with these, but you can do what 90 percent of SMB desktops do, and do it for less.
Finally, let's stir in the huge growth in software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications that run in browsers. High dollar pundits say SaaS is about the only part of the software market that continues to grow, and it's growing faster every day. Again, who doesn't regularly use some SaaS applications? Any Webmail service from companies like Google, Yahoo, and Hotmail all fall under the SaaS banner, as does Facebook, Flikr, SalesForce.com, Google Docs, Zoho, HyperOffice, and on and on for more services than we have space to list.
I've said before I'm a fan of SaaS applications, because they address an issue critical to small businesses: secure collaboration. Everyone with Internet access and a browser can use SaaS applications no matter where they are, making remote access to business data simple and cheap rather than complex and expensive.
Let me add in one more technology that appeared a few years ago, then disappeared, and is coming back with a vengeance: the Webtop, or browser-based suite of applications. While I agree that the Zoho Suite and Google Apps, among others, fit the Webtop definition, I'm impressed by a new Webtop player I never saw coming: Symantec. Their new GoEverywhere "online personal workspace" acts as a Webtop portal to all your other SaaS applications. It's still in beta, but the combination of the three trends mentioned earlier, and Webtops like this, will change how we think of personal computing.