Mobile apps allow small-shop entrepreneurs and independent service professionals to work wherever they like. With a well-equipped virtual office at their disposal, they can respond quickly to developing business situations. Real-time flexibility and the freedom from hardware and software upgrades make the mobile device particularly popular as a business tool.
The Business Journals media organization reported recently that one in five small businesses owns an iPad. Two-thirds of the business owners surveyed said that they would continue to invest in the mobile devices.
"For me, it's about making a break from inherently thinking that you need to buy hardware and software," said Mike Pugh, vice president of marketing for the business communications firm j2 in Hollywood.
Pugh is talking about old-school hardware and software—desktops, operating systems and business-software packages.
"Realize that across businesses, you really don't have to do any of that anymore," he said. He has a horse in the race, of course. The company Pugh works for develops and markets its own mobile apps to professionals. With its roots in eFax, going back to the 1990s, j2 now offers comprehensive packages of fax, voice mail, e-mail and marketing-campaign applications.
"We try to provide services to small businesses that allow them to get rid of hardware and become mobile," Pugh said. "[They can] do it on a self-service, pay-as-you-go model."
But it's not just j2's products that have taken off. In addition to eFax and eVoice, here's a shortlist of apps on the market that have been quickly adopted by small businesses.
SlideRocket: Being able to customize PowerPoint presentations and engage your audience from your iPad gives you flexibility. The free SlideRocket Player app lets you access presentations and collaborate on them, as well as present on or offline 24/7.
Expensify: Doing expenses can be such a hassle. Track purchases as they happen with Expensify, which syncs with credit cards and bank accounts. The app creates a complete document view of all spending that users can e-mail in a PDF format directly to their company.
CamCard: Networking is key for small business. Never lose another business card with CamCard. The app captures card images with a mobile camera, recognizes the card-image content and automatically saves it to your address book on your phone and computer.
The future of the iPad small-business expansion, suggests Pugh, is probably in the realm of sales. On the auto lot, in the small storefront and even in the neighborhood bakery, business owners share documents and data through e-mail and cloud computing. "All the tools [are] in something they can carry around."
Currently, iPads and mobile apps have become commonplace for real estate and legal professionals. Doctors in large hospitals, as well as in smaller clinics and private practices, are using them.
Small shops in sectors other than professional services are the next set of adopters. A boots-on-the-ground scenario might include the driver of a delivery truck with access to inventory and new-order processing in one portable spot. The proprietor of that same business who is at the counter or in a meeting with new clients can respond to the driver's developing needs in real time.
To get there, Pugh said the concept of platform-specific systems has to fade. Tools that don't depend on particular hardware or operating systems owners will replace the old models, Pugh says.
"Tools shouldn't promise that they work on specific platforms," he said. "They should be platformless. Once we get all of our functionality off specific devices and platforms and make them as generally available as possible, we'll see what the cloud can truly deliver."
James O'Brien is a correspondent for The Boston Globe, The Consumer Chronicle and Research at Boston University magazine. He blogs for Contently.
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