In the not too distant past, computers were used primarily for word processing, organizing information, and performing calculations. Even in these traditional areas, the roles of computers have expanded vastly, while new avenues for businesses to use computers turn up almost daily.
Cloud computing is the lynchpin that made many business computing enhancements possible. The cloud is multifunctional and appears to have almost limitless capabilities, according to a report from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). A high level view of what makes it so unique includes:
- Service levels to automatically adjust as users access the systems, making the cloud far more cost-effective than traditional servers.
- The networks are far-reaching and support mobile phones, tablets, and laptops, as well as PCs.
- Resources from different locales are pooled, which creates a greater geographic reach.
- Different resources come online and go back offline automatically, based on user demand. This gives the cloud far greater utility than traditional servers.
- Services are metered and automatically optimized to provide large amounts of storage, data processing and bandwidth.
With the cloud's ability to support a variety of applications and span greater physical distances, mobile phones have taken on computer-like functions. SmartPhones lead the charge. Particularly for business people who work in the field, like sales reps, mobile phones have become indispensable.
- Download a GPS application, and never be late for an appointment because you lost your way.
- Use your phone for a quick price check before purchasing inventory or business supplies.
- Use your phone to quickly conduct a Google search on a business associate you are about to meet or view his LinkedIn profile. Sometimes that little bit of familiarity can help the initial meeting go well.
- Keep your schedule on track with a calendar application.
- Never misplace another contact name, phone number, or email address.
Collecting Payment with a SmartPhone
Nothing seals the deal like immediately collecting a deposit or down payment, and now you can scan a credit card with your phone. Mobile credit card processors plug into your phone jack and allow you to swipe credit cards. According to BusinessNews Daily the top three are:
- Flagship ROAMpay is compatible with Apple products, Androids, and Blackberry and accepts all major credit cards. It also allows you to capture a customer signature and send an email receipt.
- Leaders offers comparable features, but at a slightly higher cost per transaction.
- Intuit GoPayment also offers comparable features, but does not support Blackberry, and costs still more.
Tablets have many of the same functionalities as work stations and accommodate many of the same applications as mobile phones. Their business usage is growing.
- Get everyone on the same page in meetings. Each person can view the same website or presentation, while taking individual notes.
- Scan barcodes and enter data in warehouses, where terminals may not be conveniently located.
- Process credit card sales, just like with your mobile phone.
- Eliminate paper.
- Load Google Voice or Skype, plug in a headset, and use your tablet as a phone.
- Edit or create documents on the go.
- During those inevitable times when you have to wait for someone, catch up on your email.
Design and Fabrication
The all-important area of production has also been tremendously impacted by computer technology. A business's viability is frequently linked to its ability to develop new products quickly and efficiently.
- With the advent of Computer Aided Design (CAD), most new product designs are now created on computers. Software design packages are highly precise, offering a broad creative spectrum and making it easy for designers to collaborate on projects.
- Thanks to 3D printers, companies can now upload newly designed products and generate fully-functional prototypes in a short time. For example, "printed" materials are used increasingly in surgical procedures and a firearm capable of shooting live rounds of ammunition was fabricated by a 3D printer.
Social media has a great many business uses, including:
- Low cost marketing
- Banner and text advertising
- Customer relationship management
- Global exposure
- Online meetings
- Building a sense of community with customers
The uses for social media in business are limited only by the scope of your imagination, but here are a few ideas that have worked well for others:
- Florida real estate agent Brad Officer calls social media the "alive factor," letting people know that you are alive and in business. He recommends setting up a Twitter account and a Facebook fan page for each listing, which includes extensive high quality photography and videography. This allows buyers to better screen properties before scheduling walk-throughs, saving precious time for both buyers and agents.
- Web content manager Jeff Crater thinks social media is a great tool for launching new products. He recommends setting up contests where customers post pictures of themselves holding or using your product. They can be funny or serious. People vote for the one they like best, and the winner gets a prize.
- Forbes recommends taking the lead from hospitals, which use social media as a means of motivating employees. Almost everyone appreciates being publicly acknowledged for a job well done.
Search Engine Optimization
Search engine optimization and marketing (SEO/SEM) have been around for some time, but they continue to gain in importance. Today's businesses must have websites and potential customers must be able to find them by searching for targeted keywords. Businesses that do not compete effectively in this arena simply do not exist in the awareness of tens of millions of potential customers.
Handheld Ordering Devices
Have you driven through a fast food restaurant lately and noticed an employee standing outside offering to take your order? They are using handheld ordering devices, which allow the restaurant to process orders more efficiently during peak times. They key in your menu selections, and the information transmits to terminals inside the store where other employees prepare your food. These devices also feed into an inventory system which alerts restaurant managers when they need to reorder. Some systems even reorder automatically, based on preset inventory levels.
You may have also seen these systems at work in grocery stores. Employees scan bar codes on the shelves and input inventory levels. These totals are added to any backroom inventory, allowing stores to keep an almost constant running tally. Again, the system alerts management when reorders are needed or places automatic reorders, based on preset parameters.
Similar systems are used in warehouses and are spreading to other types of businesses.
Only the Beginning
These are but a few key examples of the ways computers impact and are used in businesses, both large and small. There are thousands, if not millions, of other ways in which companies regularly put computers to good use. The growth of this trend shows no signs of slowing.