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10 tech tools that business won’t be able to live without

Technology that's coming soon to your office, if it's not already there

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If we were to turn the clock back 20 years and predict what sorts of technology business people would be using in the future, the Internet and cellphones would have ranked high on the list.
A similar exercise today is harder to do, given the exponential pace at which technology is advancing. Twenty years from now, we could all be communicating telepathically with Internet-connected chips in our brains, or we may not have to work at all, with robots doing everything for us. Who really knows?
Thankfully, the near term is a little easier to see and possibly even predict. In that vein, here are 10 technologies that are either coming soon to an office near you – or that are already here, but are set to get a lot better this year.

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1. Portable power:

Most technology is subject to Moore’s Law, which says things gets better and cheaper the longer we go. As any smartphone user knows, batteries have somehow resisted this trend.
Despite the increasingly complex and amazing things phones can do – or actually, because of them – battery life is either not keeping pace or getting shorter. Until a breakthrough is made, we’ll have to improvise.
A good solution in the meantime is portable power in the form of separate charging devices.
Phone makers themselves, such as Nokia, are pumping out these accessories, which plug into a wall and charge up, then connect to your phone when it’s running low and transfer over their power.
Third-party makers such as myCharge are also fielding a raft of products, from simple $25 devices that provide a phone with a full charge, to the $100 Peak 6000, which can repower up to three phones or tablets at once.
Protective cases that double as charging skins, such as those from Hyperion and Myedour, are also good options.

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2. Wireless power:

Just as batteries haven’t improved much, the need for a power cord just doesn’t seem to be going away despite the proliferation of wireless connection technologies. That’s finally starting to change, with the first commercialized steps happening in smartphones.
A few companies, again including Nokia and the defunct Palm, paved the way by incorporating wireless charging into their previous devices, and now Samsung has taken up the banner with its new Galaxy S4.
The device is sure to be a hit, which means that competitors such as Apple are going to be forced to raise their games – likely by also including wireless power, perhaps with the Qi standard that Samsung and Nokia are using. So far, most such wireless power devices – including Duracell’s popular PowerMat, which charges a number of gizmos at once – have used magnetic induction, which requires physical contact.
On the horizon, however, is magnetic resonance technology, which allows charging from a few feet away.
That means phones and other devices are finally set to lose their last remaining tethers.

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3. Near-field communications:

Speaking of wireless technologies, near-field communications (NFC) has been that young, up-and-coming rookie who hasn’t yet fulfilled his potential for several years now.
That looks to change soon, as well, not because of any technological issue, but rather because the money side of things is finally getting sorted out.
NFC has been touted as the key to mobile payments – or m-commerce – since it allows the secure transfer of data through the simple tapping together of two enabled devices.
It has already been incorporated into devices by several manufacturers, including Research In Motion and Samsung, who are just waiting on stores and merchants to activate their systems.
The holdup, according to m-commerce experts, has been in deciding how to slice up transaction fees.
The traditional partners in the system, from credit card networks, to issuing banks, to merchants, have resisted giving up cuts to the newcomers, which include software and handset makers and even wireless providers. But some of those new players, notably Google, don’t really care about getting financial remuneration every time the user makes a purchase – they’re more interested in the data he or she is generating.
In Google’s case, the potential advertising uses of that information is worth its weight in gold.
That’s why the company is pushing its NFC-enabled Google Wallet, a feature that is also sure to spur competitors into action.

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4. BYOD connections:

Much has been made in recent years about the BYOD, or bring-your-own-device, trend, where employees have been using their personal smartphones for business in favour of company-issued devices.
The trend makes a lot of sense, since smartphones are very personal gadgets – it’s not called an “i” phone for nothing – and workers don’t want to have to lug two of them around. Work phones and personal phones are thus destined to merge, which presents something of a problem for corporate information technology departments.
How does a business let workers use their own devices, yet still keep them secure?
That’s where the burgeoning field of BYOD management comes in, with companies such as Research In Motion getting involved. While the Waterloo, Ont.-based company has lost much of its momentum in recent years selling smartphones, it is in the midst of reorienting toward becoming a provider of such management services.
Its BlackBerry Enterprise Service 10 is a system that companies can use to incorporate all of their employees’ personal iPhones and Android devices with their work servers, keeping the two profiles separate and secure.
The company has announced that the popular “Balance” feature on its latest BlackBerry Z10, which indeed splits the user’s data into personal and work profiles, will be coming to BES 10 this summer.

iStockphoto

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5. Wearable computers:

Google isn’t just pushing mobile payments, it’s also a driving force in wearable computers through Glass, its “smart” glasses that will be available this year.
In demos, Google’s glasses have enabled wearers to take pictures and videos, have video conferences with each other, map directions and navigate, and otherwise perform many smartphone functions.
Yet, all of this will happen on a screen that is effectively worn in front of your eyes.
Apple, Samsung and others are also reportedly working on “smart” watches, which will similarly bring many smartphone functions to a wrist-worn device.
It may sound goofy or science-fictiony right now, but application developers will inevitably think up ways to use these new devices in ways that will probably make them indispensable.
One use of smart glasses that is already on the horizon: instant translation of signs from foreign languages. Whether they’re on business or pleasure, travellers will eventually wonder how they ever lived without this particular technology.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

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6. 3-D printers:

Technology analysis firm Gartner might have put three-dimensional printing at the very top of its annual hype cycle last year, but that’s not necessarily a knock on the field.
After all, the “plateau of productivity” usually follows the firm’s “peak of inflated expectations” and “trough of disillusionment.”
The popular notion about 3-D printing right now is that it’s mainly being used by hobbyists to create simple toys and knick-knacks, but according to a recent report, this sort of “additive manufacturing” accounts for between 20 and 25 per cent of the industrial parts being made today, which puts the technology well on its way to wide-scale acceptance.
With smaller, individual-use printers from companies such as Makerbot getting better and cheaper – the company’s Replicator 2 costs $2,200 – rapid prototyping is already within reach of most businesses, regardless of size.

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7. Pico projectors:

So you’ve got a PowerPoint presentation to make? There are a few options for showing it, with the most common – and most old-school – involving the lugging of your laptop to the conference room, where it’s hooked up to a projector.
Some smartphones can do this now, although the big projector is still necessary. Enter pico projectors: tiny devices that are even smaller than the smartphone itself.
They’re not as good or bright as their bigger cousins, but they’re also completely portable and getting better all the time, so much so that phone makers are starting to incorporate them into their devices themselves.
Samsung tried it last year with the Galaxy Beam, but the phone didn’t do very well because of its otherwise underwhelming features.
Packing pico projectors into smartphones is still a little on the expensive side, but with the cost of the technology coming down, they will inevitably be finding their way into more and more devices.

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8. Personal assistants:

Computers are getting pretty good at predicting things about us, provided we give them enough information to work with.
Amazon, for example, has a knack for suggesting new stuff that might be of interest based on what we’ve bought from it in the past.
But these algorithms are lacking context – they’re not sure when to tell us these things, which can often make the difference between whether or not their suggestions are useful.
So far, they’ve been pretty passive about it all – Amazon is only helpful when we go to the website, while Apple’s Siri only works when we call it up.
That’s changing, though, with machines starting to understand context better. Google Now, a feature in Android phones launched last year, is a good example.
If you input an appointment into your calendar, for example, Google Now will map out directions to it and scan traffic leading up to it, then alert you as to when it thinks you should leave.
Secretaries and real-life assistants should beware – their jobs are endangered.

Library of Congress

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9. Driving apps:

Speaking of traffic, every aspect of moving around in a car is changing – in most cases for the better. A slew of new apps are using everything from publicly available data, to proprietary information, to crowd-sourced events in order to smooth how we get from point A to point B.
Taxi apps such as Hailo and Uber are bringing that industry into the digital age, with smartphone users able to connect and transact with taxi drivers via their smartphones.
With traditional taxi companies having to raise their games, there will soon be no more standing around waiting for a cab, or watching someone else steal your hail. Meanwhile, apps such as Waze are using their ever-increasing install base to document traffic snafus and even police speed traps in real-time.
Parko, another Israeli startup, seeks to connect phone users looking for parking spots, thereby saving people the hassle of circling the block over and over.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

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10. Robot cars:

And speaking of the car revolution, the robots are coming.
It’s another one of those technologies that sounds like science fiction, but it’s also quickly becoming a reality.
So far, the champion of the cause has been Google, which sees robot cars as a project that simply needs to happen.
Theoretically, the company could connect such vehicles to its navigation systems and watch the ad revenue from participating businesses roll in.
But traditional car companies have joined in, too, with both Lexus and Audi legitimizing the field this year with announcements at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
The race – pardon the pun – to develop more autonomous vehicles is on, with developments slowly leaking into commercialization along the way.
Many of the newest models already have lane and distance sensors, as well as cameras in the back to detect oncoming hazards. Autonomous driving is likely to first happen on highways, thereby freeing drivers to do more productive things.
It won’t happen tomorrow, but with the competition joined, it’s likely to arrive sooner than anyone expects.

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