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Author Archives: Anthony Hill

Cloud Office suites let you stay productive when you’ve got time to kill

Creative tablet computer with mobile phones cloud of colorful ap

Whether you’re sitting at the bus stop or waiting for a flight, a cloud Office suite ensures that you can always get things done.

Getting stuck waiting for something isn’t always a bad thing, sometimes it offers you some much-needed downtime for luxuries like reading the newspaper over coffee. Of course at other times you can’t afford to sit around getting nothing done, especially if you’re your own boss and time is money.

That’s where a cloud-based Office suite can come to your rescue, ensuring that everything you need to get things done is at your fingertips – regardless of where you are and which gadgets you have at hand. Keeping your calendar and to-do list in the cloud makes it easy to quickly find a task which you can knock over in the time available.

With your files stored in the cloud it’s easy to dip in and resume work on a document in process. You don’t have the hassles of emailing copies of files to yourself and keeping track of the changes, as you know everything will be in order when you get back to your desk so you can pick up where you left off.

Even if you’re working offline, for instance on a flight, you know that all your work will be synced to the cloud next time you reconnect to the internet. If you’re flying economy and discover you don’t have the elbow room to pull your notebook out of your bag, you can get just as much done using the smartphone in your pocket.

Working in the cloud also means you have the benefit of knowing that your files are safely stored online rather than just on your specific devices, keeping your data safe should one of your gadgets come to grief due to fire, theft, hardware failure or simple clumsiness.

If your cloud storage service keeps an archive of previous versions of your documents then you can always roll back time if disaster strikes, such as ransomware encrypting all your precious files and demanding money for their release.

Working in the cloud can also save the day if disaster means that your office is temporarily out of bounds. You might not be able to reach your desk, but if you can still reach your important files then you can take care of business while you put your disaster recovery plan into action.

Meanwhile the collaboration tools built into cloud services make it easier to work with colleagues whether they’re on the other side of the office or the other side of the world. Throw online communication tools into the mix and you might find that you’re no longer tied to your desk or even the traditional concept of an office.

Freeing your documents from the restraints of your desktop PC doesn’t just break the shackles which tie you to your desk, it also allows you to completely rethink your approach to work to ensure that you’re always getting the most from your day.


What’s your tech disaster backup plan when you travel for work?

hardware-backup

It’s important to have a Plan B in case your tech fails you while you’re on the other side of the country or halfway around the world.

As careful as you might be when you travel, there’s always the risk that your gadgets could be lost, broken or stolen while you’re on the road. Should you find yourself facing such a disaster you probably can’t afford to take the rest of the week off, especially if you have clients relying on you and deadlines to meet.

While computers, smartphones and tablets are expensive to replace, the data stored on them could be just as valuable. If you’re backing up your devices to the cloud and syncing your files with other devices then hopefully you shouldn’t lose much data if one or more of your devices comes to grief.

Of course you’ll still need a way to access that data and keep working. It might be as simple as jumping on a PC at the hotel business centre, assuming you can securely access everything you need though a desktop browser – which requires some advance planning on your part.

If the business centre won’t cut it, maybe because you need to work on the move, then you’ll need other options at your disposal.

Perhaps you’d be prepared to walk into a store and purchase replacement gadgets on the spot, but you still need to ensure that you know all the logins and passwords required to get up and running again. This is where an online password manager might come in handy, along with the sync features in your desktop browser which download your passwords, favourites and browsing history once you log into your account.

Also consider whether you’ll be caught out by the need to receive a two-factor authentication code to access your accounts on new devices. Check whether your services offer single-use passwords or other workarounds to use in these situations.

Rather than buying new hardware while you’re travelling, perhaps you can make do with your other devices until you get home.

Consider which apps and services you’d need to set up on your smartphone in order to keep working should your notebook be out of action. You probably can’t completely replicate your desktop workflow on a mobile device, so think about which tasks are essential when you’re on the road and which can wait until you get back to your office.

If working on your phone would be a challenge then consider carrying a Bluetooth wireless keyboard, or alternatively you could just buy one on the road if you need it – even a cheap one from the supermarket will do in an emergency.

There’s no one-size fits all solution, so you’ll need to develop the best emergency plan to meet your specific needs. Whatever you decide, make sure you go through a trial run before you travel – work on your backup devices for a day to see what’s vital and what you can temporarily live without in an emergency. Don’t wait until it’s too late to discover that your disaster recovery plan isn’t enough to save the day.


Is your business ready for Google’s big HTTPS push?

internet concept

Google is determined to see encryption used right across the web and it’s preparing to publicly shame businesses which don’t add HTTPS security to their websites.

While the HTTP standard is great for building webpages to share with the world, it wasn’t really designed for those times when you need to ensure that no-one is snooping on your online activities. That’s where HTTPS comes in, creating an encrypted link from a browser tab all the way to the webpage in an effort to foil anyone trying to eavesdrop in search of sensitive information.

When you’re visiting a HTTPS website, your browser displays a padlock alongside the URL to assure you that your web traffic is encrypted – you should always check for it before shopping or banking online.

Another benefit of HTTPS is that it uses signed security certificates to ensure that you’re really connected to your bank’s website and not a spoof website set up to trick you into entering your login and password. The encrypted connection also foils man in the middle attacks, ensuring a third-party website isn’t silently listening in whilst relaying traffic between your browser and your bank’s website.

If your business operates an e-commerce site which requires customers to enter payment details then you’re surely already using HTTPS to protect your customers, but there’s a push for it to be adopted right across the web. These days even mundane online activities can offer a treasure trove of insight to someone snooping on your online habits, which is why Google already uses HTTPS to protect search results pages.

Google also uses HTTPS as a ranking signal, which means if your website doesn’t use it you’re in danger of being pushed down in search results. Now the search giant is preparing to take its HTTPS push to the next level.

Google’s Chrome browser already alerts you if a standard HTTP page asks you to enter payment details, plus it displays an ‘i’ icon alongside any URL which doesn’t use HTTPS. Click on the icon and you’re told that any data you enter into this page could be intercepted by attackers.

As of October, Chrome will display ‘Not secure’ alongside the URL as soon as you start to type anything into a page which doesn’t use HTTPS. If this sounds like your business website then you need to move with the times and adopt HTTPS, or else visitors to your site will get a clear message that you’re not serious about security.

Thankfully Google offers plenty of resources for webmasters ready to make the move to HTTPS, while the cost of implementation has become more affordable. If you can’t afford for your customers to lose faith in you then you can afford to spend some time and effort upgrading your business website to support HTTPS.


Don’t sacrifice substance for style when buying a portable computer

Ultrabook

Slimline Ultrabooks and hybrid 2-in-1 tablets look great and are light on your shoulder, but make sure they still meet all your needs when you’re working on the road.

These days there’s more choice than ever if you’re looking for a portable computer and it’s easy to get swept up in the latest trends. If you’re looking for a productivity tool then you shouldn’t shop with an eye for fashion, instead you should look for the most practical device to meet your specific needs.

That said, there’s no shame in looking for a slender design if your previous notebooks have weighed you down. Just be sure to consider what you’re sacrificing in return. Think long and hard about exactly what you’ll need to do with your computer and what can wait until you get back to your desk.

If you’re on the road then your primary concern should be battery life, especially if you’ll need to get through an entire day on a single charge. You’ll need to trade battery life against weight and processing power. Many slimline devices shed weight by opting for a smaller battery. Meanwhile more powerful processors demand more juice, as do large, bright screens with high resolutions.

If you spend most of your time typing then you definitely want to assess the keyboard, preferably with some hands on time in a store rather than simply looking at photos online. Small computers tend to feature small, cramped keyboards which can slow you down – especially if some of the keys are in unusual locations. You should also consider the size and placement of the trackpad.

Thin devices don’t leave much room for “travel” in the keys, referring to how far they sink down when you press them. It might not sound like a big deal, but keys without much travel don’t tend to feel good under your fingertips. It’s even worse when typing on an onscreen virtual keyboard, where you’re bashing away at a slab of glass which doesn’t have any give.

At the other end of the spectrum, watch out for keyboards which have too much flex. Press down on the ‘h’ key and see if the entire keyboard sinks in the middle like a sponge. The keyboard cases which come with hybrid devices like the Microsoft Surface Pro can have a bit of bounce in them.

After the keyboard you’ll want to think about connectors, as they’re often shed in the pursuit of a slender design. Chances are your portable device won’t come with an optical drive, which probably won’t bother you, but you could also lose the Ethernet port, SD card slot, VGA port and full-sized HDMI port. You might also find yourself needing to make do with fewer USB ports.

These sacrifices might not be deal-breakers if you’re prepared to carry around a few dongles in your travel bag, but think about it upfront rather than discovering the hard way that your new computer is lacking a few features that you need on the road.


Rollout delays might keep your business off the NBN for longer than expected

nbnmap

As the national rollout picks up pace, NBN is putting more and more premises in the too-hard basket and sending them to the back of the queue.

Australia’s nationwide high-speed broadband rollout is approaching the half-way mark, aiming to hook up the entire country by 2020 using a mix of technologies. Some businesses will receive fibre all the way to the premises, while others will only receive fibre to the curb, basement or neighbourhood node while relying on the existing copper phone lines to cover the last mile.

Around 30 percent of premises – mostly in the major cities – will connect to the NBN via the pay TV HFC cable networks. Meanwhile around 7 percent of premises will rely on Fixed Wireless or satellite, mostly in regional and remote Australia although also on some city fringes.

By now the online NBN rollout map should give you a rough idea of when the NBN will reach area your area and which rollout technology will run to your door. The rollout is gathering pace, but unfortunately it’s not all smooth sailing.

The NBN uses a range of “Service Class” classifications to describe the current telecommunications connectivity at a premises, so it knows how much work is involved in connecting up the NBN. There are more than a dozen Service Classes and the lowest is Service Class 0, which basically means there is no existing connectivity or there are major impediments to connecting your premises.

This time last year only 10,000 premises across the country were deemed Service Class 0, but the number has blown out to 100,000 over the last 12 months and is likely to grow as more installation issues are discovered. Premises classified as Service Class 0 will likely need to wait until 2020 before they’re connected, as NBN wants to focus on the easy installs and get as many premises as possible connected as soon as possible.

Regardless of what’s happening in your suburb, if your business premises is deemed Service Class 0 you could be in for a long wait. If you’re concerned it’s worth investigating the issue, if you’ve been pushed to the back of the queue and you can’t wait until 2020 then perhaps it’s time to start considering your alternatives.

To further complicate matters, NBN has already revealed details of delays to the HFC cable rollout – caused by demand for connections doubling NBN expectations and a spate of cable activation issues.

Premises destined for HFC cable NBN connections which don’t have an existing cable lead-in from the street will now be pushed to the end of the Ready For Service lists sent to internet service providers as the NBN reaches a new suburb. It’s not the same as being declared Service Class 0, but it could see you wait another six months compared to the other premises in your area.

The NBN rollout is picking up speed, but it’s worth checking whether your business will be stuck in the slow lane for a while yet.


Is it time to crack down on office paperwork?

Accounting

If paperwork is choking your business then perhaps it’s time to take paper out of the equation.

Paperwork might be a necessary evil, but actual paper isn’t. These days pretty much any business process you manage via paper can be digitised – not only helping to curb your business costs but also offering a major productivity boost.

If you’re trying to eliminate that briefcase full of documents, or the makeshift filing cabinet in the boot of your car, then you’ll need a portable device to take its place like a notebook, smartphone or tablet. It’s tempting to rush out and buy a fleet of Apple iPads or Microsoft Surface Pro tablets, but you’d be approaching the problem backwards.

The first step is to definite the specific problems and business processes you want to address and then start evaluating possible solutions, rather than starting with a shiny gadget and then hoping it meets your needs.

Don’t try to change everything at once, instead start with the low hanging fruit so you can get early runs on the board and perhaps look for a quick return on investment.

You might start by considering a document management system to make it easy to store large libraries of static reference documents, from customer contracts to council regulations. Straight away you’re carrying less paper, plus you’ve made that document archive easier to search, share, synchronise between devices and backup to the cloud.

Always think about the big picture, because once your business starts to see the benefits of digitisation and the cloud you’ll begin to recognise other opportunities for improvement. For example you might decide to integrate your document management system with a project management platform or Customer Relationship Management suite to help create a single view of clients or projects.

These kinds of powerful business tools were once only available to the big end of town, but the cloud puts a wide range of enterprise-grade services within reach of small businesses. They’re also designed to scale as your business expands to help ease some of the traditional business growing pains.

Any efforts to eliminate paper from your workflows should be part of a wider business strategy to improve the way your business runs and equip you to tackle new challenges.


Are you making the most of your customers?

customers

Customers are one of your business’ most precious assets and if you don’t understand them, you’re flying blind.

Considering businesses tend to live or die depending on how many customers walk through the door, many businesses know surprisingly little about what makes their customers tick. Going on a gut feeling will only get you so far — there comes a time when you need to take a more systematic approach to understanding your customers to ensure you’re making the most of each other.

Customer relationship management (CRM) software is no longer just for the big end of town, with a new generation of cloud-based services designed to put enterprise-grade features within the reach of the smallest of businesses.

Rather than just offer a centralised way for your people to manage your customer contact details, a well-rounded CRM system lets them handle everything from marketing, lead generation and prospect nurturing, to sales, order tracking and forecasting. It can bring you closer to having a single holistic view of a customer, making it easier to transform all that data into insight.

You can also use a CRM system to manage a customer loyalty program that goes far beyond simply stamping a loyalty card and giving customers their 10th coffee for free. Electronic loyalty programs gather invaluable data regarding customer behaviour, which can help with business planning by giving insights into purchasing trends, peak demand times and staffing requirements.

This information can also help with cross-selling and upselling — which is not a dirty world if handled delicately and selectively, rather than taking a shotgun approach and risking alienating some customers. Customer behaviour data also allows you to look at the big picture, including conversion rates, customer lifecycles and customer lifetime value.

Once you move into data analytics you can also look for indications of customer dissatisfaction and tell-tale signs of impending churn. Churn is not necessarily a bad thing; once you map customer lifecycles you can better appreciate that sometimes losing a customer is for the best. Once you understand your customers, you can focus on attracting and retaining the right kind of customer, with a better appreciation of what they actually want from you.

If you don’t know which are your most valuable customers, or even how to measure true customer value in your industry, then it’s time to do your homework. Once you have a better understanding of your customers, you can start focusing your efforts to ensure you keep the right customers coming back for more.


Is your old-school finance system holding your business back?

finance

If your paperwork piles up while you’re away from your desk then it might be time to streamline your business with a cloud-based finance package.

Paperwork is one of those necessary evils when you run a business. You might prefer to spend all your time focusing on your passions, but the business won’t get far if you neglect your finances.

There was a time when all of that admin work saw you stuck at your desk for hours, wading through piles of paperwork and dealing with desktop software restricted to a single computer. If your job involved spending most of your day away from your desk then all that paperwork would need to wait until the end of the day, week or even month.

These delays can play havoc with your cashflow if you’re putting off issuing invoices, processing payments and chasing slow payers. As a result you might be working harder than ever, yet feel like you’ve got little to show for it when it comes time to pay your own bills.

Thankfully the new generation of cloud-based finance packages make it easy to manage your business anywhere, anytime and from practically any device. All your data is securely hosted online, so you can pick up your computer, smartphone or tablet and have everything at your fingertips. You also have the advantage of paying a monthly subscription for your finance system rather than buying the software outright in a lump sum.

The more finance processes you can automate the smoother your business will run, for example by automatically reconciling a customer’s payment advice against your bank statements and notifying you of outstanding invoices.

You can turn any handheld device into a portable payments terminal using a tiny contactless card reader, letting you do business on the spot while importing the transaction directly into your finance system.

Meanwhile it’s easy to track your expenses on the go, processing them straight from your smartphone rather than throwing all your paper receipts in a box until tax time.

A cloud-based finance package saves you time and effort every day, but you’ll particularly appreciate the benefits when it comes time to pay your quarterly Business Activity Statement or annual tax bill. Instead of spending days shuffling paperwork and scouring spreadsheets, you can now draw together that information with a few clicks.

There are several cloud-based finance packages to choose from, some offering optional advanced modules such as inventory and payroll. It’s worth seeking advice from your accountant and doing plenty of research to find the best fit for your business, rather than jumping in the deep end and hoping for the best.

Keep in mind that you’re not just looking for a finance system which meets your current needs, it needs to scale to meet your future needs so you don’t outgrow it quickly. That way you can get back to doing what you do best, knowing that your cloud finance package is taking care of business.


Is there room for a streaming media player in your office?

appletv

Streaming media players like the Apple TV and Google’s Chromecast might seem more at home in the lounge room than the boardroom, but these tiny wireless gadgets offer a great way to fling presentations and other content around your office.

No matter how articulate you are in the boardroom, sometimes it’s more powerful to show people what you mean rather than just talking them through it. A new generation of slick presentation tools have helped us escape from PowerPoint hell, but there’s still the challenge of getting your presentation up on the big screen.

It’s easy to spend a lot of money setting up an expensive networked multimedia system in your office, but before you splash some cash it’s worth considering whether a simple streaming media player like the Apple TV or Google’s Chromecast could be the solution to your problems.

They’re best known as the easiest way to get streaming video services like Netflix into your lounge room, but these devices also let you mirror the desktop from your computer, smartphone or tablet. You can plug a player into any monitor, television or projector with an HDMI video port, giving it a wireless overhaul so it’s easy to fling video to it. This is even more convenient if you regularly waste time during meetings waiting for one person to relinquish control of the big screen while the next person fumbles with the cables they need to connect.

As you’d expect, the Apple TV is a very Apple-centric device, designed to play nicely with iPhones, iPads and Macs using Apple’s AirPlay streaming format. You can easily mirror the screen from any of these Apple devices, and many iOS apps have built-in AirPlay video support.

If you’re only interested in AirPlay then an old third generation Apple TV should do the job, and you’ll find them for less than $100. The newer fourth generation Apple TV starts at $239, but in return you gain the ability to run a wide range of third-party apps.

There’s no official Android support for AirPlay. You’ll find third-party apps in the Google Play store that support AirPlay video streaming, such as Allcast, AppleTV AirPlay Media Player and AirScreen – AirPlay & iTunes, but the results can be hit and miss.

Meanwhile Google’s Chromecast is more flexible—it’s designed to mirror the screen from an Android device, Windows PC or Mac, plus mirroring is built into the Chrome desktop browser. You’ll pick up the Chromecast for around $59, or you can step up to the $99 Chromecast Ultra, which supports Ultra HD resolution.

Streaming to a Chromecast from an iGadget is slightly less convenient. You can’t mirror the screen but you can mirror Chromecast-compatible apps—not just multimedia apps like Netflix and YouTube, but also Google’s apps like Google Slides for presentations and Google Photos for images and video clips.

Choosing between Google’s Chromecast and the Apple TV comes down to what devices you’ll need to connect—you might even decide it’s worth having one of each. Once they’re set up, it’s simple to get your big ideas up on the big screen in the office.


Fire up your VPN when using public Wi-Fi

mobilevpn

It’s best to play it safe when you’re out of the office using someone else’s Wi-Fi network.

Mobile data has traditionally been rather expensive in Australia so we’re in the habit of jumping onto free Wi-Fi networks wherever we find them—from cafes and shopping centres to sporting stadiums and airport lounges. These days mobile data costs have fallen and monthly download allowances are more generous, yet we still tend to use free public Wi-Fi when we’re out and about.

The trouble with using public Wi-Fi is that you don’t know who controls the network and whether they’re trying to eavesdrop on your online activities. In somewhere like an airport lounge, who is to say that the nearby “Public_WiFi” network isn’t really being generated by someone sitting at the next table, hoping that you’ll assume it’s a legitimate network?

Even if you are connecting to a legitimate Wi-Fi network in somewhere like a cafe, can you be sure that the network hasn’t been infiltrated by someone who is up to no good? The cafe owner might make a great latte, but what are their credentials when it comes to wireless network security? Would they even know if someone was lurking on the network, watching for passwords and other sensitive information?

If you can’t vouch for the integrity of a Wi-Fi network then it’s best to engage a virtual private network (VPN) to cloak your activities. A VPN creates an encrypted tunnel between your device—your computer, smartphone or tablet—and the VPN server. The VPN server then acts as your gateway to the internet.

The benefit of this is that no-one else on the Wi-Fi network can monitor what you’re doing online, not even the network operator. They might be able to tell that you’ve created a secure encrypted connection, but they can’t peer inside to see what you’re doing.

There are plenty of free and paid VPN providers to choose from, although you tend to get what you pay for in terms of speed and security so be wary of using a free service to protect important business data.

Alternatively you might run your own VPN server in the office and let remote staff connect directly to that server. One advantage of this is that your people are making a secure connection all the way to the office, rather than just to a third-party VPN server in the cloud. Another advantage is that once connected to the office VPN, your people can access in-house servers and other systems that aren’t accessible across the open internet.

As Australia’s 4G mobile data networks become cheaper and faster there’s less and less reason to use public Wi-Fi hotspots, but if you do, it’s important to take sensible precautions to protect your privacy.


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