The Entrepreneur's Guide to Tech

Despite the economic downturn, advances in technology have prompted more people to start their own businesses, according to a 2009 survey by Microsoft (MSFT). The surveyed entrepreneurs, 70% of which were employed when they took the plunge and went off on their own, credited things like cloud computing and mobile technology as reasons they were able to start a business.

Here’s a look at some of the technology that’s enabling this new crop of entrepreneurs.

Cloud computing has been a buzz phrase in the technology sector for some time now. Simply put, cloud computing provides the ability to access software applications, whether its e-mail, customer relationship management or storage applications, from the Internet. For small businesses, that means they don’t have to commit the capital to install computer hardware like servers and storage systems to run the applications. It also means they can pay a monthly subscription and forgo hiring a full-time IT person.

These mobile computers come in many different flavors, from the pricey high-end ones to the low cost netbooks. All provide the freedom to conduct business from anywhere --  whether in a coffee shop or at a baseball game. The prevalence of hands-free Internet hot spots and wireless Internet cards means anytime-and-anywhere web access is indeed a reality. Add cloud computing to the mix, and a small business can access anything and everything from the road.

Whether it’s LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter, social networks have opened an inexpensive door for small businesses to reach potential customers and build loyalty among existing ones. Web sites like LinkedIn provide a way to network with people within an industry, while Facebook and Twitter, if used correctly, can generate some buzz, which may translate into sales. Before the advent of these social networks, small businesses had little other options than to pay to run ads on the Web or use traditional marketing means to reach customers. And in this ever-increasing mobile world, a small business can from virtually anywhere post something on Twitter or update a company’s Facebook page.

Perhaps it’s a Blackberry, iPhone or even an iPad, a smartphone has become a necessity for many small businesses. Like a notebook, a smartphone gives small businesses the freedom to conduct business on the go. With smartphones, not only is the Internet at your fingertip, but so is the ability to jump on that conference or sales call. The popularity of smartphones, especially the iPhone, has created a marketplace of applications for small businesses that can be downloaded to the phone.  The iPad,  Apple’s (AAPL) latest device, makes conducting business for small businesses even easier. After all the iPad, with its 9.7 inch screen, can be used out in the field to quickly fill out forms or as a screen for presentations.

Technology has come a long way since the personal computer was invented in the 1970’s. As with technology waves in the past, the next phase of evolution will surely improve productivity -- but could also have a visual bent, said TJ DiCaprio, director of US EPG Marketing Initiatives at Microsoft.

“The goal is have the flexibility to communicate wherever and whenever with the understanding [of] the need to maintain relationships,” said DiCaprio. That could mean laptops with more visual and audio elements.  “We need to be able to feel close to each other.”