Technology product developments came at a blistering pace in 2007, including big moves from major vendors like Microsoft, Cisco, and Apple, as well as exciting innovations from several upstarts. Here's my list of the 10 most important business technology products of the year.
10. i-Mate smartphones
Decades from now, when the history of this period of technological revolution is written, 2007 might be remembered as the year of the smartphone (hint: that's a dead giveaway for what's No. 1 on this list). A ton of vendors made moves in the smartphone market in 2007. We had important developments from tech giants such as Microsoft, Google, and Intel, the traditional mobile handset makers such as Samsung, Motorola, LG, and Sony/Eriksson, and nearly all of the global wireless carriers. However, there were also important innovations from smaller players, such as i-Mate, which has developed a line of smartphones aimed at replacing laptops for mobile workers.
The i-Mate Ultimate smartphones look and act like the average high-end smartphone in most ways, but they have a critical trick up their sleeve. You can hook them up to a full VGA screen, connect peripherals, and run them like a desktop or laptop. They even have a built-in RDP client so that you can use them to connect via Remote Desktop to your machine back at the corporate headquarters. You can also use an i-Mate to connect directly to a projector and run a PowerPoint presentation from the phone. With this functionality, the i-Mate could be a peek at the future of the smartphone.
9. Sprint Xohm
Xohm is the brand name that Sprint has given to its forthcoming WiMAX service, which is expected to reach critical mass in the United States during a major rollout in 2008. You may rightly ask why I would put a product on this list when that product hasn't even been commercially deployed yet. There are two reasons.
First, I expect that this product will be that important -- it has the potential to finally untether and mobilize broadband Internet access and to bring cost-effective broadband to a lot of areas and regions that have been left off the information superhighway so far. Second, I've actually tried the preliminary Xohm network that Motorola built in Chicago (which will be one of the first two metro areas to get Xohm in 2008, along with Washington D.C.) and it appears that Xohm is going to be everything we hoped that WiMAX would be. Since these new WiMAX networks were built during 2007, and many of the Sprint's plans officially unveiled, I think Xohm deserves a place on the list.
It's tough to get excited about backend software like customer relations management (CRM) and sales force automation (SFA), but Salesforce.com has taken the mundane and complicated and made it easy to deploy for IT and easy to handle for users. Salesforce.com has been around since 1999, but in many ways, 2007 was the year it arrived. The company grew by 60% this year after 58% growth in 2006, and it now has more than 35,000 companies and nearly 1 million users running its software. The poster child for Software as a Service (SaaS) has been so successful that it is now working to extend its success into a full SaaS platform called Force.com.
7. (tie) Windows Vista and Mac OS X Leopard
During 2007, Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X -- the two most popular operating systems on planet Earth -- both released their most significant OS update in years. However, both upgrades have run into major stumbling blocks in their quest for user acceptance and for many of the same reasons -- compatibility issues with existing applications and hardware. IT departments and users are sick of paying to be beta testers.
Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard) has garnered more critical acclaim than Vista, and rightly so. It brings several new elegant usability touches to the desktop, led by its Spaces feature, which allows the user to switch between multiple desktop environments. This has been available in Linux for years and Apple uses it to excellent effect and usefulness in OS X 10.5. Also, Leopard's stacked folders for Documents and Downloads in the new Dock provide easy access to working files without cluttering up the desktop screen.
Vista includes some nice additions for home users (e.g., parental controls and better tools for photos and video), but it does not have much to offer over Windows XP for business users, especially now that nearly all of Vista's Windows Desktop Search features have been released for XP. Nevertheless, Vista has already captured about 4.5% of the desktop market, which is equal to the entire market share of Mac OS, according to W3Counter.
In both cases, if the software had been done right, Vista and Leopard should have been higher on this list rather than relegated to the bottom half. What's most significant about Vista and Leopard in 2007 is the fact that both of them have been dogged by compatibility problems and drawn a lot of public frustration from users, who are holding the feet of Microsoft and Apple to the fire. In 2007, users seem to be making the statement that they'd much rather have incremental OS improvements and updates than run huge upgrades that ultimately disable some of their most important hardware and software.
Another product that has been around for several years but really hit its stride in 2007 is LinkedIn. It is the representative of the social networking movement on this list. Essentially a combination of digital rolodex, online resume, and business networking forum, LinkedIn connects more than 16 million business professionals. There used to be a high percentage of techies and Web enthusiasts on LinkedIn, but now I'm finding more and more of my nontechnical friends and associates.
It is a very useful tool for keeping track of consultants, business partners, former colleagues, and other business associates. Rather than calling around or asking around to find out if so-and-so is still with Company X, just check that person's LinkedIn profile. Conversely, you can also use LinkedIn to find out who is the new VP of sales at Company Y, where your best contact recently left for greener pastures.
Although FaceBook is quickly expanding into business networking and does many of the same things as LinkedIn, it still feels like an after-work hangout. LinkedIn is a much more serious business site.
5. Zoho Office
I've written about Zoho several times during 2007, most prominently in Sanity check: Can tiny Zoho beat Microsoft and Google in online office apps? As I've said before, I believe that Zoho is the best-of-breed in online office apps. While Microsoft and Google have been wrestling with feature sets and business models for online office apps, Zoho has been lapping them by building online apps that deliver full functionality and take advantage of the power of the Web. The Zoho suite has more than 15 apps, headlined by Zoho Writer (word processing) and Zoho Sheet (spreadsheet). I've also been particularly impressed with Zoho Planner and Zoho Notebook.
As I wrote earlier this year, Zoho faces the same three challenges as other online apps: offline capability, security, and business model. Nevertheless, Zoho has created a terrific product and continues to improve and enhance it at a pace that is far faster than anything coming out of Google or Microsoft.
4. Cisco TelePresence
For 2008, John Chambers has sliced 20% out of the travel budget for all of Cisco Systems. This is not a cost-cutting measure. Chambers wants Cisco to eat its own dog food. One of the big pitches Cisco is making to large enterprises that deal with a geographically dispersed workforce is that they can decrease decision-making time and cut travel budgets by using Cisco TelePresence. These high-definition video and audio conferencing systems provide a virtual conference room setting that allows for much faster and more realistic interactions than traditional teleconferencing and video conferencing.
Cisco has done a terrific job of building an end-to-end solution. The biggest drawback of Cisco TelePresence is cost. It's in the $500,000 range -- minimum. Of course, if you're a large company that has scores of employees crisscrossing the country every week just to attend regular meetings, this solution can often reach a positive return-on-investment (ROI) within one to two years, and sometimes less. As the cost of video screens and bandwidth decreases and compression technologies improve, the cost of this solution will decrease dramatically. This is what standard teleconferencing will look like a decade from now.
3. Microsoft Outlook 2007
When I test a product, I try to actually use it as part of my daily work whenever possible. This summer I was testing Microsoft Office 2007 and so I installed it on a laptop I was using as my primary production machine. After the initial "where-is" feature frustration, I easily adapted to the new interface in Word and Excel and found that getting to most functions was probably a little quicker. But it was Outlook 2007 that really grabbed me.
Searching for old messages in Outlook had always been a crapshoot in past versions, but the new folder search at the top of every folder in Outlook 2007 works exactly as expected and is very speedy. There is also a golden parachute, since Outlook 2007 integrates with Windows Desktop Search (it requests you install WDS when you install Outlook 2007). Thus, you can use the WDS box on the Taskbar to search all folders and PST archive files for messages you can't find in specific Outlook folders. The other two features I loved in Outlook 2007 were 1.) the ability to paste as unformatted text (with Paste Special) so that you don't blow out the formatting of your typed message when you paste text, and 2.) the new calendar quick preview on the right side of the screen, which makes it really easy to see your upcoming meetings.
When I switched back to my primary ThinkPad laptop this fall, I also went back to Outlook 2003, since that was what has always been on that machine. I quickly realized I could no longer find my messages, I couldn't paste unformatted text, and I didn't have a quick glance at upcoming meetings on my calendar. When my IT department upgraded my machine to Office 2007 two weeks later, it was like a breath of fresh air to work in Outlook 2007 again.
At most of the IT conferences and expos I attended throughout 2007, there was rarely ever a busier booth than the one for OQO. Business professionals and techies simply loved to stop and ogle the "full PC that fits in your pocket." Technically, the OQO is an Ultra-Mobile PC (UMPC), but when you pick it up it simply feels like a device that combines the best mobility and connectivity features of a high-end smartphone with the computing power of an ultraportable notebook.
While most of the UMPCs from big vendors have received only a tepid response from businesses, the OQO, which is currently the sole product for San Francisco-based OQO, Inc., is being gobbled up by lots of different organizations in various industries. Movie producers are using them to watch dailies (with the help of specially modded Slingboxes). News photographers are using them to instantly submit their on-site photos, the U.S. Army uses them at security checkpoints in the Middle East. Others are using them as mini PCs for workers who don't sit at a desk. For these workers, the OQO is helping to create a new category of PCs -- one with a very high geek factor.
1. Apple iPhone
Before you accuse me of drinking the kool-aid on this one, hear me out. The iPhone's place at the top of my list is not for the same reasons you've read about in other publications, such as Time. Sure, the iPhone has a gorgeous design and an amazing user interface that blows away just about everything we've seen in a phone, or any other digital media device, for that matter. Nevertheless, the iPhone is not a great business smartphone because of its lack of mobile messaging options. Despite that, it has still made a major impact on business technology in 2007 for two critical reasons:
- It is the first phone to offer a truly usable Web browsing experience.
- It has popularized smartphones in the United States and created demand for them.
The iPhone offers the first great Web experience on a phone. It doesn't rely on custom versions or stripped-down versions or text-based versions of Web sites. It renders the full version. This has changed user expectations forever and will influence other products in the near future. The iPhone marketing and press blitz has also helped educate users about smartphones and thus created general demand for them. Many users are starting to feel like they need to have one to keep up, in the same way that many users started gravitating toward PCs two decades ago.
This information is also available as a PDF download. For more screenshots and images of all 10 of these products, see our companion gallery, Photos: The top 10 business technology products of 2007.
What do you think were the most important business technology products of 2007? Join the discussion.
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Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks.