The unrelenting pace of innovation in the technology industry continued its march in 2008. Here is a look at the 10 technology products that had the most important impact for businesses.
10. HP EliteBook laptops
Hewlett-Packard has already overtaken the top spot for worldwide PC sales, but the company is making a stronger run than ever at the business notebook market, where ThinkPads from IBM and Lenovo have been the gold standard for a decade and a half. HP's EliteBook line of business laptops now offers a variety of industrial-strength features that cater to IT departments. This includes full magnesium alloy chassis, scratch resistant covers, special coating on keyboards and touch pads to guard against wear, torture testing against drops, vibration, dust, high and low temperatures, and humidity, a digital accelerometer to detect bumps and jumps so that it can park the heads on the hard disk, lean image installations to reduce standard software package, the ability to login with a fingerprint at the BIOS level, and the ability to remotely overwrite the hard drive with zeroes and ones seven times to completely sanitize all of the data on the drive.
9. Zoho online productivity suite
While Google occasionally adds new features to its online productivity applications and Microsoft is rumored to be preparing an online version of Microsoft Office that it can release as soon as its market share comes under serious fire from online competitors, Zoho has quietly been building an impressive fleet of Web-based productivity and business applications that are far more numerous and sophisticated than what Google offers and truly take advantage of the Web rather than just bringing offline apps into the browser. Especially for small businesses, Zoho is a viable alternative to Microsoft Office, and it not only saves money but also provides productivity benefits with online collaboration.
8. LifeSize HD videoconferencing
With the seismic tremors in the global economy, a lot of businesses are naturally tightening up their 2009 travel budgets. So you can expect that video conferencing will be one of the growing areas of IT in 2009. Cisco Telepresence offers an amazing video conferencing experience, but the price tag is often at least a half million dollars. Meanwhile, LifeSize HD video conferencing is nearly as good and it costs far less (usually under $40K). It also uses a lot less bandwidth, which also saves big money. In the budget-conscious 2009 environment, I think it's much more likely that high-quality, bargain solutions like the ones from Lifesize and Vidyo will get widespread consideration from IT departments than the high-end telepresence systems from Cisco and HP.
One of my biggest complaints with today's IT is that it is great at gathering data and very poor at presenting the data in usable ways that workers can use for better and faster decision-making. In terms of IT management, this problem can be seen in all of the different log files and interfaces that an IT engineer has to check in order to monitor and manage the health of the IT infrastructure. One solution that does a great job of consolidating all of that IT data and making it viewable and searchable: Splunk. Splunk easily gathers data from virtually any system or source and makes it searchable and visual through Web-based reports. Plus, the pricing is simple (you pay per volume of data) and reasonable. In 2008, Splunk introduced a Change Management module and a Windows version that integrates with Microsoft System Center.
Salesforce.com is arguably the business world's most popular Web-based application. It is a customer relationship management (CRM) and sales force automation (SFA) tool that is easy to deploy and simple for always-on-the-go sales professionals to access. Now, Salesforce.com has extended this concept to other applications by opening up the platform that Salesforce.com is built on to businesses to allow them to use it to run their own applications, from Salesforce.com extensions to custom line-of-business apps to third-party apps for ERP, supply chain management (SCM), human resource management (HRM), and more. The platform is called Force.com and is aimed at streamlining the amount of time and effort it takes to successfully deploy these types of complicated apps.
5. Amazon Web Services
Another company that is having an important impact on the way business technology is done is Amazon. Like Salesforce, Amazon has taken the platform it used to build its core business and opened it up to other businesses. In this case, Amazon.com's robust e-commerce platform that runs its $15 billion retail business has been opened up as Amazon Web Services, which offers storage, databases, payment processing, fulfillment services, and Web site scalability. With AWS, you essentially rent computing cycles from Amazon. This allows a company's site to handle short-term spikes in traffic without being overwhelmed and going offline while simply paying-as-you-go for the extra capacity. And, some companies who aren't comfortable turning over their Web apps to Amazon, are still using the service as a quick and temporary platform for testing new projects and solutions.
4. Palo Alto Networks next generation firewall
Firewalls are standard plumbing for protecting corporate networks. As a result, it's normally pretty hard to get excited about firewall products. However, Palo Alto Networks has developed a new line of firewalls that transforms them from blunt objects into much more sophisticated tools. For example, instead of just blocking a specific port or protocol at the firewall, Palo Alto Networks allows IT to set up a policy to block or restrict an entire category of applications (e.g. instant messaging clients that do file transfers) or even a specific program. This policy information is also integrated with Active Directory so that it can be applied to a specific user or group. This can be used to improve compliance, minimize data leaks, simplify security administration, and effectively enforce Web-surfing policies.
3. Apple iPhone 3G
The iPhone is one of only three products that made this list for the second straight year. Last year it made the list because of its revolutionary screen and interface that made Web browsing fully usable for the first time on a smartphone. While the interface has continued to improve with software updates, the second generation iPhone made this year's list because of the enterprise-grade capabilities that Apple brought to the iPhone in 2008, including Exchange ActiveSync support and remote kill capability for IT. It remains the best-designed and easiest-to-use smartphone on the market, and its widespread publicity has helped stimulate the smartphone market as a whole.
2. Riverbed WAN acceleration
With businesses looking for easy levers to pull to cut costs out of the 2009 budget, one of the best solutions that IT can recommend is WAN acceleration, which can lower fixed leased-line costs while also improving performance for remote offices and telecommuters. I like to refer to this technology as WAN caching, because that's primarily what it does, it caches large files so that they don't have to repeatedly get sent over the WAN. Thus, these appliances can significantly reduce bandwidth consumption and - after the first transfer - dramatically decrease the response time for file transfers and applications that rely on files that get transferred over the WAN. Lots of companies offer WAN acceleration products now, but the market leader is Riverbed.
1. BlackBerry Bold
Despite the buzz and momentum building around the iPhone, BlackBerry remains the predominant smartphone platform for the enterprise, especially in security-sensitive environments such as government and the financial sector. BlackBerry's backend infrastructure simply offers IT a lot more security and control - albeit at an extra premium for BlackBerry Enterprise Servers (BES). With the BlackBerry Bold, Research in Motion has brought its smartphone to the forefront with 3G, Wi-Fi, GPS, a high quality 480 x 360 half-VGA screen, a 624 MHz processor, and 1 GB of storage (expandable to 32 GB). This device features top performance combined with all of the familiarity and manageability of the BlackBerry platform - and it includes a real keyboard. While the BlackBerry Storm, which was also released this fall, has gotten a lot of the attention because it's the first touch screen BlackBerry, for hard-core business users the BlackBerry Bold is now the most powerful smartphone that money can buy.See also: The 10 most important business technology products of 2007
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 book, Follow the Geeks.