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p18 DanielsDanielsBy JAMES DANIELS JR.
    At the beginning of the year, small- and medium-sized business began to experience some new trends in technology that are gaining momentum. They are also starting to blur the lines between the physical and digital world.
    With a changing environment in business, the trends below are becoming increasingly relevant.

Artificial intelligence and chatbots

    Artificial intelligence is a large, steadily evolving technology that most considered only useful in Fortune 500 companies. However, through innovative AI chatbot developments, smaller businesses will be able to benefit from AI technology. Chatbots use such technology to interact with customers online or via mobile devices while utilizing human-type interactive responses.
    “Companies large and small are beginning to latch on to the power of chatbots for customer service and other uses, such as finding products, providing shipping notifications, pinpointing business locations and more,” according to Small Business Trends website.
    “Conversational commerce,” a term coined by Chris Messina in 2015, is a good descriptor when discussing AI chatbot technology. Conversational commerce is, very simply, purchasing something within the context of a conversation with a chatbot. However, behind the scenes, the customer is having a conversation with a program that learns, stores new information, and identifies changes while providing the customer with a more interactive shopping experience.
    However, retail is not the only realized benefit of chatbots. Some small businesses are implementing AI chatbots as the first line of communications with their customers to answer FAQs, recall previous order details and, in some cases, process payments. Real estate offices, retail shops, health-care centers, law offices, spas and consulting firms are also using AI chatbot technology to provide intelligent and fast, hands-off service.

Cloud computing as the norm

    According to International Data Corp.’s 2016 “State of SMB Cloud” report, in the past five years, cloud adoptions among small- and medium-sized businesses have gone from approximately 20 percent to more than 70 percent for businesses with fewer than 100 employees, and more than 90 percent for businesses with 100-999 employees.
    Small businesses have benefited from the proliferation of “as a service” cloud computing products. Cloud computing has allowed small businesses to utilize software and hardware that was once unobtainable due to the required capital expenditures.
    Through cloud computing, companies have the option of using Software as a Service (Saas), which delivers applications via the web typically by a third-party vendor; most times without any additional hardware requirement by the business owner. SaaS eliminates the previously needed additional cost associated with maintenance, support, and upgrades associated with line of business software.
    Small businesses also use Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) to help reduce the capital expenditures associated with technology infrastructure equipment. Companies can utilize virtualized or physical devices, such as servers, storage, networking services (e.g., routers, firewalls, content filters) for a nominal monthly fee. As a result, businesses find it more cost effective for technology infrastructure upgrades or temporary/seasonal technology environment expansion without the requirement of purchasing equipment outright.

Blockchain technology

    According to Don and Alex Tapscott, authors of “Blockchain Revolutions,” “blockchain is an incorruptible digital ledger of economic transactions that can be programmed to record not just financial transactions but virtually everything of value.”
    Think of it as a spreadsheet that is duplicated thousands of times across a network of computers. Then, that same network is designed to update the spreadsheet at regular intervals. That is the basis of blockchain.
    The information contained in a blockchain is shared via a continually reconciled database. The benefit of blockchain is that it isn’t stored in a single location, which helps thwart hacking. A blockchain keeps the data public and easily verifiable by the public. However, permission is required for users to have a copy of the blockchain data and to participate in data verification.
    Blockchain is the technology behind Bitcoin, yet not as popular or well known as Bitcoin. However, development of applications and services that will use blockchain are starting to see the light of day. The developed product and services will be beneficial to small businesses.
    One benefit, of course, is payment and money transfers considering blockchain technology started with cryptocurrency. However, with blockchain technology, the same principals can be followed to securely transfer funds directly to anyone instantly and with minimum cost. This is possible because there will not be any intermediaries to slow down the transfer or charge ridiculous transaction fees for their services of transferring currency between banks.
    Another benefit is smart contracts, which are are computer programs that are self-automated to carry out the terms of any financial contract. Therefore, business will be able to bypass regulation, which will lower the cost for a subset of common financial transactions. Thanks goes to the Ethereum Project (https://www.ethereum.org/), which is a decentralized platform that runs smart contracts. The applications are designed to run exactly as programmed without any possibility of downtime, censorship, fraud or third-party interference.
    For example, Slock (https://slock.it/) is a company that currently uses the Ethereum technology to rent everything from bicycles to apartments by unlocking smart locks after involved parties agree to terms of the contract.
    Many developers believe that blockchain will become the main data storage technology for validating entities in the future when the authenticity of birth certificates, marriage agreements, and education diplomas are managed through the blockchain technology.
    James Daniels Jr. is faculty advisor and IT instructor at Lindenwood University-Belleville.