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Could business iBeacons transform your service?

November 24, 2014 by John McGarvey

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iBeacon and smart phone. Image via Jonathan Nalder under Creative Commons.

iBeacons could be about to make your customers’ smart phones smarter. And that could give you new ways to reach people when they’re near your business.

Read on to learn about iBeacons: tiny gadgets that could spark a new mobile revolution.

What is an iBeacon?

An iBeacon is a low-powered transmitter that can let nearby devices like smart phones know it’s there.

An iBeacon can then ask these devices to do certain things, like pop up a message on the screen.

Here’s a potential scenario to help you understand how iBeacons work:

  1. You walk into a local deli carrying your smart phone. As you’re a regular customer, you have the shop’s app on your phone.
  2. As you pass the unmanned cheese counter, the app recognises you’re near an iBeacon.
  3. This triggers the app to show a message offering 10% off cheese, and asking if you’d like to summon a member of staff to serve you.

The idea behind iBeacons is simple, but they can be powerful when combined with mobile apps. They could be particularly useful to retailers, restaurants and cafes.

How iBeacons work

iBeacons use Bluetooth to communicate with nearby mobile devices. Apple created them and has included the technology in its devices since 2013.

Because iBeacons use Bluetooth, they’re inexpensive to buy.

A quick search on Amazon reveals many available for under £20. You can also buy more sophisticated iBeacons for around $33 each.

What are iBeacons for?

iBeacons allow businesses to show consumers targeted messages, information and offers based on location.

They can pinpoint where someone is on your premises. The level of accuracy means you can even provide information targeted by which aisle or shelf they’re browsing.

For instance, iBeacons could enable you to:

  • Identify regular customers passing your shop, then entice them in by offering a discount voucher.
  • Offer information as a customer browses in-store. For instance, suggest recipes when they’re in the baking aisle.
  • Prepare pre-ordered items for collection when the customer walks through the door.

There are applications outside retail, too. iBeacons could help at events, in theatres and cinemas - as well as almost any other physical location.

Who uses iBeacons?

Well, it’s still early days. At the moment, few companies are using iBeacons in anger:

Other interested companies include John Lewis, Easyjet and a shopping centre in Eastleigh.

The iBeacon privacy issue

Like most location-based technologies, there are some concerns over iBeacon privacy. Retailers could use them to track shoppers’ movements in detail.

They could easily be used to answer questions like:

  • How long did you spend looking at products you didn’t buy?
  • What sort of path did you follow through the shop?
  • How often do you stop by without buying anything at all?

iBeacon advocates argue that consumers can always choose whether to grant a business access via a mobile app. And that’s certainly true, although whether consumers understand these access requests is another matter.

Getting started with iBeacons

Although iBeacons are still in their infancy, there’s nothing to stop you trying them out in your business. But as consumer awareness is low, at present iBeacons are most appropriate for companies with their own established apps.

In any case, iBeacons are yet to show their full potential. If you adopt them earlier, maybe they offer a chance to steal a march on your local competitors.

Tagged iBeacon | 0 comments

Do you suffer from these hidden IT costs?

November 18, 2014 by John McGarvey

Calculator - hidden IT costs{{}}

How do you perceive the cost of technology? Viewed one way, it’s cheap. A £400 laptop is all you need to run most typical business software — and it’ll do the job for at least a couple of years before it needs upgrading.

But from an alternative perspective, technology can sometimes seem like a never-ending source of expenditure.

Got a computer and a smart phone? These days, that might not be enough - you could need a tablet computer, too. And while you’re at it, have you considered trialling wearable technology in your business?

Then there’s the cost of maintenance and support. According to some research, businesses spend 75% of their IT budgets on maintaining existing IT.

That £400 laptop may fade into insignificance alongside the annual cost of IT support, software updates, backups … and all the other assistance you need to keep your business IT running smoothly.

In addition to these fairly obvious tech costs, your business could be paying for its IT in other ways.

These three might not show up as lines in your IT spending, but that doesn’t mean you should underestimate what they’re costing.

1. Duplicate effort

No matter how small your business, a significant hidden cost will arise if employees need to duplicate their efforts.

Do any of these situations sound familiar?

  • Your employees need to manually copy data between different screens or software packages.
  • Staff often note down figures or data manually, before entering them into the system at a later time.
  • You struggle to keep track of the latest versions of documents, spreadsheets and other files.

If so, your people are wasting time performing tasks that your computer systems could be doing for you.

The cumulative impact of these inefficiencies might not show up in your IT budget, but they can cost your business dearly in terms of reduced productivity and missed opportunities.

Often, modern software packages can be connected together, or extended via add-ons which pull in data from elsewhere.

For instance, some accounting packages can pull in statements from your internet banking, so you don’t have to match up transactions manually.

2. Lack of knowledge

Do you have a decent training budget for staff? Indeed, do you bother training your employees at all, or do you just assume they already know how to use advanced features of Outlook, Excel and more?

Employers tend to take IT skills for granted, particularly when it comes to using common pieces of software like Microsoft Office.

That can be a costly attitude. IT skills vary enormously in almost every business. What’s more, people can use software for years without ever realising there’s a better or quicker way to do something.

Good computer and software training doesn’t have to cost a fortune. Perhaps you can negotiate with IT suppliers and your support company so you get training included with your other services.

You can also explore on-the-job training, and get the most confident employees to pass knowledge on to their colleagues.

3. Constant distractions

Technology can be distracting. Sometimes, it can be really distracting.

When you’re trying to work on your computer, you’re only ever a couple of clicks from reading an interesting story on BBC News or checking for updates on Twitter and Facebook.

Before you know it, that brief distraction has become 15 wasted minutes, as you hop from interesting site to interesting site. Heck, there’s a whole industry built up around attention-grabbing headlines (warning: that link may distract you).

And then there are internal distractions, like endless one-line emails debating some unimportant point and instant messages that interrupt your flow.

Throw in smart phone notifications and general office chit-chat, and it’s a wonder we manage to get anything done. If time is money, wasted time is wasted money.

Having said that, coping with distractions can be hard. Different techniques work for different people, but here are some tips to reduce distractions at work.

You can also consider more radical steps, like designating one day of the week as free from meetings and emails.

Posted in Buy and manage IT | Tagged costs | 0 comments

Ten questions to ask your VoIP supplier

November 10, 2014 by IT Donut contributor

VOIP phone{{}}Traditional business telephone systems are slowly being replaced by modern VoIP (voice over internet protocol) systems.

These telephone systems route calls across the internet rather than using standard telephone lines. They’re flexible and can be much cheaper.

Learn the basics of VoIP >>

VoIP can be an excellent option, but there are some pitfalls to avoid. Dave Millett from telecoms brokers Equinox say these are the ten key questions to ask any potential supplier.

1. Are you part of the Telecoms Ombudsman?

Being part of the Telecoms Ombudsman scheme demonstrates that the supplier is willing to accept independent, binding arbitration in the event anything goes wrong

Many providers will be part of the Internet Telephony Services Providers’ Association (ITSPA). This trade body aims to promote competition and self-regulation, and therefore does not offer the same protection.

2. What is your VoIP system built on?

Ideally, you want to use a VoIP system that’s built on large, carrier-grade platforms. These scale easily, providing confidence that the supplier can cope as demand for its services increases.

Any conversation about your VoIP provider’s platform could get technical quickly, so don’t be afraid to ask them to explain things in simple terms.

Look for a provider that your hosts its system from several locations, so you know there’s a backup in case one suffers problems.

3. How are calls routed?

Calls that are routed across the public internet can be more vulnerable to delays and quality problems caused by network congestion. It’s better if your provider has its own dedicated network for calls.

Also check how regularly they measure the quality of their connections (in technical terms, this is how often they check the ‘latency’ and ‘packet loss’ of calls).

If they’re monitoring these items constantly, they’ll be able to identify and fix problems faster.

4. Do you issue telephone numbers?

Check whether the VoIP provider can issue phone numbers itself, or whether it sources them from another operator.

If the numbers are sourced from elsewhere, taking numbers to another provider in future could be more complicated.

It’s easy to look up the issuer of a phone number online.

5. Are you reselling another company’s solution?

Many VoIP providers simply sell on a service that is run by another company. It’s hard to tell when this is the case, except by asking outright.

In general, it’s best to have direct contact with the company that actually runs the service. It can take longer to resolve problems if you buy through a reseller, because you always have to deal with a middleman.

6. What phones will be supplied?

These days, most VoIP services can be hooked up to desk phones, so your employees can dial out and receive calls as normal. They don’t need to know that calls are being routed over the internet.

Most suppliers will provide phones from reputable manufacturers like Cisco, Polycom and Mitel. Watch for companies that supply phones that are poor quality or soon to be superseded. These can be harder to replace if they break.

7. What are the call rates?

As a guide, it should cost less than 1p a minute to call UK landlines. UK mobiles should come in below 6p per minute.

For most businesses, it’s best to find a provider offering no minimum charges, no call set up fees, and with per-second billing.

If a provider’s rates seem very low, check who carries the call traffic. Some super-cheap services use lower-quality call carriers. And that can result in lower-quality calls.

8. How long is the contract?

There’s not much point in signing for more than 12 months unless there is a significant financial advantage.

The VoIP market is still moving fairly quickly, so if you lock in for longer you could miss out if services that are more affordable or with better features become available.

9. Can we add or remove users?

VoIP is meant to be flexible, and that should extend to the number of people using it. If your business grows, it’s important you can add extra people to the system.

And if things go the other way — or you operate a seasonal business — you won’t want to be paying for capacity you’re not using.

10. What does the control panel look like?

Most VoIP systems will offer an online control panel (they might call it a ‘portal’). You can sign in to this to set up the system the way you want it.

Ask the provider to give you a proper demonstration of this control panel before you sign up. If it’s easy to use, this can be a good indication that you’re dealing with a supplier willing to invest in its customer experience.

On the other hand, if it’s hard to achieve even simple tasks, think twice before committing.

Overall, VoIP is an attractive prospect for many businesses. But as with any major investment, it pays to ask the right questions.

Finally, always remember that the cheapest package may not be best for your business in the long term.

Copyright © 2014 Dave Millet, Equinox

Tagged VoIP | 0 comments

IT for Donuts: how to delay an email in Outlook

November 07, 2014 by John McGarvey

How to delay and email - image of alarm clocks{{}}IT for Donuts is our regular feature where we explain a tech term or answer a question about business IT. 

This week, we have a neat trick for those times when you are busy and are 'burning the midnight oil'.

Sometimes, when we’re busy, we can end up sending emails at odd times of the day (or night). Luckily, Outlook has a feature to delay sending those messages until a more normal time. 

Read on and find out how to use it… 

Why delay delivery in Outlook? 

There are a number of reasons you might want to delay sending an email in Outlook. For instance:  

  • You wrote the email at an odd time (say 4am, or Sunday), but you don’t want the recipient to know you were working on it then. 

  • You know the email recipient will appreciate getting your message at a certain time of day, when they’re less busy. 

  • You don’t want to encourage your own employees to respond to emails outside of office hours, even though you tend to send them then.  

Whatever your reason, Outlook has a ‘delay delivery’ feature built in for situations just like these. 

How to delay delivery in Outlook  

Here’s how to delay delivery of an email in Microsoft Outlook. These instructions are for the latest version (Outlook 2013), but should work in previous versions, too:

  1. Write your email as normal. But once you’ve finished it, don’t hit Send!
  2. At the top of your message, select Options.
  3. In the More Options section, choose Delay Delivery.
  4. Under Delivery Options, select Do not deliver before.
  5. Select the date and time you would like your message to be delivered.  

That’s it. Now when you select Send, the message will be held in your outbox until the delivery time you selected. 

Depending how your email is set up, you might need to keep your copy of Outlook running in order for the delayed delivery to work:

  • If your email runs on Microsoft Exchange (very likely, if you’re using Outlook), the message will send at the selected time, no matter whether or not you keep Outlook open.
  • If your email uses POP3 or IMAP (other types of email systems), your copy of Outlook must be open in order for the message to send at the time you selected.  

To check what kind of email system you have, go to File > Account Settings > Email. The Type column will show what kind of system you have. (Alternatively, just ask your IT supplier.) 

Other IT for Donuts tips: 

How easy is it to get your data back?

November 03, 2014 by IT Donut contributor

Library shelves – where’s your data?{{}}Data backup and storage is the IT equivalent of tidying things up at the end of the day. It means you’ve put away all your information away neatly so it’s accounted for, secure and easy to find.

It sounds fairly straightforward, doesn’t it? Well, think again…

More data in more places

Every day, more data is handled by your employees, who may be in different places using a whole variety of devices.

This broad distribution of data can make it more vulnerable — and any security breaches could damage your company.

Sometimes, the solution is to put together a centrally-controlled data backup and storage plan. But where should you keep those backups?

This is where the debate starts. In the red corner are the cloud converts. These people are quick to point out that nothing offers the same storage capacity, flexibility and ease of access as backing up your data to the cloud.

Over in the blue corner, we find people who approach the cloud with caution. They cite research such as a recent Symantec study showing that 68% of companies have run into some issues when recovering data from the cloud.

A complex workplace

The workplace is complex. Companies need to prioritise IT spending and work with old IT equipment as they build confidence in the security and benefits of a cloud provider.

But once you have that confidence, the result is that your information is tidy, managed and protected in a cost-effective way.

Until, that is, employees start asking for data they have lost or can’t access. The effort required to meet these requests can catch you off guard.

Data retrieval demands

Earlier this year, we (Iron Mountain) interviewed ten senior IT professionals in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and the UK.

These conversations revealed some firms are seeing data retrieval requests increase by as much as 60%, year-on-year.

Often, employees want to retrieve documents they have accidentally deleted or misfiled. Or perhaps they want to view access-controlled, centrally stored business data.

In any case, getting the data can be frustrating, complicated and time-consuming. Sometimes, it requires help from an external expert.

How valuable is your data?

How important is data to your business? In companies where data represents a significant competitive advantage — and keeping it confidential is important — employees may not be allowed to keep business information on their computers.

Instead, they might need to request data on a case-by-case basis. This can create a flood of daily retrieval requests.

Ultimately, you need to ensure that ease of data retrieval is factored into your overall data backup and storage plan.

The best approach is a tiered one, with information ranked from by how often it’s likely to be requested. Data required frequently can stored on servers nearby. Less-vital information can be clearly indexed and stored off site, where it can still be retrieved if required.

This blended approach keeps thing running smoothly, while minimising the impact on your IT resources.

Tidying data away and getting it out again may seem peripheral to the exciting things you do with the information. However, if you don’t get those two stages right, the bit in the middle can’t happen either.

Copyright © 2014 Christian Toon, Head of Information Risk at Iron Mountain.

IT for Donuts: four ways to use your smart phone camera at work

October 31, 2014 by John McGarvey

Smart phone camera{{}}IT for Donuts is our regular weekly feature where we explain a tech term or answer a question about business IT.

This week, that smart phone in your pocket probably has a really decent camera built in. So we reveal four ways it can be useful at work.

1. Scan your receipts

The humble shoebox is totally fine for storing receipts, as long as you don’t mind when you lose crucial paperwork or the print fades to be unreadable.

In the 21st century, there really is a better way. Whenever you make a business purchase, snap a photo of the receipt with your phone.

You can save these images to your computer or back them up to cloud storage like Google Drive.

Alternatively, you might prefer to use a service like Receipt Bank to automatically extract the data about each expense and import it into your accounting software. It can save you quite some time.

2. Store contact details

Nobody ever enters all the details off someone’s business card into their electronic address book, because doing so is boring and time-consuming.

You used to be able to automate the process with a business card scanner, but now there’s a plethora of apps to do the same thing. You could give CamCard or ABBYY Business Card Reader a try.

3. Keep a record of your gadgets

Using a smart phone to take photos of other gadgets sounds quite meta, but it can solve a real problem.

Hopefully you already have some way to keep track of valuable computer equipment and mobile devices in your business. But if you take a photo of each — ideally from an angle that shows the serial number — it can be easier to make an insurance claim in the future.

4. Create a record of brainstorms

Often, the most productive ideas come from brainstorming sessions. But what do you do with the inevitable whiteboard scrawls that result?

In the short term, it’s a good idea to take a photo of your scribbles and email it to everyone involved. That way you won’t be at the mercy of any over-eager whiteboard cleaners in your office.

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