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All work–and some play

There are plenty of productive toys–products that can actually help you work smarter while they make your work place seem cool.

Do you really think work is no place for gadgets? That Magic 8-Ball and clickety-clackety steel-ball pendulum on your desk say otherwise. But there are plenty of productive toys, too–products that can actually help you work smarter while they make your work place seem cool. Of course, these being gadgets, many items that try to break into the business market are frivolous, whimsical, and just plain silly. You could have cutting-edge bragging rights by getting a mobile phone sensor pen (a flashing red light means no more rings or vibrations during those high-level meetings) or a motion-activated dummy security camera (which doesn’t film anything, but looks like it does), but do you really need those things? Probably not. What you’re after is the next PDA, or, at the very least, the next thumb drive-the item that’s going to make you work more efficiently, clear your desk, and make you ask, “What’d I ever do before I had this thing?”

Stay in touch, won’t you?

As in other areas of computing, the main watchword of both today and tomorrow in the business world is communications–and the more mobile, the better. The importance of being able to stay in touch with the office while at home or on the road will never go away, so look for the ability to be in two places at once to keep getting easier and more seamless. “The wireless age really is coming,” says Gartner’s Martin Reynolds. “Wireless connectivity been around for a while, of course, but hasn’t really penetrated the business realm, especially at the level of small business. That’s sure to change as quality goes up and prices go down.” One communications product segment that’s slowly but surely making its way into small businesses is the cellular data network.

The latest high-speed cellular networks are focused on corporate applications, and are designed to provide mobile users with average data transmission rates of up to 130Kbps–more than four times the top speed of 30Kbps that most current wireless networks use. AT&T and Verizon, among others, are explicitly targeting the small-business market by developing high-speed cellular networks that will soon begin dropping from the $80 per month the service now tends to cost. Another area of communications that’s busily swimming into the mainstream revolves around WiMAX, a standards-based wireless technology. An implementation of the IEEE 802.16 standard, WiMAX provides metropolitan-area network connectivity at speeds of up to 75Mbps, and boasts signal transmission ranges of up to 30 miles. “WiMAX will be crucial in bringing broadband wireless access to places where it couldn’t go before,” says Reynolds. “It has the potential to solve the ‘last mile’ dilemma singlehandedly. Wi-Fi-to-WiMAX boxes will let you host a Web site from your premises no matter where you are.” One last communications product that’s not strictly a gadget, but that will leave small-business owners with a sense of gadgety giddiness: Skype, an Internet telephony service that’s free as long as both parties are using it–no matter where they are in the world.

Where’d you get that?

Communications technology is all well and good, but what about, you know…cool stuff? Here are some nifty items that could be office staples soon, and a few not-so-golden oldies that might end up at the Goodwill store next to the rotary phones and dot-matrix printers:

— Smaller, lighter, cheaper notebook PCs. They won’t replace all your desktop PCs, but they’ll become the default computer for anyone in your company who isn’t chained to a desk 40 hours per week. Even desktop systems will develop ever-smaller footprints.

— Cheap wireless hubs/routers. A wireless network rig will cost you $50 and two hours of setup time. What are you waiting for?

— Wireless in-ear headphones. Whether for work or for play, these form-fitting beauties will make open-air headphones and even run-of-the-mill earbuds seem clunky and archaic.

— Postage systems. It’s time to go postal with an Internet postage provider, which usually runs about $10 per month. From there, all that’s required is a printer, and you can consider yourself stamped.

— MFPs. Depending on who you ask, MFPs are multifunctional printers, products, or peripherals. In any case, it’s a fancy name for all-in-one printers. MFPs are getting cheaper and more compact-and they’re finally starting to shake the jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none reputation they’ve been dogged with. Imagine–a printer, scanner, photocopier, and fax machine all in one box, and all at a level of quality that rivals that of standalone units.

— Cheap, high-quality color printers. Kinko’s will just have to get by with a little less of your business. Excellent-quality color printers have dipped below the $200 mark and show no signs of stopping their price descent. If you have even a smidgen of design savvy, you can bring all your print jobs in-house.

— An impact screwdriver. Don’t laugh: If you have a small office, sooner or later, you’re going to have to put together a bookshelf or a prefab desk, and you might as well do it with a high-tech screwdriver. Impacts are among a new breed of tools that use pneumatics to provide unheard-speed and power.

— A pocket-sized card scanner. Your gladhanding acumen will get a boost from a business-card scanner that can process 20 cards a minute, then dock to your PC and import the data into whichever contacts database you choose. Imagine coming home from a trade show without having 350 cards spill from your briefcase.

— A plasma flat-panel TV. Extravagant? Now, yes; in a few years, no. Spice up your reception area or break room with a plasma screen where that wildlife painting used to hang. They’re still priced in the four-figure range, but not for long.

— An atomic clock. Another left-field gizmo that you’ll love once you have it. These are radio-controlled clocks that tune into the signal emitted by the U.S. atomic clock located in Fort Collins, Colo. They reset themselves daily to the exact hour, minute, and second, and automatically change themselves for Daylight Savings Time. Perfect time all the time, for less than the cost of a delivered pizza lunch.

Meanwhile, some candidates for the permanent outbox: office phones; modems; photocopiers; cumbersome desktop systems; Rolodexes; desk clocks; postage meters; monochrome printers; wired network routers; and–if Tablet PCs live up to their billing–pens and notepads.

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