Best Small Business Tech at CES

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LAS VEGAS -- If the 2009 International Consumer Electronics Show this week is any indication, this is going to be one weird year in the world of technology built by and for smaller companies.

On one hand, it is clear that this show, and our businesses, are adjusting to a world of diminished expectations. Not only could I get a hotel room for this year's show, but I could nickel-and-dime the place I'm staying in for a bigger room at a lower cost than what I normally pay for a basic room.

But once inside this arid coliseum of consumer electronics, the level of innovation is remarkable. There are advancements in everything from security systems to packaging to improved route-driving to imaging. Now, who knows how long it will last? In theory, the drag of slower times should catch up with electronics makers eventually.

But for now, the operating thesis really is the exact opposite of the all-hype-and-no-reality Internet Bubble in 1999. But in 2009 it's all about reality. The hype is the real victim.

Here are some of my favorite examples:

1. Defender Sentinel 10, SVAT Electronics
($1,495)

Video security systems are a challenge for small businesses. Yes, web cams are cheap and systems are easy to install, but the problems quickly mount. Quality can be low. They don't work well at night. And images have to be screened by hand, which eats up time. Enter Niagara Falls, Ontario-based SVAT Electronics.

Later this month, the company plans to release an all-in-one, ultra-simple security system, the Sentinel 10. The system is so simple any small business can install and effectively use it. The system comes with four weather-proof cameras that work at night. And they function from a single enclosure that easily records and catalogs images.

Video is an effective tool for keeping your business safe. And the Defender should make it easier to install a video system.

2. Natralock, MeadWestvaco
(prices vary)

Plastic packaging seems like it should live at the bottom of the small-business innovation list. But I like what I see in a product-packaging system from MeadWestvaco (Stock Quote: MWV) called Natralock.

The system replaces traditional thick plastic packaging that keeps products from getting ripped off in the store with a coated paper-based enclosure that is easier to manage. This is not only friendly for customers, it can be cheaper for vendors. And it offers some great design and marketing options. Hey, the whole thing is high gloss paper. What better way to wrap up your product.

Of course, the calculus of the cost of display development is impossible to measure. This technology could easily wind up being more expensive than plastic, depending on how it's deployed. But there is also no question that if your shop is rolling out a new product this year, you should at least consider dumping the plastic packaging and testing Natralock.

Done right, paperboard can be cheap, more attractive and eco friendly. And that is real innovation.

3. ecoRoute, Garmin
(free)

If there is sleeper small-business hit at this show it is ecoRoute, from GPS maker Garmin (Stock Quote: GRMN). This free software update to several Garmin GPS units combines mapping, destination planning and overall traffic management with the cost of fuel, vehicle wear and tear and vehicle fuel economy. And it does it all in an easy-to-deploy, easy to use Garmin GPS -- $200 buys all the equipment you need.

Now there are many details to be tested, but at least in the early tests I have seen here, this system has the potential to save you some big money. Not only is this technology a steal of transport management systems, in theory it can reduce the cost of running your fleet. Driving trucks and people around town is one of the best ways I know to waste a ton of money and time. And a simple tool like the ecoRoute could be a smart way to save some coin in a down market.

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