SMEs buckle under spam and virus deluge

Many small businesses lack the experience to contend with the onslaught of technology

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Many small businesses lack the experience to contend with the onslaught of technology.

Many small companies probably do not have an IT specialist, let alone an IT department, so it is important to note that this category of business generates a great deal of wealth and yet is often the least prepared for the constant onslaught of technology.

IT suppliers that target small companies would do well to understand some of the main technological issues small businesses have to contend with.

In my years with the Federation of Small Businesses I have grown to admire the tenacity of the owners of small businesses who have a hard enough time coping with volumes of paperwork and red tape on a daily basis without being repeatedly told that if they do not move into the 21st century soon they will have trouble competing.

Software updates, particularly operating system updates, are a real issue with smaller operators because of the time and effort required, not to mention the cost, of keeping up to date.

If you are in the IT business, such updates seem to be part of the job but if computers are simply black boxes you use to get the job done, you could be forgiven for wondering why there seems to be an "urgent" update almost every day. That is, of course, if companies are even aware that the updates exist.

For many smaller firms, updating seems to have become a way of life. With the first cup of coffee in the morning, I read the electronic press and check for the latest fixes, then I start reading my e-mail.

One could be forgiven for thinking that those who generate the patches that keep us safe from bugs have forgotten we are not all on broadband.

The vast majority of small firms are still using 56kbps modems. At this speed some patches can take hours to download, so much so that I have had people tell me they simply do not bother. And yet those same people will one day get a broadband connection and suddenly find themselves in the middle of a cyber war.

Some people feel that most of these problems only apply to Microsoft. The reality is that in the same way that the bulk of software is written for the dominant operating system, the bulk of attacks will target the leader, no matter who it is.

The rate of change, which for the technically oriented is never fast enough, is breathtaking for those who only occasionally dip into the water. In a few short years we have had Windows 98, ME, XP Home, XP Pro and now my current favourite, Windows for Tablet PCs.

Who would have thought we would go back to using hand-writing - albeit on an exceedingly expensive alternative to paper.

However, many small companies are working with tight budgetary constraints and will be asking whether they really need the latest and greatest technology.

The problem of spam has now become a considerable burden for many businesses and their staff.

I have been trialling Office 2003 and I am pleased to note that Outlook 2003 contains better spam filtering than its predecessor, but it is far from perfect.

I predict a raft of new services in the next year offering to protect businesses from spam and viruses. I would go so far as to say that those ISPs which do not offer such services could soon be few and far between. All of which is good for business and hopefully bad for the spammers.

However, I cannot see the technology being perfect for some time to come. Every e-mail package I have tried has either let spam through or trapped good mail from time to time - and yet if we want businesses to treat e-mail as a serious alternative to the post, we need an answer that works.

Another technological issue facing small businesses is broadband. The government and regional development agencies countrywide say that almost everyone will have broadband before long and yet many SMEs in rural and not so rural areas often have no real alternative to ISDN or worse still, a modem.

There are no miracles in sight. Here in rural Northumberland very few small companies have broadband. I have been using satellite for some time and it is better than ISDN, but it is not a patch on, for example, ADSL.

The Federation of Small Businesses is pressing the government for a broadband "level playing field" for small businesses - no matter where they are and I strongly believe the only way we are going to get that is with an even firmer commitment by government - and a greater understanding of the needs of small and medium-sized enterprises.

Peter Scargill is national IT chairman at the Federation of Small Businesses

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