A survey released this week by British ISP XLN Telecom showed 67 percent of its small-business customers think broadband Internet access is the most important service the company buys except telephones and electricity, putting it well ahead of water and gas.
That's a funny little stat that's supposed to show how important the Internet has become, but it actually shows a lot of small businesses don't know what to use the Web for at all.
The Web is no longer just your front door, your sales brochure, your entry in a telephone directory or a library offering product manuals so you don't have to take calls from customers yourself.
Of course it's all those things. It has been since 1998.
Now it's the conduit through which small and mid-sized businesses can get all the applications and services that give big companies a huge advantage in the marketplace, at a price that's not only affordable for smaller companies, but that can decrease or stop altogether if it turns out one or more aren't worth the money.
In 1998 if you wanted a 360-degree of your operation and all the information about every customer you'd have to push wheelbarrels full of money to SAP or Oracle for ERP software, then spend even more on hardware to run it and training so you know what to do with it.
In 2010 you call Salesforce.com.
Or, actually, SAP, or Microsoft Dynamics or Infor or Epicor or NetSuite or Intacct or half a dozen other companies, because SAAS-based ERP isn't only easier than the on-premise kind, there's so much competition for your business, it's a lot cheaper, too .
Same thing for other applications, storage, and relatively generic server space you can use to put your own apps on better servers than you want to buy, though none of it is perfect yet .
It's not because the technology is so wonderful that they love it.
It's because the technology allows even relatively small companies to do an awful lot more than they can do right now, without taking the risk of buying, maintaining and depreciating the computers on which they run.
It's also because, if a two-year, $2 million ERP project fails, it's the CIO or project manager who gets fired, not the vendor. If it's a SAAS subscription that turns out to be too slow or missing a critical feature after a month or so, you can fire the vendor and switch to another service without losing your own job.
The Internet isn't just a way to get email out and videos in; it's a way to get easy access to the newest IT, and to a lot more job security than you have with that tiny little pipe you're using now.