The rules are still changing for small businesses.

Last month, we discussed the advent of wireless communications technologies, which have been hailed as the “next Internet” in terms of their potential impact on the way we do business. But what about the “first Internet”? Has its potential been fully exploited? Absolutely not! The Internet still holds endless possibilities for small business growth and efficiency.

By definition, the Internet is a worldwide system of computer networks - a network of networks in which users at any one computer can, if they have permission, get information from any other computer. Physically, the Internet is made up of public communications networks that share mostly existing infrastructures to efficiently move data from one place to another - almost instantly.

The Internet can be used for many applications, which is where its potential for growth still exists. We haven't come close to exhausting the endless possibilities for cost effectively enhancing our business practices using the Internet. Some of the more recently celebrated uses include:

VPN (Virtual Private Networks) - This is a way to connect one network/office to another using software and/or hardware at each location to create a secure tunnel through the Internet.

E-mail and instant messaging - Some say that this is the most used application of the Internet. The number of e-mails that are transferred via the Internet daily are growing exponentially.

VOIP (Voice Over IP) - An up-and-coming technology for using the Internet for reduced-cost telephone calls.

Video Conferencing/Web Presentations - These are both highly viable options using the Internet.

E-commerce - Using the Internet to sell goods. It creates a heretofore unheard of business “reach,” one of the most significant possibilities!

Research - Businesses have access to mountains of useful data that can help drive the best business decisions possible.

And, additional, unique new business uses for the Internet are being uncovered almost daily! <<

Sidebar: Best Practices

Each month, we'll provide proven Best Practices. Readers are encouraged to send along any successful IT management approaches they may be using. We will feature the best of them in upcoming columns.

9. Become an Internet advocate.

We all know people who had to get dragged into the Information Age - the executive who had a computer on his desk for 10 years without turning it on! Yet, today, e-mail is the most efficient form of business operational communications. There's a difference between “going along peacefully” and being aggressively involved. Don't gracefully accept the Internet, become an Internet advocate on behalf of your business. Stay up-to-the-minute with changes and breakthroughs as they occur. Read everything you can get your hands on and consider each new way to leverage the Internet for use in your business. Growth, efficiency and enhanced profitability await!

10. Create an Internet use and leverage strategy.

While no one knows where their business will be five years from now, the historical rate of growth of the Internet and its uses would lead you to believe that the face of business will be dramatically different by then. It's only wise to have some sort of a plan and strategy for growing your use of the Internet, as well! Consider this: If you are still selling through conventional channels today - what if your competition begins to use e-commerce as an alternative channel? Will their lower operating costs place you at a disadvantage in the marketplace? Could you turn the tables and do that to them? How about using the Internet to sharply lower your telephone or other operating expenses? Don't wait to be dragged into using technology to advance your business. Have a plan to factor it in over time. Think about it!