In the US, Randall Newton at AECnews.com has been talking to the people at Newforma who, on 1 June, launched Newforma Project Center – a client/server based system that sits inside an organisation’s firewall.
The product is "designed to help project managers and team members gain control over their burgeoning and complex project information". This aim sounds like that of a project extranet, you might say. But Randall’s full article includes some interesting and perhaps deliberately provocative quotes from the Newforma people about project extranets:
“Project-based extranets are a 90’s solution,” says [Bob] Batcheler [Newforma’s Vice President, Industry Marketing and Product Management]. “Users are tremendously frustrated with the latency and the processes” in such extranets as Buzzsaw, Constructware, and Cephren. “Our customers refer to extranets as ‘digital landfills.’ They pay by the ton to use them, but they have no control over their operation.” Adds Newforma CEO Ian Howell, “It is clear to me that the ASP experience has no positive traction in AEC.” This from a man whose resume includes stops at Cephren and BlueLine Online. “Users don’t like separate security setup and they don’t like storing their documents on the Internet. It becomes redundant with what is on the central server.”
Naturally, I would contest these views.
- While some extranet solutions originated in the 1990s, others emerged much later and are far more sophisticated than the early systems (often based on crude FTP solutions). Moreover, today’s leading offerings have been continously developed since their launch to new levels of sophistication and reliability, and are very much 21st century leading-edge platforms utilising the latest thinking in application service provision.
- As a result, there are, in the latter instances at least, few user issues with latency, and the solutions can be configured to suit the team’s required processes (as opposed to the team having to amend its processes to suit the technology).
- Teams do not necessarily "pay by the ton" (at least not in the UK). It is a highly competitive market, and the commonly-used per-project ASP subscription model (not per seat/user or per Mb/GB diskspace) encourages uptake by all members of the project team (the Newforma "basic price of $795 per year per user" sounds like paying by the ton to me!).
- Surely Newforma’s customers might be a little biased in their view that extranets are ‘digital landfills’? They, after all, will be keen to justify their investment on an internal system over an extranet, and will claim control over them as a virtue.
- Thousands of US and UK project teams are quite happy to entrust their data to third-party technology providers. It, at the very least, outsources a huge risk on their part (having to manage data for an entire team) and places that risk with an independent business with the infrastructure and special expertise in that area (with – if the client/project team are professional about it – contracts and service level agreements in place to protect that data and ensure constant availability of application and data, etc).
- The comment "the ASP experience has no positive traction in AEC" is also contestable. In the US, Autodesk has invested a considerable sum to buy the AEC-specific ASP expertise of Constructware, an investment they would not have made if there was any sign that the ASP experience lacked traction. Moreover, in the UK there are growing numbers of contractors, consultants and clients adopting ASP-based extranet solutions as their preferred project delivery mechanism. Try telling them that the experience has no traction!
- Users apparently "don’t like storing their documents on the Internet", Howell says. Again, talk to the thousand of UK users who daily use the BIW system and other UK collaboration providers. They are happy to use web-based systems, and readily recognise the value of having a remotely-hosted, project-centric repository of drawings, documents and other data. And, in any event, as far as their own information is concerned, they are usually publishing information which they also retain and store within their own networks.
In short, Newforma has attempted to justify its network-based system by making some alarmist and inaccurate statements about project extranets. Its system may appeal to individual firms needing to share information across multiple offices, but, in many AEC projects, teams are multi-disciplinary, multi-company, highly fragmented and often highly mobile. For them, ASP-based tools are a tremendous benefit. Hopefully, some of my American readers will support me on this.