Following my 22 April post, Whobius? Woobius, I met Bob Leung and Daniel Tenner in London to find out more about their business and to see a quick demonstration of their technology.
Bob explained that he had started to work on a simply construction-oriented collaboration platform partly out of frustration with what he saw as the inadequacies of mainstream systems such as those provided by BIW, Asite and 4Projects – systems that he had used while working at architectural practice Foster + Partners (before he moved to Make); he also felt that existing generic online file-sharing platforms such as Box.net were less than ideal for AEC project-working.
The first version of Woobius was launched in early 2008 for use on some Make projects, with users giving developer Daniel feedback to enhance the product over the course of the past year. Initial development has been part-funded by some angel investors, but Bob and his team retain majority ownership of the business.
The name Woobius, partly inspired by the Möbius strip, was chosen to distinguish it from the “stodgy” brands currently associated with construction collaboration, Daniel said.
The intention was to create a simple-to-use web-based tool that required no training and which would allow designers to share drawings and other documents during the early conceptual stage of a project, up to the planning application stage. Bob accepted that once a main contractor or project manager was appointed to actually construct the scheme it might currently be necessary for the design to move from Woobius to a more sophisticated platform, though this might not be required for small projects with few project team interfaces.
The application and data is currently hosted by a US-based company, EngineYard, and Daniel said they were looking closely at how they maintained continuity, speed and reliability of service.
Set-up and use
A key distinction between Woobius and most of its main UK competitors is the no/low-cost, rapid start-up. Woobius is currently free and each project comes with 200MB of free storage (see updated pricing page). Should you need additional storage, then you can upgrade to get more, purchased online via a simple low-cost credit card transaction. The service is available to use in seconds, while the likes of BIW, etc, usually take a few days to get a project environment up and running. As demonstrated to me, setting up a new project (see the Woobius tour), uploading some initial files and inviting colleagues to view those documents took just minutes (implementation of the more sophisticated systems takes longer as vendors typically seek to generate dedicated URLs and tend to configure solutions to meet the requirements of each customer/team).
The Woobius interface is straightforward, comprising four tabs: Dashboard, Drop Box (for informal sharing), Vault (for formal sharing; see below) and Companies.
Co-workers receive an email invitation containing a link that takes them to the project environment; similarly, when documents are shared, co-workers are notified that the documents are available and can be downloaded from Woobius. We debated the pros and cons of email notification: in my experience, some users of construction collaboration solutions become irritated by multiple emails, preferring to get one email ‘digest’ summarising all items that require their attention.
At this stage, the focus is simply on file-sharing. Woobius doesn’t currently offer mark-up or commenting tools, but such functionality is in the pipeline, as is a facility for participants to get a post-project DVD archive upon completion of their inputs to a project (a ‘must have’, in my opinion). Archiving will include a full audit trail by default.
Asite already offers a low-cost starter option – Asite Key Lite, combining Asite Workspace and Asite Navigator – but while the pricing (£15 per user per month, minimum three months – half the cost charged when Workspace was launched in early 2007) is nowhere near as low as that of Woobius, Asite does offer online mark-up and commenting as part of the solution, and there is a migration path to the more advanced Asite solutions.
The other mainstream UK vendors don’t offer low-end products, and tend not to offer per-user charging, preferring instead to offer per-project or enterprise licensing arrangements that free team from being cost-conscious about just how many users they have (a sensitivity that can hinder effective collaboration). Woobius has no limits on the number of team members it supports.