Following my recent posts on Aconex‘s API announcement and its 2009 financial results, I spent 40 minutes quizzing Rob Phillpot, company co-founder and General Manager, Product, about planned developments of the Aconex construction collaboration system.
It was a fascinating insight into the thinking behind the world’s most widely used SaaS collaboration platform. I was particularly struck by Rob’s enthusiasm – which I share – for the potential of building information modelling (BIM) to transform construction collaboration, and I got a powerful sense of how the Aconex APIs (post) were likely to fast-track development of new features.
We started off by talking about how Aconex manages its product development processes. Rob said he led a high-level team that helped maintain a ‘roadmap’ of future development, balancing the need for incremental improvements (depth of functionality) and more strategic, long-term efforts (breadth).
Around 50 product developers are divided into three teams. One is focused on incremental development of the core Aconex system, doing bug fixes and improving the service in response to suggestions made by end-users. The second has a more ambitious remit, looking at what he called “breakthrough” technologies, some of which might be home-grown, others which might be developed by partners or by integrating third party solutions. And the third team is responsible for maintaining and improving the hosting platform.
Managing user feedback used to involve feedback from annual member forums held regionally, Rob said, “but as Aconex has grown, these proved less and less valuable for feedback and we now hold regular quarterly meetings with our key clients.” Aconex also has a ‘Product Voice’ system that allows users to see what suggestions have already been made and to add new ones as necessary:
“This helps us prioritise ideas, as we are effectively getting ‘votes’ for particular enhancements, meaning we can quantify the levels of support for particular changes. These ‘hot spots’ help us focus on changes that will add maximum business value or have greatest impact for our users.”
“APIs are not a silver bullet, but…”
Rob is clearly excited about the opportunities arising from Aconex’s release of set of Web Services APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) to enable integration between its system and other software products used by its clients. After a quick sprint through a description of ‘Agile’ development, he said “the APIs are not a silver bullet, but they will make it much easier to add new functionality”. He continued:
“The APIs will allow us to accelerate new developments. We have to be able to add depth and breadth to our applications. Our in-house team look at the depth issues, focusing on what we are good at, while the APIs make it easier to add new functionality, to add breadth. We can work with software partners, or outsource particular development tasks for applications where we don’t have the in-house expertise – perhaps for mobile apps or widgets. And, of course, we still haven’t used any of the investment we got from Francisco Partners last year if we want to acquire a company that has a technology that we need.”
Some future development areas
Discussing areas of potential development, I picked some examples already being pursued by Aconex’s competitors, including BIM (Asite), rich multi-media (Kalexo) and contract administration (BIW, Asite – post), but we also talked about some more strategic developments (viz: asset lifecycle support, a new user interface, Google Wave, and whether Aconex might get into the low-cost file-sharing market):
Support for building information modelling – Rob became very animated about the opportunities to support collaboration on BIMs, even saying that it was almost inevitable that we would see BIMs shared on Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) platforms:
“We are seeing major convergence: new BIM tools, new server developments and broader broadband … We will no longer rely on 2D frozen documents issued at a particular time – the nirvana will be a live model, an evolving thing that we can edit anywhere even without BIM software and yet retain an audit trail of all changes.”
Wow. When? “Maybe four, five, six years”.
Multi-media (eg: chat, video, conferencing) – Aconex has always had simple discussion-board or forum-type functionality but is now actively exploring richer forms of real-time collaboration. Rob said this would one area where the APIs might really help, and the company had been in detailed talks recently about adding Skype-like conference calling capabilities to its platform.
Process or workflow management – Rob said “We have have been adding quite a lot of process support to the application recently: things like cost control, management of variations and related payments.” However, they were not developing tools to support particular forms of contracts (eg: NEC, JCT) – “some are just too specific to particular markets”. There was growing interest in using the Aconex system for procurement (something that the company tried in its infancy but found little demand for), and, as a result, Aconex’s online tendering module is in the process of being rebuilt.
Asset lifecycle management – Still talking about processes, Rob said Aconex is also going to offer better support for advanced hand-over processes. This goes beyond snagging (aka defects management or punch-lists) and looks at managing building commissioning processes (eg: test plans) to achieve compliance and then supporting operation and maintenance of the building throughout its lifecycle (it wasn’t clear if this would go as far as, say, the conject ILM platform – post).
User interface – Aconex is also looking at a new user interface to its application, working with an American UI specialist to get an expert view on what works best for browser-based applications. Rob said they are treading carefully on this as it can be an area where existing users can be resistant to change. Apparently, prototypes of the new UI will be tested by users early next year, with the final version being released sometime around July or August 2010.
Google Wave – In an Aconex blog post in September, Rob talked about Google Wave, saying:
“I see Wave as a component and enabler of collaboration tools, rather than a replacement. As an example, all the construction collaboration tools on th
e market use email as a component of their solution – it is not a question of one or the other. Software developers often use components to make up a solution, and I see Google Wave as one of those components.”
He reiterated this opinion to me, pointing out that construction collaboration platforms are used to manage “objects” of one kind or another (eg: documents, drawings) that often evolve through various revisions. He suggested waves would simply be another type of object that could be used for processes – particularly where real-time collaboration was advantageous.
Simple file-sharing – I asked Rob if Aconex felt the pressure of low/no-cost solutions. He admitted it posed a dilemma:
“On one hand, it’s good that people want to use technology for file-sharing, and we hope their needs will evolve so that they look for more sophisticated applications like our’s. But if they stick with the small guy’s system, it could get more fully featured and end up competing with us.”
However, he said, Aconex has sometimes found itself competing with solutions where Aconex might be two or three times more expensive, yet a good product can command premium prices and still win the work where clients value quality and reliability. He quoted an analogy used by his chairman, Martin Hosking:
“If you’re about to have a life-saving heart valve replacement, you won’t start looking for valves in the discount store“.
Coupling this candid interview with the conversation I had with Aconex’s financial team, I think the company now feels confident enough in its future prospects to begin to invest substantially in its product and services. Aconex felt that it had begun to see growth from about June 2009 and – assuming the current unravelling of the Dubai property boom doesn’t plunge the global economy into a double-dip recession – Rob sounded optimistic about how Aconex might expand its product both in the near future and over the long term. Short-term, for instance, the APIs will accelerate the addition of new features, and the new user interface will also help users find and use this new functionality.
Strategically, incorporating BIM into the collaboration platform is a much more ambitious, longer-term plan, but – to me – it is a necessary one. BIM may not yet be widely adopted, but it is beginning to change how designers and other members of the supply chain will work together. Construction collaboration technology vendors who want to remain competitive cannot afford to focus solely on 2D drawings and other flat file formats. This will be one area where firms like Aconex could well establish some clear blue water water between themselves and the vendors of low/no-cost solutions.
Another area of differentiation will be built asset life-cycle management. Terms like ‘project extranet’ and ‘construction collaboration’ are becoming less appropriate as they allude to just one part of the development cycle – the initial design and construction phase – while much of the information created during that process will be needed to help operate and maintain the asset throughout its working life. Aconex and conject both see this as part of the future for their solutions, and making BIM part of the technology to support the life-cycle will create a powerful asset management solution for many owners and operators.