UK-based construction collaboration software developer Asite is looking to emulate Salesforce‘s Force.com Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) offering by creating a platform to host construction-related applications built using its Appbuilder development framework. This is the latest development in the competitive world of construction collaboration technology, but is likely to be quickly emulated by Asite’s key rivals.
Ten years ago, the early construction collaboration applications were mainly focused on sharing documents and drawings online. Over time, though, the main vendors (the UK ones at least) quickly began to add functionality to support key project processes or workflows. Initially, the platforms delivered simple web versions of what used to be paper or email-based forms (requests for information, change orders, submittals, etc), with routing between the various project team members involved, and audit trails so that project managers could monitor and report on progress.
Greater sophistication followed; in 2003, for example, my then employer BIW released its collaborative process management (news release); and, by 2005, 4Projects, BIW, BuildOnline (now Sword-CTSpace) and Sarcophagus all had tender management platforms. In 2008, I identified contract management as the new ‘extranet battlegound’ (post), with other leading application providers – including 4Projects, Aconex, Asite and Business Collaborator – following BIW’s lead and expanding support to cover complete contracts such as the New Engineering Contract (NEC). This extension strategy that also sought to attract business away from rival approaches such as MPS‘s CCM system that lacked high-end document management capabilities to track related information (other businesses focused on contract change management have also emerged; a year ago I blogged about Contract Communicator, for instance).
For the mainstream collaboration vendors, creating these online processes was originally something usually undertaken internally by implementation consultants and software developers, perhaps working in partnership with industry firms. But the creation of workflows has gradually evolved to enable external users to begin to specify and customise their processes (varying the content, branding, routing and timescales, for example) to suit their individual, corporate or project team needs.
In June last year, Asite’s Summer09 release included the launch of its Appbuilder – “Now you can simply build your own Applications to run within Asite” (Asite news) – as well as a library of process applications, including NEC Manager, Finance Manager and Risk Manager. At the time, I was more interested in Asite’s new social media functionality and its trading update (post), but I have continued to monitor the activities of Asite and other vendors with respect to application programming interfaces, APIs, enabling third parties to develop specific applications, including tools for mobile platforms (in March this year, I identified both APIs and mobile solutions among my top 10 construction IT trends in Construction Manager).
A couple of months ago, I had coffee in London with Asite chief executive Tony Ryan (right) and he talked about the “game-changing” potential of AppBuilder, which by then had already been used to help create some of Asite’s cMob tools (post). He was also excited about the potential to create the construction equivalent of Salesforce’s Force.com cloud platform.
A key difference, Tony said, was that AppBuilder does not demand significant IT or programming skills to create a usable application. He believed it could be used by industry professionals to recreate or mould a process in much the same way as users might manipulate a Word file or Excel spreadsheet. He told me of examples already created using AppBuilder, including tools for expenses management, snagging, cost control and simple project management. AppBuilder could also be used to create procurement tools that would work with Asite’s eCommerce platform, he said, and he claimed that adding mobile access to the tools was a simple step taking seconds.
Given these impressive claims, I recently met Asite product development director Paul Markovits for a detailed look at AppBuilder.
From simple forms to complete management systems
“The starting point for AppBuilder was our wish to avoid a ‘one size fits all’ solution,” said Paul. “We decided to refactor the Asite platform and make it even more end-user-oriented, pushing the boundaries of what they could do on the platform. Asite will still manage all the usual categories of information – user details, tasks, documents, drawings, etc – but is now also a software platform, capable of delivering specific customisation through mini-applications. These can range from single form-type processes like RFIs or task lists through to complex multi-form tools to manage finances or NEC communications.”
The AppBuilder development framework is based around the Microsoft InfoPath XSN format; InfoPath is a form creation and data gathering toolset that enables users to quickly design electronic forms and gather related information without writing code. Paul showed me how an Asite user could quickly create a simple form interface and then populate it with data pulled from the Asite platform. The system also allows for automatic distribution of information to recipients identified by the user, and automatic creation of data, perhaps for use in other forms. Being a Microsoft Office application, InfoPath-based forms can also be used to generate Word or Excel files, including use of macros.
Paul demonstrated the creation of a simple form to specify and display data in the browser of a laptop, and then created another version of the same form to show the same data in a browser on a mobile phone. “We are a Software-as-a-Service business after all, and our strength is in delivering tools and data in browser-based environments,” he said. “And today this means also delivering mobile SaaS tools so that users can access data anytime anywhere on any platform.” The whole process of creating and branding a simple form took less than 20 minutes to demonstrate to me, including creation of a mobile view (with its own mobile-optimised navigation buttons to drill-down for more information).
Paul also showed me how processes could be configured to present data from other processes, thus enabling more complex, multi-step workflows. Such apps use data connections between the forms, and use the Asite Webservice API to call data between them. By aggregating and presenting such data from within the system, dashboards, graphs and other indicators can also be created on the Asite platform to give users and managers real-time performance metrics about their projects.
Paul also talked about the impact of Google Gears and the future importance of the HTML5 in supporting efficient data delivery and user interaction with the Asite system, stressing that Asite’s apps are not the kind downloaded to specific hardware (eg: iPhones), but apps that run on particular platform (in this case, Asite’s platform) and deliver views of information as web pages. Asite is thus moving towards a PaaS (Platform as a Service) offering. Paul also pointed out: “These apps could also be easily integrated with other applications to create mash-ups. We already have these with Google Earth, Memoori, Microsoft Virtual Earth, Onuma Planning System, etc.”
As something of a SaaS purist, I have been keen to keep as much information as possible accessible through standard web browsers, so I welcome Asite’s focus on the creating views of data that can be accessed and worked with in both PC and mobile phone browsers. Given the closed, platform-specific nature of iPhone apps and other apps aimed at particular hardware devices, surely creating apps that deliver data and interactivity via standard browsers across different hardware platforms must be better?
Watching Paul create a process, I also thought back to last month’s video of SmartBuilder‘s SiteCleanUp iPhone application (post) and pondered about how long it would take a proficient Asite user to knock up something similar. Moreover, such an Asite-delivered app would already be integrated with a SaaS platform.
And it’s not just SmartBuilder’s app either. Other vendors have created hardware-specific applications to manage particular processes (BIW and BuildOnline had defects management tools, for example, that allowed inspectors to collate information, synchronise it with their core platforms, and drive workflows to and from package subcontractors involved in rectifying work).
Of course, the Asite apps are designed to run only on Asite’s platform. While the company has apparently turned a corner, reporting its first (unaudited) profit last year (post), it still lags behind competitors such as BIW and 4Projects in terms of UK adoption, and Aconex is perhaps the most widely used AEC SaaS collaboration platform internationally. Arguably, AppBuilder gives Asite a marketing edge when it comes to showing users how they can create tools that do exactly what they want on the Asite platform, but such a marketing advantage might not be sustained for long if rivals decide to develop similar application development systems for their own platforms. Looking back over the the past decade, whenever a collaboration vendor has released functionality that appeared to give it a decisive lead over its competitors, those rivals have quickly got down to bridging that gap, and I can foresee the same process being repeated here. What Asite does have, though, is a window of opportunity during which it and its users can develop a library of applications that help give it more market traction.