Australia-based construction collaboration technology vendor Incite is developing a lot of new and innovative functionality, and – having grown its business in south-east Asia – is, as I predicted last year, inching towards establishing a presence in Europe.
My latest meeting (previous – post) with Michael Baker, Incite’s general manager (technology), included a first encounter with Scott Crane, who was appointed MD of the company in January 2010 when his predecessor Sean Kaye (blog) moved to a more strategic role in mining and construction giant parent company Leighton Holdings (turnover AU$18.6bn [£11.6bn] in year to 30 June 2010 – report).
Rationalisation at Incite
Scott told me that one of the first things he did was take a long, hard look at the Incite business with a view to building on its strengths and eliminating areas that he felt were holding the business back. This rationalisation process trimmed a few people out of the business (it now has 51 people), and improved the process of onboarding new customers.
Incite has discontinued its old per-seat based pricing approach (post) – a recognition, I think, that a per-project licensing model is more likely to encourage efficient, transparent and, perhaps most importantly, auditable collaboration among individuals in a multi-company project team (this approach also remains the dominant model among most UK SaaS collaboration vendors).
Scott and Michael both described product development as “the engine room” of the business, but from Scott’s comments it seems the company’s agile approach sometimes outstripped its capacity to deliver. Today, a sales cycle that sometimes took weeks is now accomplished in days, he said, supported by templates for the core Incite Keystone modules (including correspondence, quality, tendering and standard reporting tools) that accelerate the configuration of the system to manage buildings, civil works, or infrastructure projects. Support processes are also now better managed, Scott said, with stringent service level agreements in place giving customers firm undertakings on things like response times on support requests.
The sheer breadth of product development activities had also been a hindrance, it seemed. We talked briefly about Keystone Toolbox, a product that I saw at a pre-Beta release stage in September 2009 (post). Further development of this simple file-sharing platform, strongly influenced by the Web 2.0 idea of the social stream, has apparently been put on the back-burner, but Mike said the company had learned a lot from its development and he reckoned there were eight or nine areas of its technology that might yet be incorporated into Incite Keystone.
Incite growing into new markets
As for Incite itself, Scott said it has been snapping at the heels of Australian rival Aconex in its domestic market. Incite’s Leighton Holdings ownership is sometimes raised as a potential obstacle by prospects, he said, but once they understand the benefits of a strong financial backer and how strictly separation and probity are maintained between the parent company and this specialist software development business, those objections usually evaporate.
Incite is a strong force in its home territory of Australasia, Scott continued, but had been successfully expanding into south-east Asia, to countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and India as well as Hong Kong (where it has a hosting facility). Incite Keystone is now being used on projects worth some AU$42 billion, with – on average – between 2,000 and 3,000 unique users logging-in to Keystone daily. For a (refreshing) change and unlike some other vendors, Incite doesn’t quote statistics for all users registered since year dot, it prefers to concentrate on currently active users; it has around 15,000 of these at the moment, Scott said. New projects are being added at the rate of five or six per week.
Expansion into Europe is still on the cards, Scott said. Use of Keystone in south and SE Asia had exposed several European contractors and project managers to the platform, and one reason for this latest trip was to talk to a major contractor in Germany and to other customers based in mainland Europe. As soon as customer demand justified the investment, Scott said Incite would be establishing an office and hosting facility in Europe.
Innovating interfaces with Keystone
Michael was keen to give me a preview of some of the capabilities of new-look Keystone, which it aims to release by the end of 2010.
At first glance, the Keystone user interface looks similar to other providers’ products, most of which also resemble email clients (a familiar-looking interface, of course, helps speed up user adoption). Some ability to modify such interfaces has already started to appear. Earlier this year, for example, I was invited to review Sword CTSpace‘s new interface (post) which allows users to reconfigure their views by, say, resizing or moving columns around, and Keystone is offering the same customisation capabilities. Keystone also offers extensive configuration capabilities for its reporting system.
While on the subject of email, Michael showed me Keystone’s integration with Outlook (still the most widely used corporate email client), demonstrating its “Drop Zone” feature which allows users to drag and drop single or multiple emails, including their attachments, into Keystone. Separate Drop Zones can be created for different projects, and, as well as email, the same functionality can be used to drag files from a computer’s hard-drive.
However, when it comes to CAD files and other graphical information such as photographs, it has taken a radical departure from the “drawing register” listing view typical of many collaboration platform user interfaces. Using Microsoft’s PivotViewer technology built into Silverlight, Keystone allows users to view thumbnail images of all the items in a particular database, and to drill-down into the database by searching according to various metadata options. For example, within a large set of drawings, you might want to isolate all those relating to building services, or all those produced by a particular designer, or all those approved for construction. Each time a selection is made, the screen tiles are rearranged accordingly, and users can zoom into and view the details with increasing clarity without actually having to open any of files themselves. (I saw a similar graphic-led approach to file navigation deployed in Kalexo Teamwork last year – post.)
Given the highly mobile nature of many construction professionals’ working lives, Incite has also spent time developing applications for mobile devices (Michael talked fluent “techie” – the Keystone API is 100% RESTful, using JSON and XML). I saw how Keystone could be used to manage a range of workflows via an iPhone, and Michael also talked about the company’s plans to create similar apps for Windows Mobile 7 and for Android. I asked about Blackberry (still a favourite – albeit declining – among corporates), and he said they had no plans to develop a similar application for BB devices, mainly because they expected RIM’s share of the smartphone market to continue to decline as Android grows in popularity and iPhone remains attractive (see latest Nielsen statistics, for example). We also talked about an iPad application: Keystone will be accessible on iPads, with much of the new interface design (large buttons, drag-and-drop functionality, etc) already deliberately created to enable easy touchscreen interaction (Android tablet devices will, of course, also be supported).
Geo-location (or, as Keystone labels it, ‘Spatial) data is also increasingly important in Incite’s software development roadmap. We talked about capabilities that enabled files such as drawings or photographs to be tagged with geo-location details, allowing them to be represented as pins on, say, Bing Maps or Google Earth. This is something that Incite demonstrated at Microsoft’s Remix event in Sydney in June 2009 (post), but the company has since started working closely with Australian provider of high-resolution aerial images, Nearmap whose imagery can also be integrated with open-source map data from OpenStreetMap. Unlike satellite imagery, Nearmap imagery (currently only focused on Australian conurbations) is updated monthly, and Michael showed me how relevant project data could be displayed on a map with a timeline that allows the user to view progress over time. Particularly on infrastructure projects (eg: highways, rail and water supply projects) Michael said Keystone’s Spatial capabilities were helping construction professionals in the field quickly find key locations such as service access chambers or the locations of soil compaction tests.
After looking at CTSpace’s new interface and then Aconex’s v10 (post), I wasn’t sure what to expect when Michael said he wanted to show me how Keystone had developed (“Kick-ass new builds”, indeed!). But I was surprised: Incite is clearly investing significantly in its own product development and its Application Programming Interface (API) is helping it incorporate new capabilities utilising data from third party software developers. Some of the results are certainly innovative as far as the construction collaboration sector is concerned, and, at least from a technology perspective, Incite’s core platform already bears credible comparison with established players in the European market if it plans to launch in the northern hemisphere, and most European customers will have fewer issues with Leighton Holdings’ ownership.
The display of graphical files in Incite is user-friendly and intuitive to navigate, and the iPhone application is among the most polished smartphone solutions that I have seen so far in this sector (eg: Asite’s cMob, SmartBuilder’s proof-of-concept Site Clean-Up reporting tool, and, more recently, Sword CTSpace’s third-party developed app – post), and I am looking forward to seeing the Keystone mobile application deployed on larger format tablet devices.
This is likely to become a key battleground. Some industry analysts (eg: Gartner) are predicting that mobile devices will supercede laptop and desktop hardware as the preferred tools for internet access, so having mature mobile applications or mobile browser-based tools will be a key area for differentiation.
The API-enabled delivery of spatial data from Nearmap is also visually stunning (particularly if, like me, you are used to the grainy pixellated views derived from satellite imagery), and if Nearmap (or an equivalent) was to start offering similar services in the UK (and other markets, of course), I could see it being very attractive for teams involved with, for example, what’s left – after the Government’s recent Comprehensive Spending Review – of the UK’s infrastructure investment programme. It is a great example of how an API can be used by a vendor to add a differentiating, even game-changing capability to an existing software platform.