As we increasingly access data and application on the move, AEC SaaS vendors will need to embrace the mobile cloud more in 2014.
This morning I read a .Rising US news item predicting desktop traffic would be overtaken by mobile and tablet by July 2014, underlining, yet again, the growing importance of mobile and tablet traffic and the declining role of the desktop device. OK, the research was focused on just 10 websites (and the article stressed the trends for marketing people), but this is just the latest in a long line of articles predicting a shift in how we interface with data and applications.
Of course, in the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) market, we have been engaged in a bigger shift. Since the late 1990s, we have seen a gradual but inexorable rise in the number of projects deploying cloud-based construction collaboration technologies, reducing the reliance on in-house hosted software and data, and moving to Software-as-a-Service. Even Autodesk’s Carl Bass is actively talking about embracing the cloud as a subscription and delivery mechanism for its AEC design and visualisation tools (while others are biding their time).
The AEC shift to mobile devices has been less marked, though, partly due to questions about which platform(s) to support. First Apple’s iPhone and then its iPad grabbed a lot of C-suite attention, but the devices are not cheap (or at least not cheap enough for them to used routinely in the demanding conditions – and low margins – of a construction project), and there is a reluctance by some developers to share the costs of paid-for apps with Apple. Android is seen by many as a more viable alternative as a result. Windows mobile – once dominant in the mid-2000s days of PDAs – is only slowly regaining market recognition; many AEC businesses have invested heavily in Microsoft software and operating systems, so this is only to be expected (there was an interesting discussion on this at Priority1’s conference in December, and it is a recurring debate at COMIT community days).
Leading AEC design software vendors such as Autodesk and Bentley have expanded their product portfolios to include a growing number of mobile tools capable of integration with their traditional applications, and their move into mobile is paralleled by some – but not yet all – of the AEC SaaS vendors. For example, 4Projects launched its 4Mobile platform last year (Apple in July, Android in October), following the leads of rivals Aconex (iPhone in May 2011, iPad in September 2012, Android in April 2013 – see Aconex blog post), Docia (Android in January 2012, iPhone six months later), and Asite (who launched mobile functionality, branded ‘cMob’, across multiple platforms via its AppBuilder toolset in 2010). Unit4’s Business Collaborator team were talking about mobile support using the parent company’s FieldForce 12 months ago, and peer-to-peer platform provider Newforma had bought a mobile apps developer and launched field apps in 2012 (post). However, others such as Cadweb, for example, remained wedded to the idea of supporting collaboration through a browser interface – though this may not be optimised for field use on touch-screens and there can be internet connectivity issues on-site.
The explosion in use of smartphones and tablets in the last five years has also spawned a profusion of point solutions from smaller developers, particularly in areas such as site inspections and defects management (aka snagging or punchlists). Last year, for example, as well as Priority1, I wrote about GenieBelt’s GenieInspect (post), Accede (post), SmartBuilder1 and GoReport (post); and there are also SnagR (post), Snag List (post) and iSnag (post), among others. This morning, I also saw an article in Quality in Construction listing nine applications for site inspection, including Autodesk’s BIM360 Field (formerly Vela), GenieBelt, SnagR, Latista, Inspect2Go, PlanGrid, Canvas, Bluebeam and FluidID.
I expect we will see the mobile area grow in importance in 2014, and I hope we will also see a shift away from stand-alone point solutions towards integration and reuse of information within wider collaboration applications (building information modelling, BIM, is encouraging greater consideration of re-use of asset data throughout the life of a built asset, and this will need to encompass mobile tools). As mentioned, some (4Projects, Aconex, Asite, Autodesk, etc) are already well advanced, while the apparent laggards still have time to catch up.
Only last week I noted the new Conject CEO Ralf Händl specifically mentioned mobile devices as something the company would be rolling out in 2014. This has been something largely absent from the company’s portfolio since it led the way – as BIW – in launching a PDA-based defects management application, integrated with its core SaaS application, in 2006. The German arm of business has developed an iPhone application, but this wasn’t internationalised and rolled-out to the former BIW customer base after the acquisition. Meanwhile, its main domestic competitor Think Project! launched iPhone and Android mobile applications last summer.
Update (22 January 2014) – It seems that when I write about mobile solutions, it prompts other firms to get in touch.
For example, I have just heard from Sydney, Australia-based vendor WebFM whose core product OMTrak enables customers to create operation and maintenance manuals online (similar to the Grazer business acquired by Aconex in June 2012). Alongside its manuals module, it offers a site works module which provides defects management, with an iPhone app available from the Apple AppStore (when I looked it was, unfortunately, “currently undergoing an emergency fix”).
I was also reminded by fellow industry IT watcher Randall Newton about California, USA-based mobile solutions provider IMSI/Design and its iPhone/iPad delivered TurboSite field reporting products. Upgrades to TurboSite Pro and TurboSite Plus have just been released, with new BIM and 3D section display capabilities added to to the Pro app, while both options allow users to add maps to drawings and, for the first time, to mark up 2D PDF files with playable video that is directly inserted into the portable document format.