Asite CEO gets “closer to customers”

There was no Asite representative at the NCCTP members meeting yesterday morning. One member said he’d rung the company last week and the phone was answered by acting chief executive Gordon Ashworth. This is not an isolated incident; a marketing lady I spoke to this morning had also rung Asite and was surprised to get straight through to Gordon, who apparently told her "it’ part of an effort to get closer to our customers". Hmmm…. either that or the drive to reduce UK administration expenses (referred to in Asite’s half-year report – see 28 September post) is cutting ever deeper.

Permanent link to this article: http://extranetevolution.com/2005/11/asite_ceo_gets_/

Microsoft to go ‘on demand’

News (eg: BBC article Microsoft hails ‘strategic shift’) that Microsoft is going to push into online services marks "a revolution," according to Bill Gates, in how the company thinks about software. It is perhaps also a belated acceptance of the challenge posed by application service provider (ASP) businesses such as Salesforce.com who have rejected the sale of "shrink-wrapped" software in favour of services delivered via the internet.

It will be a major challenge for a business hitherto dominated by the need to sell software to be installed on users’ computers, and the licensing of its software to corporate customers. It will mean changing the Microsoft mindset from shifting product towards providing a service – what Gates calls a ‘service plus software’ mentality.

Competitors have been dismissive of Microsoft’s move. I liked the comments from Salesforce’s Marc Benioff: "With ‘Live’ appended to some familiar names: Windows Live, Microsoft Office Live, Windows Live Messenger and so on, the clear implication is that their current product line should be renamed with similar zeal: Windows Dead, Microsoft Office Dead, and Windows Messenger Dead," Mr Benioff said.

However, the move should not be dismissed so lightly. Microsoft commands a large following and when a major player makes a strategic shift like this, others will be influenced into following suit. Also, this development will hopefully encourage wider acceptance of web services, and make it a little easier for existing web services providers to convince sceptical clients to embrace ASP technologies. And the construction collaboration technology ASPs, for example, can at least congratulate themselves on going to market with the concept some years before Microsoft finally admitted that the future lay via the internet, not on the desktop hard-drive or internal server.

Permanent link to this article: http://extranetevolution.com/2005/11/microsoft_to_go-2/

Moaning architects (4)

After my previous posts on this topic (see 1, 2 and 3), Duncan Mactear of 4Projects and I formed a two-man NCCTP fact-finding delegation to the latest meeting of the CICA Major Architects IT Group, held at Foster’s head office in Battersea, London. Around the table we faced representatives from Foster’s, RHWL, Sheppard Robson, Broadway Malyan and BDP, plus the CICA’s own Erik Winterkorn. What did we learn?

  • Problems arise when extranets are implemented too late – after project data standards have already been set, or when a substantial amount of design work has already been undertaken. Standards can help, but too often they take up time, and they aren’t a work-winning issue.
  • Extranets benefit the client and the project, but not the architect
  • Larger architects’ practices often have established, sophisticated internal drawing management and/or quality assurance systems; adding an extranet to the mix can mean duplication of many routine processes. One architect said he regarded the extranet as a system to be used for managing published data, while his internal system was used for ‘work in progress’. For smaller practices, however, it was recognised that an extranet could form the basis of a reliable file management system – so long as they fully understood what happens at the end of a project (ie: the need to obtain a full project archive detailing all their inputs to the project).
  • “It’s not just about managing the 20% of drawings we produce, it’s about reproducing the 80% that we need to look at for co-ordination purposes. We have to print them out and then absorb the costs.” Which brought us neatly to red-lining….
  • Red-lining is a pain.” … “We don’t just make a few comments, we bleed over drawings!” … “It’s almost impossible with a mouse, and digital pen devices and tablets are an expensive extra.” … “We would need larger screens but they are so expensive … and the screen resolution isn’t good enough …” “We’ve tried whiteboarding but you need back projection to make it work because of the shadows”. … One firm described how teams print out their drawings, mark them up by hand and then “get a monkey to enter them onto the extranet system“. Often an architect’s feedback would take the form of a detailed sketch, not just a minor amendment, which would need to be scanned back into the system.
  • “It’s easier if you are engaged on a programme of work, a framework for a single client – more difficult if you are working for a single client procuring a one-off project.”

What did I learn from all this? Well, it was clear that some comments were influenced by experience with collaboration systems of low levels of sophistication, or by experience on projects started when extranet functionality was less advanced than it is today. Also, some of the vendors and their project team partners have become more adept at implementing the systems in their projects at the right time and in the right way – several of the apparent failings were not due to the technology per se, but to inappropriate processes or to people issues (training, etc).

I think the meeting was very worthwhile. We gathered the opinions of an influential group of project team members, but they offered just one perspective. It might also be useful if we could repeat the exercise with some of the other CICA groups (eg: consulting engineers, contractors, clients).

Permanent link to this article: http://extranetevolution.com/2005/11/moaning_archite/

Business Link guide to extranets

When I worked (late 1990s) as a consultant for the Greenwich Enterprise Board, I sometimes referred to online guides for small to medium sized businesses (SMEs) on various marketing and web-related matters. This morning I found Business Link pages ‘What is an extranet?’, ‘Benefits of an extranet’ and ‘Planning for an extranet’. Pretty simplistic stuff, but good to see UK government offering at least some general pointers for enterprises looking to collaborate with their business partners.

One small moan, though: under ‘actions’, the site suggests a link to a US-based site (the Extranet Benchmarking Association) to find out about extranets. It’s a shame that there isn’t a link to a UK-based site offering further free, up-to-date information (the EBA site isn’t helpful at all). For UK construction businesses a link to the NCCTP site would be useful (this, at least, is vendor-neutral – and includes links to various UK-based providers), but for businesses in other vertical markets, I am not aware of any similar resources.

The best I could find was a brief column on extranets in a guide to mobile working (PDF) from http://www.ukonlineforbusiness.gov.uk – AKA Business Link! The National Computing Centre, which helped produce the Business Link pages, produced a guide to implementing extranets in 1997, but that costs £25 and will now be horrendously out-of-date.

If anyone knows of any other free sources of generic advice on extranets (ideally aimed at UK organisations), please let me know.

Permanent link to this article: http://extranetevolution.com/2005/11/business_link_g/

Any niche AEC search engines?

A Financial Times article describes how, while Google, Yahoo and others try to dominate mass-market search, smaller competitors are targeting niches that the big boys are ignoring. It gives two examples: Convera’s Excalibur is a white-label vertical search product aimed initially at media and publishing, health and life sciences and financial services; and Healthline, a vertical search engine for consumers looking for answers to medical queries.

If there are profits to be made in such vertical searches, will we see one focused on the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) market? Or is that market just not profitable enough?

Permanent link to this article: http://extranetevolution.com/2005/10/any_niche_aec_s/

What is ‘real-time’ collaboration?

Browsing AEC Cafe‘s AEC Weekly, I was intrigued by an announcement (also reported by Yahoo here) that Canadian software company CMiC was "taking real-time collaboration to the next level with the introduction of CMiC IO, a revolutionary technology that enables businesses to collaborate both internally and with outside partners …".

Wow! I thought – my mind buzzing with ideas of what they might be using. Could it be instant messaging or group chat? Maybe whiteboard collaboration? What about VOIP or some kind of video or audio conferencing tool?

No. The "revolutionary" technology is actually email. "All a user requires is an e-mail capable device; Pocket PC, Palm, RIM Blackberry and all other intelligent handhelds such as smartphones can be used to send e-mail into a project management database. … users can even be offline and send the e-mail at a later date."

To me, this is not real-time collaboration. Like the technophiles at Whatis.com, I define real-time as using the internet to communicate "with co-workers as if they were in the same room, even if they are located on the other side of the world". I think real-time communication is like having a two-way conversation, with each person reacting almost instantaneously to the other’s opinions, instructions or other information. Email is about sending some information and it being stored in a retrieval system until the recipient gets round to looking at it.

That may be a bit simplistic, of course. Apparently, "CMiC IO enables users to create a record, update a record or add a document to a database by simply composing an e-mail. The software recognizes key words and translates the e-mail into the appropriate database object."

OK, the email can make a change to the central system the instant it is received and processed, but how can this be considered collaborative? Where is the two-way interaction? How do our Blackberry-equipped email senders get real-time feedback?

CMiC’s use of mobile technology is not "revolutionary" either. More than a year ago, I watched as a friend from UK-based support services business Interserve used a well-specified PDA with GPRS connectivity to view and respond to comments on a project being managed using the BIW Information Channel collaboration technology. His interface with the project was via a web-browser, and he could see his ‘headlines’ page refresh itself almost instantly as he clicked on items and completed actions. That was real-time, and – to the extent that his changes were immediately viewable by other online project team members – a degree more collaborative than CMiC’s over-hyped email solution can achieve.

Permanent link to this article: http://extranetevolution.com/2005/10/what_is_realtim/

Honour for Graphisoft

The BIW Technologies office building in Woking also houses the UK office for Graphisoft, and last month we had a social event to ‘meet the neighbours’ (who also include a law firm, Mackrell Taylor Garrett). Given our shared interests in software and the construction industry, there were clearly lots of common interests between us and our Graphisoft counterparts, and during a boozy evening some good friendships were established. This is all a long-winded preamble to saying "Well Done" to Graphisoft for taking runner-up in the software category of the Wall Street Journal Technology Innovation Awards for its 5D Construction Management solution, Constructor 2005.

Permanent link to this article: http://extranetevolution.com/2005/10/honour_for_grap/

Blodget on the ‘bubble’

Henry Blodget‘s Guardian article The Crash Test talks about Google’s continued growth in the aftermath of the dot.com bubble bursting in 2000 and includes an interesting overview of the evolution of e-businesses.

He describes the life-cycle of new industries as: “boom, bust, long boom, and decay”, and goes on: “After the bust, if an opportunity is real, the survivors (or later entrants) find themselves in a position to dominate the most profitable phase of the industry’s development: the long boom. … the fortunes made in these periods dwarf those made and lost in the initial frenzy.”

If we recall the e-experience of the UK construction industry in 2000, several e-marketplaces emerged in quick succession: Mercadium, AECVenture and Arrideo were among the most notable ones formed by industry consortia, but there were also attempts by BuildOnline and Causeway’s Buildingwork.com to claim a foothold. The first three all folded before 18 months was out, while BO recast itself as a construction collaboration technology business and Buildingwork.com disappeared as Causeway stuck to its core AEC software, including collaboration.

Among the pure construction collaboration technology providers there were proportionately fewer casualties (iScraper was the most notable, and I believe Architec was a more recent casualty) – probably because they didn’t generally think of themselves as internet businesses; they were simply software vendors delivering their applications via the web. Nonetheless, they suffered a bit during the post-2000 slump (Blodget’s ‘bust’ period), but they have gradually emerged into what we hope will be a ‘long boom’.

That is not to say that they will all be successful. Clearly, some will be more successful than others (as previously reported in this blog, Asite’s financial performance continues to worry its investors; and BuildOnline’s once massive cash-pile must be dwindling away), and much will depend on how each survivor adapts to changing market conditions and new technological advances. As Microsoft and Adobe, for example, embed more and more collaborative functionality into their applications, and as always-on broadband expands its reach, some aspects of the vendors’ competing solutions may become redundant for many users. Construction collaboration technologies must continue to evolve if their providers are to “dominate the most profitable phase of the industry’s development”.

Permanent link to this article: http://extranetevolution.com/2005/10/blodget_on_the_/

Yoono

Earlier this week, I received an email from Laurent Quérel, CTO at Yoono (good name!), canvassing opinions on the beta version of a free software application combining the management and sharing of information – part collaborative search engine and part communication tool. It works by indexing the internet bookmarks of its community of web users.

Given my recent laptop problems (see this week’s Virus nightmare), I was reluctant to download an unknown application to my machine, but I did test out the ‘Yoono search’ test facility. This looked quite promising.

I tried it with some obscure websites – extranet vendor sites, for example – but it didn’t find anything (it’s early days, and Yoono clearly needs to attract some significant traffic to become truly valuable), but if you enter, say, a newspaper site, you are presented with a list of similar links ranked by their popularity. French publications currently dominate the listings, but perhaps this isn’t surprising – in the absence of any contact information (an omission, Laurent), I suspect Yoono is based in France.

Yoono users (Yoosers surely?) can also be recognised as experts in their field if they publish folders of their favoured links on that topic. This facility, judging from the “Testimonials we made up”, can also be used to direct an expert’s contacts (a teacher’s students, for example – Yoof, maybe?) to specified web-pages. Once I have got all my laptop back-ups sorted out, I will be testing Yoono out. It runs on both Internet Explorer and Firefox browsers, so I will probably give it a go from Firefox.

One minor niggle: some of the website text, particularly in the FAQs, has misspelt words and poor grammar. Yoono should employ a native English copywriter and proof-reader to remove the errors and improve the text.

Permanent link to this article: http://extranetevolution.com/2005/10/yoono/

WebOffice

Sometimes a construction collaboration platform (or ‘project extranet’) can be too big for the project in question, and the project may not need all the construction-focused functionality associated with accessing, commenting upon and marking up of drawings. "What should we use?" I get asked sometimes.

I usually refer to generic products such as Projectplace, but I have just found another product. WebEx, better known for their real-time online meeting solutions, recently launched an "Integrated Collaboration Suite for Small Businesses and Individuals" called WebEx WebOffice. Prices start from $59.99 per month for a five-strong workgroup and up to 250MB of storage space. (The press release gives the press contact as one Colin Smith – not to be confused with BIW’s CEO!)

Permanent link to this article: http://extranetevolution.com/2005/10/weboffice/

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