Right now is an exciting time to be a software developer. Just ask Wayne Newitts, marketing director for Dexter + Chaney, the company behind Spectrum Construction Management software. According to Newitts the world has just entered the third wave of computing, the first wave being the Windows operating system — “It made a quantum leap in usability; it really put computers on everybody’s desk” — and the second being the explosion in mobile data communications.
“The third wave of change is really cloud computing,” Newitts says. “It’s a term that we hesitate to use because it’s gotten to be such a marketing buzzword, but it really does represent a fundamental change.”
Cloud computing means, in essence, that the applications that used to reside on your computer now reside on a remote server that you access via the world wide web. All the computing power needed on the user’s end is enough to open a browser (Chrome, Firefox, Explorer etc. etc.), making them ideal for mobile devices such as laptops, tablets and smartphones. Typically, they are less customizable and, since the data is on a remote server, there can be privacy and security concerns.
Applications are classed as either Software as a Service (SaaS) or Platform as a Service (PaaS). SaaS applications operate as a package of locally installed software with the advantage of simplified maintenance and support, although features may be limited compared to their desktop-installed versions. With PaaS applications, vendors are responsible for operation, maintenance and management.
What’s made the cloud possible is, first, the confluence between communication devices and computers, and second the growth of the Internet to the point where it is now behaving like an electrical or telephone utility: ubiquitous, dependable and easy to access.
“The cloud is the biggest no-brainer in the history of computing technology,” says Newitts. “It is going to save dramatic amounts of time and money and make powerful applications more available while driving down the price … it’s nothing but good for the entire industry.”
The app is here to stay
Newitts is quick to add that if you just take an application and try to run it off a remote server, you’re asking for trouble. “You can’t just take clunky, large, thick-client applications that have elaborate menu structures and just dump them into this environment. It won’t work. You’ve got to accommodate the protocols that are ubiquitous on the World Wide Web.”
The other half of the mobile computing equation is the user experience, and tailoring that experience to match the platform the user is on. Yes, a tech in the field can now launch a browser on his smartphone and access his own company’s proprietary software, but none of that matters if he’s going blind doing data entry in a tiny grid that’s been optimized for a laptop screen.
The solution is to have the software mirror the experience smartphone and tablet users are already having, which means that the “app” isn’t going anywhere. “More advanced software providers are realizing that people are used to the app experience,” Newitts says. “The whole idea of individual, stand-alone apps for construction, they aren’t going to go away. But more and more you’ll see field techs being able to access modules of their company’s software in app form. What’s good about that? You don’t have to rely on third-party apps and hope they work with your software. Integration is no longer an issue.”
The app model will allow system administrators to segment out what pieces of software different users have access to. The app model also has implications for software development.
“Some of our modules for our software were actually developed in conjunction with our clients,” Newitts says. Some of the contractors at Dexter + Chaney’s recent users conference were told that they could, if they wished, become third-party developers. They could create their own earned-value calculators, their own project productivity apps for field techs, and even try to sell them through Dexter + Chaney’s own app store. “I can’t tell you how much excitement that generated through our customer base.”
A day in the life
Even as desktop computing has come to affect almost every aspect of the modern office job, mobile computing has been making inroads into nearly every aspect of the contracting industry — and nowhere is this more apparent than in the day-to-day work of a service technician.
A service tech will start their day with an automated check-in that puts them on the clock. Once a computer system knows they’re available, jobs can then be assigned via a dispatch program, typically one that integrates with either a GPS system or Google Maps to provide driving directions to the customer location. If multiple stops are scheduled for the day, software can optimize routes, even taking into account changing traffic conditions as the day goes on.
Technicians check out trucks, tools and equipment, all of which can now be logged by a mobile computing device thanks to bar code readers and RFID tags. Progress to the customer can be tracked, and gas millage can be automatically calculated.
Once the tech arrives at the service call, their mobile device can bring up a wealth of information. First on the customer: how long have they been a customer? Do they have a dog? Children? What was their most recent call for? Was their last experience with the company a positive one or a negative one? If need be, a mobile device can even pull up the exact terms of the service contract.
Once on-site, the tech can enter the serial number of the unit(s) to be serviced and pull up a complete service history. If they are missing a part they need, they can find if one is back at the shop or on another service truck that might be in the area. If they run into a jam, manuals and technical help are only a URL away. Even YouTube-based videos on difficult maintenance and repair techniques are easily available. And when the job is finished, a magnetic strip reader makes it easy for the technician to accept a credit card payment and get on to the next job.
For the contractor a lot of the advantage of mobile computing is the wealth of real-time information the back office can obtain from the jobsite. Installation pictures, progress videos, weather condition are all instantly available. Project managers are no longer keeping logs on their laptops during the week, then uploading them on a Friday afternoon; instead, all that information is now up-to-the-minute.
“From the perspective of a subcontractor,” Newitts says, “change orders are one of the hardest things to manage for new construction. But with this new paradigm we’re living in, the unapproved or slipped-through-the-cracks change order… that isn’t happening as much any more.” Change orders can now go through an automatic approval process, where everyone who needs to is able to sign-off. The subcontractor is more responsive, and all the subs on a given project are better able to collaborate.
The impact of mobile computing on the contracting industry is only just starting to be felt. New software and new apps are being written every day, and new peripheral devices – such as microphones, magnetic strip readers, bar code readers, cameras, laser range finders, thermometers — are collecting new data to be used in new ways. “We’re in the midst of changing the way we do business,” says Newitts, “and it couldn’t happen at a better time.”