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Going mobile – Part 1

publication date: Jul 1, 2010
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Mobile phones have become increasingly sophisticated – some mobiles now have camera facilities way ahead of the first digital cameras, while their computing power beats first generation PCs hands down. We’ve come a long way since the days when a Motorola mobile was the size of a brick and weighed twice as much.

Derek Mair, of software firm iSurvey, says, “The technology has moved forward in leaps and bounds even just in the last eighteen months.” And there’s a lot that estate agents can do with it – both in terms of running their own business, and for communicating to customers.

Estate agents are pretty mobile people, Andy Brown of eTech points out. “A lot of what they do is actually in the property – EPCs, floor plans, marketing narratives, marketing photographs, and in the case of rentals, the property inventory.”

While the PC remains vital back in the office, PDAs (personal digital assistants) and smartphones can make the mobile aspect of their work very much easier. “The PDA doesn’t replace the PC,” he says, “it supplements it as an information gathering device.”

He also notes that mobile technology has got much cheaper. “As well as functionality and speed being vastly greater,” he says, “hardware today is a fraction of the price it was a few years ago,” bringing business applications within the reach of even the smallest agency firm.

Julian Ransom Julian Ransom at The Mobile Agent agrees. “Not only can agents and DEAs use our systems on their handhelds for creating floorplans, they can also prepare virtual tours of every property in a cost effective, simple way. Virtual tours used to be limited to the £million+ market and take days to organise and receive. Now it’s a one click solution, the agent simply takes the pictures at the property, returns to the office, uploads them to a server that hosts the tours and is given a weblink to paste into the property details. It’s childsplay and it proved very, very popular at the recent Property Professionals Show.”

Another choice in this market, launched by AudioAgent Ltd at the end of last year is AudioTours. Ben Quiney, of AudioAgent says, “Vendors and landlords simply love them. The real stroke of genius was to harness it to the power of the spoken word, through the use of professional voiceovers and even background music. The result, a hugely powerful interactive presentation tool which has the appeal and impact of a TV or cinema ad – but crucially, at a fraction of the cost.”

This a completely bespoke product, precisely tailored to take account both of the agent’s requirements and the particular characteristics of each property. At one level, agents can upload them to their own company websites, or any of the major portals, including Rightmove, PropertyFinder and Primelocation. Similarly, given the growing importance to business of online social networking, they can also be uploaded to sites such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook – or indeed, anywhere else that an innovative agent might decide to advertise. The applications really are endless.

As to the question of cost, a batch of 5 audio tours can be purchased for just £99. At less than £20 per tour, it’s a huge improvement on earlier systems.

BEING SLICK – AND CONNECTED

In the past, mobile technology was a very different world from PC and server based software. Now, though, the two worlds are coming together – partly because companies such as Microsoft and Google have taken over the mobile phone’s operating system and partly because customers demand a slick interface.

Stewart Anderson of Aspasia says his company’s commitment to cloud computing means it is also committed to “creating something that is entirely web based and removing worries about hardware and connections.” It is important to him that Aspasia will run on any device – and run the whole software package, not just a cut down application. He believes that’s fundamental to the “new world of connectivity” and more and more software providers are agreeing with him.

However it’s still a complex marketplace, with three major operating systems – Google Android, Windows Mobile, and iPhone/iPad (consumer apps), as well as the Blackberry, which is now falling behind according to Jim Driver of eTech. While Android has the advantage of being free, and open source, and there’s now a good choice of Android phones on the market, it doesn’t have such good integration with back end systems as Windows Mobile, which can easily squirt data into Windows based systems back in the office and on PC. That’s one reason a lot of software houses, such as iSurvey, are choosing to standardise on Windows Mobile.

Stewart Anderson Aspasia has taken a different approach and used the Google API to run its software on PDAs and smartphones. “There are just too many operating systems and screen sizes,” Stewart Anderson says; each screen size would need a separate redesign. So instead, he says, “we’ve left it up to Google to take care of the mobile phones for us.”

Derek Mair of iSurvey says users need to be canny in buying their hardware. Though many phones can handle iSurvey’s software, to make the most out of it users need a good camera (five megapixels plus flash is ideal, which rules out the current iPhone, at only two megapixels and without flash, but the new iPhone4 hits Britain any day and that will have a five megapixel camera, keep up, keep up) and a touch-screen that uses a stylus rather than fingers. He also recommends that agents get a separate phone for the software, rather than running it on their regular phone, since phones can’t multitask effectively – if someone calls when you’re working on an inventory, one or the other task is going to have to be ignored! He warns that, “Airtime providers don’t tend to offer smartphones which are suitable for office applications” – they’re more interested in offering consumerorientated bells and whistles.

If agents don’t have their own smartphones, iSurvey provides a ‘business in a box’, with its software already preloaded on the Samsung Omnia 2 for £9.97 a week. Derek Mair says while this won’t suit all agents, it’s useful for smaller agencies and inventory firms who might not get a great deal from their airtime providers.

SPEED CUTS COSTS

Obviously, mobile technology offers agents greater convenience. But there are other advantages as well. For instance, iSurvey’s Derek Mair points out, using the stylus interface both tenant and surveyor can sign off an inventory at the end of the visit, instead of needing a copy to be printed out later and sent. That saves both time and money. iSurvey also provides a paperless audit trail which complies with RICS requirements, and saves the cost of making and keeping hard copies. “It’s all about speed,” Mair says. “Time and motion studies show that time savings of up to 30 per cent can be made with iSurvey.”

Andy Brown says it’s not technology per se – processing speed or internet functionality – but the information architecture and the way the system is designed that gains those savings. “It’s relatively easy to recreate a paper based form on a PDA,” he says, “but you really need to understand the workflow and the process of getting the information to create the best programme.” So, for instance, tasks are put in the order that the surveyor will usually carry them out, and pre-populated data fields with drop down data fields enable the surveyor to avoid a lot of typing.

Andy also believes that mobile functionality needs to be properly integrated into the firm’s overall systems. Workforce management is important in achieving cost benefits. He says, “You need to get instructions out to your workforce and optimise the use of your people and their time.” So the job of scheduling (and rescheduling) appointments needs to be built into the mobile software, rather than relying on phone calls or emails.

It does seem that we’re at a sweet spot in mobile technology, with many different technologies coming together to create highly user-friendly devices and programmes. For instance, Stewart Anderson says, speech integration – which has been around for a decade – is now beginning to work properly, “So that I can talk into the fields on our forms and I don’t have to type to fill them in.”

One interesting feature of mobile systems is that most are priced either per use (for instance eTech charges £2 per EPC or floor plan, and iSurvey charges £10 a report) or on a monthly subscription basis. That’s great for smaller agencies, who pay for what they use instead of seeing a massive bill for software licences up-front.

IPHONE HUNTING

Miles ShipsideBut while mobile applications are making life much easier for agents, they’re also making life easier for homebuyers. Miles Shipside, Commercial Director at Rightmove, says, “The iPhone was the breakthrough device in the consumer market – now other smartphones are building in the same features offering agents new ways to communicate with their customers.”

In terms of total traffic, iPhone made up six per cent of Rightmove’s total traffic on the weekend of 15-16 May. A beautiful warm weekend led to property seekers searching for property on their mobiles, instead of waiting to get back home. “I think this is a really interesting insight into home-hunter behaviour,” Shipside says, “and shows what an important role mobile technology can play for us.”

Creating an iPhone app is not immensely difficult. There are already some interesting independent applications, such as the ASBOrometer produced by programmer Jeff Gilfelt, which gives a location’s rating for anti-social behaviour. (It’s basically a ‘mashup’ which takes data from freely available government sources to create its ASBO scores.)

Miles Shipside has seen agents already producing their own applications. But he says, “on mobile phones you are restricted by space quite a bit,” and serious thought needs to be given as to how to present the information and allow users to drill down.

However, Stewart Anderson of Aspasia believes that the benefits to individual agents of having iPhone apps might not be all that great. He points out that users will have to download an application to their iPhone for each agent they use. “With the web, everyone’s got a browser. But will someone download an iPhone app to browse one agency’s inventory?” he asks.

Meanwhile, it’s important not to miss other types of mobile interface. For instance Rightmove will shortly be upgrading its mobile website for 3G phones. It’s a business decision; “We look at each type of mobile device and its benefits individually, but in general, we want to extend the reach of our agents’ properties,” says Miles Shipside.

Agents who think they can just repurpose their regular website should think again – information may need to be sliced and diced differently in order to display the right sized chunks on the mobile screen without involving the user in too much scrolling and navigation may need to be rethought completely to avoid taking up too much of the screen with navigation links. Mobile websites also need to meet users’ immediate needs much more quickly – cutting straight to the information they want, instead of introducing the company and its business.

SMS – even though it’s perhaps ‘yesterday’s technology’ compared to the iPhone - also has an important part to play in linking users to agents, not least because with SMS you can reach pretty much 100 per cent of mobile phone users, rather than the select slice of Apple fans.

For instance Textboards offers a service which uses basic SMS technology to communicate with homebuyers. The signboard displays a specific code for each property, which users can send to Textboards in order to get the property details sent them as a text message. This might not have the glitz of iPhone apps, but it works, according to RPS Estate Agents in Hampshire, who are using it.

It’s interesting that the consumer market and the professional market appear to be so very different, with the consumer market dominated by iPhone, while it’s Windows Mobile which is the leading operating system for professional applications.

That could change – Derek Mair suggests that some users who don’t like working on PDAs or smartphones because they find the screen too small might well find the iPad much more user-friendly. iSurvey will certainly be working to make its software run on the iPad.

But there’s another reason that most professional software runs on Windows or Android, as Jim Driver points out. While iTunes is a great way of getting free applications into the market, Apple charges a 25 per cent commission on sales of applications. That takes a big slice out of business software developers’ revenues, so that business model doesn’t work for them. Unless Apple changes its operating system, developers will prefer other operating systems.

It’s going to be an interesting year in mobile tech. It’s too early so say which applications will win out, and which systems or programs might fall by the wayside – but one thing is certain. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t in the office” just isn’t an excuse that will wash, any longer.



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