Information Technology Forecast for Construction

Engineering News Record, 12/28/2011, in an article by discusses the growing use of information technology in construction. Here are excerpts with my comments about what this means for building product manufacturers:
The new year will be the year of mobility... when the constraints on the flow of data into and out of the field, and the use of mobile devices to collect, share and present it, give way for good.
Almost everyone on construction jobsites carries a smart phone or other computerized device. This offers great new avenues for building product manufacturers to communicate with customers.
Watch for wireless networks, technology kiosks and pads, and tablets to sprout on more and more jobsites...
Your shop drawings, installation instructions, training videos, and other information has to be accessible.
The value chain has been joined from one end of the project delivery process to the other...
Consider the impact on your distribution strategy, sales management, and customer service.
...relatively inexpensive Tablet PCs running Android and the forthcoming Windows 8, challenge Apple's iPad and iPhone for business use in the field.  
Your field reps will have to be similarly equipped.
...independently created and relatively inexpensive apps will continue to compete with, and sometimes challenge the capabilities of more expensive, old-school, licensed software.
 "Independently created" means "provided by building product manufacturers." Move beyond providing materials to offering tools the contractor can use to run his or her business.
Three-dimensional printing of models and components will become commonly used tools. Imagineers will design, model, and print in 3-D to test and communicate ideas, and then build for real.
This will first happen in design offices. Some manufacturers use this for rapid prototyping of parts. In other cases, actual parts are now "printed."
The "Internet of Things" will grow exponentially and have a direct impact on design, engineering, construction and facilities management, as embedded sensors, cloud-based analysis and rapid data exchange turns our deaf, dumb and blind structures into introspective communicators. 
How will you build intelligence into your product? 
...expect the challenge of capturing, storing, sharing, managing, analyzing, interpreting and presenting the "big data"—that vast collection of information piling up as a product of all of that sensor data collection and analysis, to grow as well.
Intelligent machines are great at capturing, storing, sharing, and managing data, but human beings are still best for analyzing and interpreting a problem and presenting solutions. This means your sales reps must still earn the trust of customers.
In response, look for a drive to simplify data delivery through browser-based interfaces, neutral file formats and innovative visualization.
Don't leave this to your IT guy. Make sure your marketing communications team leads the charge.
In short, look for an exciting year ahead.
I agree.

Signs of Change: Our changing cameras

Two articles came out this week that underscore how much camera use is changing in the smartphone era.

First, Cisco announced they were discontinuing their Flip line of camcorders. Flip had emerged as the dominant brand name for ultra-portable consumer grade camcorders; the video equivalent of point-and-shoot digital cameras. For about a hundred bucks you could get a camcorder that fit in your pocket and took YouTube-ready video. Most models even have USB adapters for easy charging and one-button uploads to your website of choice.

I got one last summer, and my experience foreshadows Cisco's decision to end the line. It was a great piece of technology - worked well, easy to use, and took high enough quality video for what I needed - but I could not get in the habit of carrying another dedicated piece of technology at all times. If I need a quick spur-of-the-moment video, I use my iPhone. If I need something more sophisticated, I usually have enough advance notice to bring a full camcorder along. Apparently this was the general consensus, and the Flip is joining the list of useful-but-obsolete gadgets.

The second article shows how design firm Artefact is moving in the opposite direction; their goal is to create the first "smart camera".

Working on the "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" philosophy, Artefact's plan is to make digital cameras more like smartphones. This would introduce such features as wireless handheld viewfinders (that look suspiciously like a smartphone), touchscreen controls, accelerometers, and dedicated apps.

The idea of integrating apps is potentially the most revolutionary. The primary reason most people use their phone instead of a stand-alone camera is the phone makes it easier to edit, organize, and share photos without having to transfer files to a computer first. If my camera had a direct connection to Facebook (or Picasa, or Flicker, or my company's website) and native photo editing software, the smartphone loses that advantage. Now the decision comes down to the photo quality I need; for most consumers the smartphone will be enough, but for professionals and hobbyists the full camera - complete with interchangeable lenses! - wins hands down.

What is notable about both these articles is that the changes they describe were motivated or inspired by smartphone adoption. We are evolving towards increasingly multi-functional, omnipresent, always connected devices. As marketers this should influence whether you create your sales tools as stand alone resources or dedicated smartphone apps.

Signs of Change: Android is #1

CNN Money reports that Android is now the most commonly used smartphone operating system in the United States. As the article puts it, "a stunning race to the top from a platform that didn't exist just 27 months ago."

Interestingly, most of this growth seems to have come at the expense of Blackberry, and to a lesser extent Microsoft. Apple's market share has decreased slightly, but remained mostly stable. Smartphone adoption also increased more than 10% last year, so I suspect much of Android's success is coming from new smartphone owners that are buying the newest, shiniest model available, rather than abandoning their old phones.

What does this mean for marketers?
The field is now more tightly packed. Early in 2010, Blackberry had nearly 50% of the smartphone market, with Apple in second place at less than 30%. Now, Apple, Blackberry, and Android are within about 5% of each other. This means it is no longer as viable a strategy to design a system-specific app unless you plan to make versions for each operating system. Even as the new front-runner, an Android-only app will ignore almost 70% of the market. The only exception to this is if you have done enough market research to know that your clients have a strong preference; this is, however, not likely to be the case.

Instead, look at creating web-based apps. Make these more than dedicated mobile sites by including functionality that clients will need while out of their office, and make it easier to treat it as a "dedicated app" by including instructions to install a shortcut on your smartphone's home screen.

Part of Android's success, in my opinion, comes from the same strategy that helped Microsoft beat Apple in the world of PCs: their operating system is not tied to a specific hardware. This means people can shop around more easily for lower price, and  feature sets that better meet their needs. But it also means there is less predictability about what features any given smartphone will offer. Design your web apps and mobile web pages around the most common features (touch screen, some form of keyboard, cameras, etc.), and do not be overly reliant on advanced features that may not be standard (gyroscopes, GPS, video).

It will be interesting to see how the continued emergence of tablets into mobile computing will effect these rankings. Will iPad's popularity and early technological  leadership help Apple retake the lead, or will Android-based tablets win out for the same reasons their phones did?

App usage overtakes web & voice on smartphones

According to a report released last week by Zokem and GSMA, app usage is the second most common smartphone activity, trailing only messaging.

I have a few issues with these findings, but it still contains a useful message.

I take issue with two points of this report. First, they report usage in terms of "minutes", not "data transfered", "number of uses", or any measure of the utility of the medium. Considering how slowly most people type on smartphones, saying that I spend 30% more time on email than voice calls is not very meaningful.

Also, the dividing lines between these categories are very fuzzy. Many of the apps I use are essentially single-purpose web browsers, and many apps replace functionality I would normally get from a browser as well. So if I can check email using the iPhone's native capabilities (categorized as "Messaging"), from a dedicated app, or via my web browser, how does my time get labeled? What if I make a phone call using an app, such as Skype?

Despite these concerns, there is still an important message. When there are multiple tools available to accomplish a given task, people prefer to use a dedicated app -- especially for tasks they perform on a regular basis.

In other words, if I am looking for information on a company's product, and it is a one time only purchase, I will use my web browser. If I use that company's products regularly, I will use their app.

For marketers, this means there are two situations where you should look at developing an app:

1. There is a specific task related to your product for which you can create a tool (ie, a brick cost estimator app), or

2. You anticipate customers frequently accessing your catalog, guide specs, etc.

If either of those fit your needs, consider creating an app. If not, your app will probably be perceived more as a vanity/marketing project and is less likely to be downloaded or used.

My Life in an iPhone: One Year Later

It seems hard to believe I've only had my iPhone for one year; it's had such an impact on my home and work life that it feels like it's been around for a lot longer. In that year there has also been a significant cultural shift in the way we use mobile, so much so that it's easy to forget only about a third of cell phone users have smartphones.

It is useful, given the predictions of explosive smartphone adoption in the coming year, to look at some of the ways smartphones have changed the game, and try to understand how they can assist a marketing campaign.

First, a word of clarification. From a functionality standpoint, most of the current generation of smartphones are essentially interchangeable. I talk about iPhones a lot because that's what I have - and they are, for now, the most iconic of the latest generation smartphones - but almost everything I say about them applies equally well to Blackberry, Android, Palm, and the rest.

My iPhone isn't actually the first smartphone I've owned. I was one of the first people in Southwestern Michigan to use a Palm Pilot, and as soon as I had the opportunity I upgraded to a Trio. That lasted until I had to change providers, and went to a Windows Mobile device. I stuck with that through a couple incarnations before coming to the iPhone. In some ways, my history as a smartphone user makes it even more remarkable that the iPhone made such an impact; it didn't add any capabilities I didn't already have, so what makes it so much better?

What differentiates the modern generation of smartphones from their predecessors, in my mind, is they were designed with internet connectivity at the core. By contrast, my earlier smartphones felt more like portable business machines with internet capabilities added on as an extra feature, much like early PCs. The difference is that surfing the net, checking email, and downloading new programs is simple and enjoyable, rather than simply possible. I spent more time online in the first month I had an iPhone than in the years I had my older devices.

Several of the smartphone's defining features stem from this internet centrality:

  • Extensibility: It is very easy for smartphones to pick up new abilities, or modify existing ones, on the fly. I experienced this at a conference this summer; I wanted to take a picture of the speaker, and needed a better zoom. After a few minutes in the App Store I had zoom, color correction, and photo cropping capability, plus one-button uploads to Facebook. What does this mean for manufacturers? If you make a useful tool, and make it easy for people to find when they need it, people will use it. 
  • Cross-Media Communication: All of my communication media streams funnel through my smartphone, which means I can easily move a message from voice mail to email to SMS to Twitter. Most people don't do voice communication through PCs, yet, so in this way the smartphone is more versatile than my desktop computer. 
  • Constant Communication: In the same vein, smartphones allow essentially around-the-clock (if you choose to let it) connection to all your key communication media. Everything else only allows communication when you're at your desk, or in the office, or have a table, power outlet, and WiFi for your laptop. Savvy marketers appreciate this because it means instantaneous responses to customer inquiries or complaints.
  • Not Just A Mini Computer: This recent evolution has truly separated the smartphone from the "Pocket PC" mentality; that is to say, the idea your smartphone is the same as your computer with smaller, less powerful bits. Instead of looking like a shrunken Windows desktop, the iPhone interface looks like, well, an iPhone. This paradigm change means the message of the smartphone is starting to emerge. Marketers that continue to design "mobile friendly" content as "like normal digital content, but smaller" are making the same mistake as those that think their website is a digital version of their catalog. 
  • Media Center: Again, this is, ostensibly, something my old smartphones could do, but the iPhone made it an easier, better experience. I can fit my company's complete A/V and photo library on my phone with room to spare - and that's not because we have a small library - and take it with me on sales calls. Professional photographers have told me the color is not right, printed photos are still better, but it's good enough for a sales call or an elevator pitch. 
  • Instant Information: I realized one day that teenagers will never again have to ask, "What are the lyrics to that song?" If the answer exists online, it is accessible on your phone. Which means your answers had better be online, in a mobile-friendly format, or prospects will use your competitor's answers instead.
The really cool advances are coming when people find ways to combine these features to create a unique capability or experience. When, for example, a customer can take a picture, use your app to analyze it and get answers, and get a follow-up phone call from a sales rep while they are still in the situation where they need the information. 

Bottom line, the opportunity smartphones provide marketers is to be closer to their customers. You can be a pocket-sized "virtual consultant" for your clients when they go into sales meetings or design sessions. That increases your value to them, which produces more sales.

Signs of Change: Service Providers as App Providers

I have been predicting for a while now that apps would be as revolutionary to the internet as websites originally were.This week an article called "Why Consultants Need to Build Apps" shows we're one step closer to that point:
Services firms...are adapting in new ways to the fast-paced [application] development world. It's not simple but by no means is it as complex as it once was to develop applications. And from our estimations, it will become increasingly important as apps offer increasing business intelligence and the ability to provide self-serve tools any customer can use.
Bullseye. People are increasingly turning to smartphone or webapps as their primary tools for many of their daily activities, and building product manufacturers that understand this trend will have a strong advantage.

A quick definition: I define an app as a small, specialized, single-purpose program. Most apps are easier to download and install than traditional programs, allowing quick and easy ways to upgrade your phone's functionality. Webapps are the same basic idea, but benefit by being housed on a webpage so they will work across multiple operating systems. Disadvantage of webapps is you need an internet connection, and you may miss out on many of the unique features of the individual phones.

Full-scale software development is an expensive and resource-intensive process; many apps, by contrast, are made by individuals in their free time. Software has a high sticker price; many apps are free.

I was joking with a friend who works as a business coach that he needed an iPhone app; how great would it be for his clients to walk into negotiations with him literally in their pocket? We laughed, but he was intrigued by the possibility, and that possibility is exactly what this article taps into.

Many product manufacturers are finding that to stay competitive they have to think of themselves as service providers: we don't sell bricks, we help designers achieve their masonry construction goals, or I don't sell screws, I help my clients figure out why their old screws failed. If you provide a service to your clients, there is an app that can encapsulate and enhance the experience.

How will you find yours?

nora Rubber Flooring's Blackberry App

Rubber flooring company nora is offering a free Blackberry app aimed at helping designers make color selections while on the road. Their page also offers an online color selector and, impressively, a QR code to download the app with instructions on how to use QR codes!  

I have not gotten to use the app yet, since I do not have a Blackberry, but I like what they have done. It shows they know their target market makes decisions in the field, and has a certain amount of tech-savvy. Presenting this with the online color selector is also a great idea because it expands the ways designers can use the tools and interact with the product.

Having the QR code is great; it skips the multi-step process of downloading the app to your computer and syncing to the phone, or the annoyance of typing a complex URL on a Blackberry. Providing links to instructions and a reader is very helpful and demonstrates, to me, attention to customer support.

There is no word on the site about upcoming iPhone or Droid versions; if these are not in the works it seems a surprising choice. Blackberry users are not the strongest app adopters. I wonder if nora's customer profile shows a strong preference for Blackberry, or if this is a choice that will prove limiting.

Based on my limited view of the program itself, it seems to be basically a digital catalog. It provides no tools for doing anything except choosing nora product colors and contacting a sales rep. This type of branded utility works great for loyal customers, but may not do much to bring in new customers or create a viral spread.

Still, creating this app makes nora one of the social media leaders and innovators in the flooring market and I applaud them for their commitment to innovation and customer support.