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Technology

In the late 1990s, one of the popular technology movements was toward "Web-hosted" applications — renting the application on a per-user or even per-use basis without the need for the overhead of expensive servers and high-powered computers. The applications were available over the Internet, hosted by an applications service provider (ASP) that assured you the applications were secure, virus-free and continuously updated. You, as a client, would have a safe partition on their server, daily back-ups and all the support you needed. Your employees could access the applications and your data from anywhere in the world that offered an Internet connection.

Like Cleopatra, that ASP bit a lot of companies that didn't have or want a leading-edge technical infrastructure to worry about. But as the "dot-com boom" weakened, companies hurried to return to the local server and client-based applications that were, if not better, at least controlled by the company and not at the mercy of changing financial conditions among the ASPs and even some of the software companies themselves.

What has changed to make them a better deal than they were five or six years ago? Norm Wendl, President of Corecon Technologies, Inc., of Huntington Beach, Calif., responds to that question by saying, "There are really two terms: 'on-demand computing' and 'software as a service' (SAS). Those are the terms in use today, but they are just new terms for the old ASP model. The research company Gardner predicts by 2006, 30% of small businesses will use software as a service."

He sees three reasons why this market is making a recovery. "A few years ago, high-quality, high-bandwidth or high-speed Internet access was less common than it is today. Most of our customers have high-speed Internet access today. By November 2005, Verizon will have built out a 3G wireless network*, and we're going to see other telecommunication companies offering higher-speed Internet access."

As Wendl says, "Wireless for job site trailers or high-speed Internet access in one's truck is going to become more and more commonplace, in addition to the main office having high-speed Internet access."

He continues, "Second, the technology that you have today wasn't available even three or four years ago. For example, Corecon 4.0 was built on the Microsoft .NET platform. And, in the past, the ASP companies were well funded, but to some extent they didn't have domain expertise. That hurt them. The companies that are still around today did something right — they listened to their customers, focused all their energy on building a better product and better service. For example, we have a PDA version of Corecon with a limited number of features that lend themselves to use out in the field — like lists, things that need to be checked off and so forth."

Glen West, Director of Product Marketing for Best Software's Timberline Office, notes that "there is a lot of noise in the industry about mobile computing. As is often the case, hardware innovations are years ahead of software. As hardware devices become more 'ruggedized' and can replicate the user experience of a PC, software will follow. Currently, inexpensive devices are not generally rugged enough to withstand job site rigors, and they do not support a simple interface. Many 'ruggedized' devices that are available are expensive and out of reach for most subcontractors."

West claims that "the ASP model is attractive to some subcontractors because the cost to get started is lower than a typical desktop strategy. Still, subcontractors should perform a thorough due diligence when selecting an ASP software solution to ensure it contains the desired functionality. The time and expense to bring the ASP software online is not that different from typical desktop packages. Vendors, customers, employees, open transactions, forms and formats must all be entered to utilize a full system.

"In addition, most ASP systems are typically horizontal software (generically designed for several industries), or are limited industry-specific versions due to constraints of speed and bandwidth placed on Internet software. In that regard, subcontractors may find that the functionality does not meet their requirements. This may require a second software purchase and implementation, when a full-featured vertical system is brought in-house."

Timberline is well known for its project management (PM) software, and West says, "Using project management software on the Web requires a strong and persistent network connection. If jobs are large enough to have a job site trailer with these connections, and if staff performs regular project management entries onsite, the company will benefit from very current data. However, if onsite staff lacks a good Internet connection, if an existing connection is unreliable, or the staff fails to keep the system current when out of the home office, then most companies will keep project management software in the home office to ensure mandatory updates are performed. Either way, the goal is to find the best method that will help keep the data current, as it directly affects the project's job costing and scheduling."

Project Team Solutions, Columbus, Ohio, is a Meridian Authorized Premier Partner for the Mid-West and Mid-Atlantic region. It provides technology solutions and services to construction companies, including product demonstrations, needs analysis, financing, implementations, custom reports, custom user manuals, user training, technical support, software integration and custom application development.

According to Derek Stout, Regional Account Manager at Project Team Solutions, "The ASP approach is typically what we've seen subcontractors ask about due to the fact they don't have the hardware, networking and support staff in place to use a shared PM application without spending a lot of money on infrastructure. An attractive feature of Meridian Systems' ProjectTalk.com ASP is you are able to start up and maintain memberships on a month-to-month basis. This results in a much lower initial cost."







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