Technological Crossroads: Deciding Which Cyber Paths to Take
More than a few commercial real estate veterans have fretted about being made obsolete by technology and the Internet. It wasn't just the fear of not knowing how to master a powerful computer; the very industry itself has been changing for years, and the rule of the Internet -- free information as widely distributed as possible -- raised the question of how professionals who made a living selling information would adapt.
“Commercial real estate executives are presently at a crossroads in terms of technology, because they are unsure of the role the Internet should play in their strategic business plan,” says John Stanfill, president and CEO of Propertyfirst.com (http://www.propertyfirst.com/), a property listing portal to help brokers track and promote their various listings.
But the Internet's rule about free information is not ironclad. For one thing, valuable information continues to be valuable, and it usually costs something, even if it costs less than it did in the pre-Internet days.
Also, consumers are not the only ones being empowered by the technological revolution. As Peter Drucker wrote in his recent cover story for The Atlantic Monthly , the truly revolutionary development is not the computer or the Internet; they just allow people to do the same things they did previously, only faster and better. To Drucker, the real revolution is in business-to-business communication, where people are changing their actual relationships with employees and clients. (See "www.doingbusinessonline.com," CIRE, November/December 1999.)
Commercial real estate professionals' information-providing role remains, because more information is available than ever before. Average clients can't make heads or tails of much of the information themselves, and they don't know where to get other kinds. Brokers, however, can provide the data as well as the interpretation that makes it truly valuable.
Online Information Assets
The amount of information available to commercial real estate professionals online continues to grow. At Redbricks (http://www.redbricks.com/), brokers can get commercial loan quotes 24 hours a day. It also features mortgage financing, employment data, and more. Comro.com (http://www.comro.com/) has commercial real estate news, market data, property listings, and extensive market links. And TitleLink (http://titlelink.interliant.com/) is an online service for online ordering, document transfer, and document management needed for a property closing. The service is especially dedicated to providing documents in formats so that everyone can access them, eliminating any last-minute slowdowns because of document incompatibility.
More Information for More Clients
It may seem strange to look back on this age in the future and see that some commercial real estate professionals did not use any demographics and mapping information when presenting available properties to potential or current clients.
Even today, this information is readily available, thanks in no small part to membership services such as the CCIM Site to Do Business (http://www.stdbonline.com/) . Commercial real estate professionals may find it so easy to use that they'll begin using it in many more circumstances than they originally might have imagined.
“With online mapping and demographics that are easily and cheaply available, commercial real estate professionals will be using more information for more clients, and they'll be spending less time procuring it,” says Allen M. Feltman, CCIM, of Allen M. Feltman Real Estate in Plano, Texas. “This gives them more time to do the analysis that makes the information valuable to the client.”
His point is echoed by other commercial brokers, including Aytan A. Dove, CCIM, vice president of the international division of Weinstein Realty Advisors in York, Pa. Dove remembers having to hand draw maps for his real estate clients. Now, as a commercial-industrial appraiser, in a minute or two he uses the STDB mapping and demographics tools to create needed maps showing rivers, businesses, streets and highways, and more-detailed demographic data. He simply prints them out on his color printer and he's way ahead of where he used to be -- and he's also way ahead of any of his competitors who either are not using mapping and demographics, or who are paying for separate software that allows them to do it.
The STDB is only one of many competing services that currently are available on the market, and the future market looks to be even more crowded as almost every week brings new announcements of product or Web site launches such as Propertyfirst.com.
In addition, software makers have been talking for a long time about fundamentally changing the way software programs are distributed and used, which further would facilitate their use by brokers and others.
Specifically, they would change the distribution by not distributing the software, or at least distributing it much less. Instead of buying a copy of Microsoft Word for your own computer, for example, you would access the über-Word program on a centralized server, create your document, and save the document on your local computer or network. When you wanted to work on that document, youíd once again access the word-processing program from the central network, not from your hard drive.
Just think: no more installation headaches and no more upgrading your programs every few months. This not only could save on software costs, but it drastically could cut the need for expensive computer hardware costs, because desktop or laptop models no longer would need to store and manage many sometimes-conflicting programs.
The Wall Street Journal reports that software makers are changing their programming and their business models so they can “distribute” their programs through these collective-access platforms rather than the traditional routes. Don Clark writes: “Users ... don't like installing new software, worrying about the technical specifications of their machines, or copying configuration settings over and over again. In other words, users want the same simplicity they get when they pick up any telephone or switch on the TV.”
That promised simplicity will be of particular interest to commercial real estate professionals, who will find it easier to add value to property packages.
So get online and make sure you're making the most of what's there. But be aware that the options will continue to increase at a fast pace. The software and online products that are of use to commercial real estate professionals today will be quite different from what is likely to be available in just a year or two.