Copyright: David Lawson 1996
Last year Bill Houle bought 10 computers and invited the public to come in, have a coffee and try them out. Such altruism has a hard edge, however. It was a deliberate attempt to demystify the much-hyped world of electronic business. Houle is no anorak-toting technocrat. He is a full-time director of Birmingham-based surveyors Phoenix Beard, and has only had his own computer for two years. A personal journey into the arcane world of business applications - particularly the Internet - persuaded him there was a crying need for hands-on experience under the guidance of experts.
So he helped set up Cafe Surf, one of dozens of 'cyber' centres now sprouting on Britain's high streets. They offer an alternative to delving into the depths of Dixons and enduring six months of torture learning how to turn on your machine, let alone call up a contact on the other side of the world. Footweary shoppers from Birmingham's Bull Ring and Arcadian centres can now relax over a coffee and watch others explore cyberspace before booking a quick session of their own.
Houle's conversion started when the firm switched to desktop PCs and linking into a network that included offices in Birmingham and London. 'I bought my own PC to try and work out what sort of impact it would have on our business,' says Houle. With a machine at home, he quickly acquired a modem to link into the office by phone - which led him into the maze of electronic communications.
Problems arose not so much from operating the machinery as the sheer difficulty of grasping what the Internet was all about. 'I had read a lot and realised how important it could be. But I still could not come to grips with the practicalities,' says Houle. So he dropped into Britain's first Internet centre, the Cyberia Cafe, off London's Tottenham Court Road. 'Within 10 minutes I was on the Internet and everything fell into place,' he says.
This made him realise why professionals - including those in the property industry - have been so slow to react to the growing presence of online business. 'It is something you have to see - and feel - for yourself,' says Houle. So he scurried back to Birmingham and helped set up his own centre. A property-man's instincts took over. He sniffed out the right shop premises, providing enough space for an entertainment/computer centre and good security for the machines. Like any business, the right location was paramount. He needed premises to suite potential customers - near public transport and parking for ordinary users and close to the city centre for businesses.
'We get a mix of shoppers, students and professionals' he says. For £2.50 they get half an hour on a powerful machine to browse around, or pay a monthly fee to add their own electronic mailbox. and a couple of hours' free surfing. Businesses are a particular interest for Houle. Cybercafes are designed as social centres, with music and coffee providing an ambience which prevents them turning into exclusive clubs for techno-junkies. But Houle saw the possibilities of a resource centre for local firms.
'The Internet is an undiscovered business tool for most people,' he says. That is why so much emphasis is placed on training. This aims to get across the potential not just for 'surfing' and sending mail but also for marketing. Dozens of agents, institutions and colleges have swarmed onto the Internet in the last year but Houle feels the sector is still poorly served. Property is a natural product to market when budgets and turnover are low. But he feels the proliferation of listings may be the wrong emphasis. 'I could take you to eight databases which each claim to be the only comprehensive ones available,' says Houle.
This is why Phoenix Beard has not followed this path with its 'pages' carried by Cafe Surf. 'It would just be another property list,' says Houle. He is more enthusiastic about spreading the word on improving professional skills. 'The problem with surveyors is that they deal in bricks and mortar and find it difficult to appreciate anything less hard such as virtual marketing. That is why they have been slow to see the potential.'
Electronic mail is an obvious resource. 'Many say they have known about e-mail for 10 years and never used it, but you only have to try it once to realise the impact. We also try to use the Internet in a wider perspective. For instance, you can talk all day about how IT will affect property, such as cutting demand for offices through working from home, or changing the pattern of shopping and leisure. But it is merely an interesting idea until you take someone through the process.'
He uses the Cafe Surf machines to demonstrate software picked up from the Internet showing how easily one can walk around a virtual shopping centre from the keyboard of a computer. 'The whole of our market is being affected,' says Houle. Anyone nervous about entering this esoteric new world can now be led gently into the future by seeking out their local cybercentre. And he predicts that they will realise just as quickly how wide-ranging the impact could be on the whole property industry.
CONTACT: http://www.cafesurf.co.uk. This carries links into Phoenix Beard and addresses of other Internet cafes around the world
Electronic bells rang out this month when news emerged that a house had been sold via the Internet. A year or two ago that would have sent shudders through an army of under-employed estate agents; today it brings a sigh of relief that a single sale should merit headlines. 'Considering there are details of hundreds of properties now online, it shows that we dinosaurs may have a few years of business left yet,' says one agent still proudly ignorant of of all things electronic.
But he is in a shrinking majority. Property has soared into the ether over the last year. Anthony Slumbers, who recently launched an online service called Estates Today, says: 'When we first looked last October there were 87 sources - mainly in the US. Now there are more than 200.' Commercial property is beginning to make an impact. All the leading London firms are researching how to get online and a handful of consultants have published a basic introduction to their services for several months.
'They should have waited and produced the full business,' says one Internet consultant. 'People look at what is there, go back a month later to find it is unchanged, and never return.' King Sturge aims to break the mould in the next few weeks by publishing a complete database of its property and research. Callers will be able to search for particular types of premises automatically. Market reports by offices around Europe and in the UK regions will be updated periodically.
'We operate in a global market. Opportunities for instant global marketing offered by the Internet rank among the most exciting developments in recent years,' says Robert Thompson, King Sturge research manager. Other services have emerged offering similar search facilities across more than one agent but most have little information at this early stage. One major advantage of Web services, however, is the convention of providing lists of related services which are accessed at the click of a mouse button.
Slumbers, who has been developing the service via Estates Today, says the search facilities and updated market reports were a pattern others would follow. They would generate income and encourage callers to keep coming back. The technique also opens the way for more effective marketing of smaller properties. A suite of offices might not justify a four-page, full-colour brochure, yet this could be published online for less than a couple of hundred pounds a year, he says.
Residential property is already getting this treatment, with a growing number of services for home-hunters. But there are still not enough computer-literate buyers. Victoria Mitchell of Savills, one of the first estate agents to go online, says that not a single property has been sold via the Internet. 'We get lots of inquiries - but mostly spurious ones from teenagers. Our buyers are in their 40s and 50s, and too busy to be Internet surfing. It will be three to five years before the idea takes hold.'
http://www.estatestoday.co.uk. Connections with news services and more than 200 other international property sources.
Internet cafes are the equivalent of a driving school, car hire company and parcel carrier under one roof, all lightened by a little entertainment. They offer lessons on cruising the electronic highway, provide the machines for self-drivers and an offer to carry their goods.
Individuals and businesses can hire electronic addresses for around £10 a month to send and receive mail, as well as explore information sources. More sophisticated users can dial in from their own offices or homes, just as they can to Internet servers such as Demon, Pipex and CompuServe.
Online activities demand a relatively modern machine, such as a 386 PC or Apple; a small box between computer and phone line called a modem (costing between £50 and £200); and software which is now as easy to use as Microsoft Windows. Businesses need connect up only one or two computers, says Bill Houle. These should be kept off the office network to guard against hackers and viruses.
Windows-like 'pages' including full-colour pictures can be contructed to advertise services on what is called the World Wide Web. This is a great leveller, as even the smallest business can have the same impact as the giants, with pages designed by specialists and stored on the powerful machines of Internet servers.
Many users will be happy, however, with the more mundane advantages of electronic mail and file transfer. International messages cost the equivalent of a local call and can carry complex files and documents such as leases and colour pictures. Direct file transfer (FTP) is also straightforward. Encryption protects security but speed and reliability is still a problem, because messages are sent via a massive worldwide network of computers and can get held up at bottlenecks.
One final - and controversial - service is the network of 15,000 specialist bulletin boards. The best are cheap and speedy sources of technical information and customer support: the worst involve extremes of obscenity that lead many firms to restrict access. Fortunately, software is easily available to automatically select the right ones and skim through for relevant messages.