Copyright: David Lawson 1996
Researchers are said to have discovered a property professional deep in the heart of rural England who has never touched a computer nor heard of the Internet. Such wild claims were immediately dismissed. How could such a creature exist in the wake of a technological tidal wave which has engulfed the industry in the last couple of years?
They do, of course. It is just that hype and reality have become hard to separate. But it is hard to find even the crustiest technophobe without a baleful glass eye staring back across the desk. 'Computers are now the norm rather than the exception,' says Mike Burnup, head of IT at Jones Lang Wootton. 'A few years ago the pressure came from above. Now it is from below as graduates come into the profession, expecting them as a fact of life. And almost everyone has their own PC at home.'
Meanwhile, frantic moves are being made to transform property into electrons which can whizz along phone lines to screens around the world. This is part of the fabled Internet, which if some claims are to be believed will be the driving force for business over the next decade. But what about the mundane everyday world of the office? This is where reality falls with the distinct plop of a very wet blanket. Look, for instance, at the software being touted for today's super-powered, electronic industry at next week's Northern Property Computer Show in Leeds. Most industry-standard packages dealing with areas such as management, valuation and estate agency are being relaunched as Windows programs.
That is not the all-singing, all-dancing, order-a-cab, make-the-coffee and calculate a spreadsheet Windows 95, which has already been out for more than six months. We are talking here about Windows 3.1, available on most home PCs for more than three years. Everyone blames everyone else for the delays. 'We asked users two years ago whether they wanted Windows programs and they gave a definite no,' says Paul Halford of KEL Computing, which produces some of the industry's most widely used programs.
But that was an industry in recession, facing the prospect of paying heavily for new machines to run more powerful software. Just before Christmas another straw poll gave an enthusiastic go-ahead. In the meantime, however, users have struggled on with outdated programs designed for DOS-based machines several years ago. They rail at limitations such as lack of speed, inability to cut-and-paste between different programs, and lack of compatibility with more powerful systems run by clients.
'I felt so ashamed sending out material to one investor that I found out what they were using and put it on my own machine at home and did the work there,' says one valuation specialist. That is not unusual, says Jane Nelson, property IT consultant with KPMG. Demand from everyday users for more efficient, flexible software has often run ahead of the abilities of IT departments to meet their needs. She also sees a less glamorous truth behind the hype surrounding Internet connections. 'We put one in for a client, but I am not sure if they ever use it.'
Hype is a favourite word for David McGregor, head of IT for Healey & Baker. He calls the Internet 'a tekkie solution looking for a business problem'. 'I could set us up in weeks, but clients are not demanding it.' H&B is no Luddite. It has used electronic mail through an IBM service for years and has ISDN links to its world network. But opening up more widely remains an unresolved issue.
The great Windows 95 takeover also leaves him cold. A lot of suppliers are pushing out applications for it that are not fully finished, and finding they have to go back and concentrate on Windows 3.1. None of this detracts from the promise of IT, nor the advances being made. Both McGregor and Burnup have overseen complete retooling of offices as PCs become standard, and most other surveying practices are planning, or have completed, similar wholesale reorganisation.
First editions of Windows programs are being tested and customised and Burnup is confident that 32-bit editions will come in over the next year to 18 months. That will bring even more power to users, whether through Windows 95 or, as McGregor believes, an OS/2 fronting Windows NT and other applications. The Internet has also arrived with a bang, with leading firms launching Web pages to showcase their services and listing details of thousands of properties.
Perhaps as significant, however, is the Intranet[CORRECT]being set up by JLW. This will put 400 users on their own private Internet, allowing access via a Mosaic front-end to all the sources held within the group. This kind of information-sharing network will spread like wildfire through large practices, boosting efficiency. But all this has to be kept in perspective. Computers are only as useful as the software they run - and the ability of non-technical people to use them.
'We intend our programs to be future-proof, which is why they are being completely rewritten rather than ported over from Dos,' says Halford. 'And there is a huge new move to portable computing to consider.' Training - and bringing in the remaining crusty technophobes - is now as important as the power of the microchip. 'Property and PCs are getting closer as the culture changes,' says Burnup. But they need to get a lot closer before reality catches up with the hype.