Copyright: David Lawson 1996
A flurry of activity among top property firms is finally bringing the Internet closer to everyday reality for the average professional. But an even newer phenomenon, the Intranet, is beginning to grab attention, with the promise of making interaction within offices much simpler. Many are still either nervous of the technology or unconvinced by often-hyped claims, however. One top agency has practically written off prospects for opening up to the Internet because 'there is hardly anyone online to use the facilities.'
That seems amazing Jo Healey of Knight Frank in San Francisco, who has seen the US market already work through these traumas and draw thousands of firms online. She draws parallels with the fax - once considered high-tech but now essential. The same will happen with World Wide Web pages. 'The Internet remains an enigma in the UK,' she says. 'People need to be better educated. The Internet is about having a competitive advantage by being able to disseminate information more quickly and cheaply. It is about clients requiring that a property listing gets as much exposure for as little cost as possible - even if the client is not online. It is about being see in the global market.'
Few of the active firms will dispute that. Big names like Chesterton, Richard Ellis, Jones Lang Wootton DTZ and Hillier Parker have led development of PropertyLink, the listing service, while King Sturge have added research to property lists on their new Web pages. Housing is even better endowed through a clutch of listing services that have set up in the last year. In fact there are enough sources that one firm is offering a central database of Web pages to help users find their way through the maze (http://www.ipp.co.uk).
There is as yet no iceberg beneath this tip, however. 'The problem is that to understand the Internet one needs to experience it, and that requires capital investment to upgrade systems, which typically the UK property profession has been reluctant to make,' says Healey. 'It was the same in the US until recently, but the industry has realised that keeping pace with technology - albeit a never-ending and expensive investment - is a necessity, not a luxury, to remain competitive in the global market.'
Internal communications can be as important as traversing the world, however. The Intranet - linking various offices with a group - could prove as significant as moves to join the global community. 'Network communications are where the leading-edge development is taking place, says Mark Wilderspin of INOVA, a surveyor who has been concentrating on developing multi-media communication techniques. 'This is the technology likely to have the most revolutionary affect on the market.'
He is bringing together standard and specialised software to work in different networks. These are as likely to involve Intranet systems - effectively a private Internet run within multi-office organisations. 'This has potential in agency and relocation work as well as for valuation and management,' says Wilderspin. But he sees extensions into the wider world as a gateway to the Internet or by allowing access to outsiders - either clients or fee-paying users.
Help will soon be at hand for those still struggling to understand the Internet. The College of Estate Management in Reading is putting the finishing touches to a new study pack for professionals. 'It will aim to show how the Internet will impact every aspect of work and consider the skills and technology involved,' says Peter Blake at CEM. Meanwhile the college has caught up with Reading University's Land Management department by launching its own Web page.
CEM contact: Gill Crew 01734 861101; http://www.cem.ac.uk