App-titude test Can mobile devices make you more profitable? By Jim Barnes David Steckel and Andrew Black, Black General Contracting, Toronto, rely on iPad technology in almost every aspect of their work.
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Photo: Larry Arnal
here is a lot more to do on that tablet or smartphone than playing Angry Birds. Mobile devices are revolutionizing renovation contracting. “Most people have a project management schedule in their office, but they need a project management schedule on site at all times,” says Mike Draper, a contracting business coach at Renovantage Inc. in Oakville, Ont. “The objective is to bring the system all the way into the customer’s office or on-site, to bridge the gap from the office.” Are we ready for this? Many of us are. “Some people suggest that contractors are not tech-savvy. I think that is absolutely unfair,” says Carlo Perez, founder of the website hammerati.com, which helps contractors to showcase their work to the public. “They are not people who are going to sit around programming every night, but they are interested in the tools that are going to make them more productive. Up until now, the problem has been the technology. It was never usable enough to attract sustained interest from contractors. There has been something of a revolution in usability – tablets are devices you can just pick up and use.” Mobile technology has been growing steadily since the first tablet computers were introduced more than 20 years ago and the first BlackBerry appeared 13 years ago. Consumer interest ramped up sharply when Apple introduced its first iPhone in 2007 and its iPad
tablet in 2010. Sales from vendors of all kinds skyrocketed and the boom was on. Apple or Android? When upgrading your mobile device, your main choice is between Apple’s iOS mobile operating system, used on their iPad and iPhone, or the Android operating system, developed by Google. As of last quarter, Apple holds about 68 per cent of the tablet market, with Android accounting for 29 per cent. All the rest share the remaining three per cent. With 97 per cent of the market between them, obviously the greatest variety of apps is for iOS and Android (at press time, about 700,000 apps are currently available for each of these operating systems). Apple keeps tight control over its technology. You cannot buy Apple apps anywhere except its app store, and the apps can only be used on devices made by Apple. That limits your choices for suppliers, but it means that the system is fairly secure and robust. The downside? iPads generally cost more than Android-based tablets. And incidentally, iOS does not directly support Adobe’s Flash technology, which might affect the way you use a few websites. The market for Android systems is growing all the time. Including smartphone activations, there have been half a billion Android activations to date, with over 1.3 million added every day. There are obviously a lot more
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Android devices to choose from, from many different manufacturers, than Apple offers. The result? You might get a tablet more to your liking with Android. Ultimately, it’s a personal choice. But Matt Stevens, president of consulting firm Stevens Construction Institute Inc. in Winter Park, Fla. comes down firmly on the side of iOS for contractors. “The iOS system is stable, solid and fast. It has security features that keep concerns about confidentiality low.” The Cloud You don’t need to know much about the Cloud, but you do need to know about it. You can think of the Cloud as a giant, super-powerful hard drive “out there” that all your devices – desktops, laptops, smartphones, tablets – can access from anywhere in the world. The potential for sharing data among your team is enormous. It has become very common for companies to store massive amounts of reference data in the Cloud, using services like Dropbox, iCloud and many others. Every time you save a file to the Cloud, it is safely backed up and immediately available to every other device in the company that is connected to that service anywhere in the world. Everyone is working off the same files. “The project managers, my business partner and I store any pictures we take, any drawings we have, on iCloud (the Apple service). You can access your documentation with every single iPhone, iPad or computer,” says Andrew Black, director, Black General Contracting Ltd., Toronto. Apps that rock If you can imagine it, someone has probably written an app for it. There are more than a million apps out there already, with vast numbers of them about to be born. When it comes to contracting, stores like Home Depot and Canadian Tire have developed apps
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that give you thorough exposure to their inventory. Manufacturers like Milwaukee Tool or Snap-On Tools provide applications that detail their product lines and provide related information. But the real fun begins with contracting specificapps. Will any one of them do it all for you, off the shelf? Probably not. “Each contractor has unique differences in how he or she operates, and no software is tailored to any construction organization out of the box,” notes Matt Stevens of Stevens Construction Institute. As a result, some research will be needed. You need to decide which app, or apps, fits your working style. Project management can now go way beyond a Gantt chart (bar chart showing a project schedule) to detailed, annotated assessments of tasks on each job and field management. There are a number of powerful packages in this category, including BuildTools, Basecamp, Viewpoint Mobile Field Manager and Procore. Shane Van Barneveld, owner, Shane Construction Group in Ancaster, Ont, is a fan of BuildTools. “It keeps everything straight for us. It has scheduling, budgets, documents like contracts – basically, we run the entire project through that. The client can access [parts of] it too… We can put in the scope of work and the specs in and then click on the subcontractors we need and then it sends them out an e-mail, asking for a bid. They e-mail their bid back and then it is all in there. The program totals everything up and then you figure out your markup.” “In the field, we're trying out Basecamp, webbased software that has iPhone apps,” says Andy Foot, partner, Dwell Design Build Inc., Toronto. ”We are using it to manage communication within the crew, manage punch lists, provide details in terms of drawings and plans and things to watch out for. All the guys can leave notes about specific tasks or ask a question.” Time tracking is a problem for many managers. Keeping tabs on staff and trade hours can be accomplished with a number of applications, with
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Your website should work for mobile devices If you are a contractor who is upgrading or launching a website, make sure it is easily viewable on smartphones. “About 30 per cent of the traffic we process for our sales and marketing program comes from mobile devices. It's very significant,” says Carrie Shaw, head of marketing, OutRank by Rogers, Toronto. People increasingly work from wherever they happen to be with smartphones or tablets, rather than going to their offices or homes to use their computers. While most conventional websites are usable with most tablets, it is another story for smartphones, with their muchsmaller screens. It's critical for contractors to be able to respond to this demand, notes Shaw. “The contractor has to make sure that his website works well with all three screens—tablet, smart phone and computer." A different set of design criteria applies for the smaller screens, says Shaw. When you access a website with a smartphone, it should be able to detect that fact and present a page that has been optimized for mobile use. “When a customer types in the search, we want to make sure they go directly to a very usable page.” And even if you have not developed an app for your business, many mobile device users employ web “bookmarks” as if they were apps, saving them to the desktop so they can consult them quickly. It all boils down to keeping yourself approachable to your customers.
PocketClock/GPS from ExakTime as one commonlyused app, along with OfficeTime, which helps individuals track billable hours and expenses. Field operations can be managed with a suite of apps from HCSS, which let contractors quickly record an entire time card including diaries, photographs, cost-coded employee and equipment hours and production quantities. The apps tie into back-end databases and integrate with the company’s accounting systems. Weather is a big part of many contractors’ lives. Some apps can give you short-term weather forecasts and others, like MyRadar, will even track actual weather radar plots. Traffic is another bugbear. Your mapping app may be able to indicate road congestion automatically, while some apps offer detailed route advice depending on conditions. You can check out urban traffic cams and construction reports in your browser. Estimating is a contractor’s lifeblood, and some apps aim to make it easy. Many contractors use Xactimate for renovators and XactRemodel estimating software, based on the Xactimate
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software used by insurance professionals to estimate repair costs. The app version, XactScope for iPad, brings a lot of the Xactimate functionality to the tablet. “[Xactimate] speeds up the estimating process, it creates a beautiful, organized estimate, detailed line by line and it produces the bill of materials,” says Draper. Change orders driving you crazy? ChangeOrder, as its name implies, is a simple app that lets you and your client commit to a change in a contract, and then emails a signed document back to both of you. Viewing or drawing up plans? A CAD viewer might be a critical app. Most let you look at .dwg (file format) drawings in e-mail or online to verify details. One popular alternative is Autodesk Inc.’s AutoCAD WS, which lets users view, edit and share .dwg files, and supports annotation and revision. Another example is TurboViewer. Blueprint apps may be another necessity. iBlueprint lets users create and export custom floor plans and provides contractors with quick access to blueprints on the job site. MagicPlan lets users measure, draw, and publish interactive floor plans on the Web, just by
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taking pictures. A floor plan can be created quickly without measuring. cadTouch actually lets you draw floor plans, land surfaces, façades, mechanical and structural parts, diagrams, and field notes, and then send drawings via email or FTP. Construction calculators are everywhere. The Structural Wood Design Calculator is one app that helps you design wood beams for strength in bending, shear, deflection and load bearing. A granddaddy in the calculator area is Construction Master Pro, which steps beyond ordinary math and unit conversions to help you determine materials requirements and carry out simple design functions like stairs. Builder Dan's Tool Box, a favourite of Andy Foot’s, has all the tables for the building code like floor joist maximums and so on. The Construction Field Productivity Cost Calculator from Stevens Construction Institute provides sophisticated analysis
of the business side of the job. It helps contractors analyze their projects in terms such as construction field productivity, project return on investment, contracting breakeven revenue and costing of overhead to direct costs for contracting. Recording expenses: Some apps like Concur consist of both a network application and iPad apps to help keep expenses from mobile staff up to date. Presenting to clients: First of all, any app that mimics PowerPoint, allowing you to make presentations to clients in a visually powerful way, is a great idea. And a more sophisticated way to present to clients is on the way from Hammerati. They will soon release an app that allows contractors to market to customers, quote, provide invoices and take payments on the spot. The contractor can take a picture of the kitchen and then ask the customers what kind of flooring they want. “You can put the
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iPad right on the floor and they can see a sample [of the tile],” says Perez. “It can take them right up to a quote. Once the quote is prepared, you can create an invoice with a single click. The customer can swipe a credit card to pay, or pay online and all the calculations are automatic.” One popular marketing app is Houzz. “When we meet with clients for the first time, we get them to download the app to their iPads and create an account. They can look through the app and find images that appeal to them. It gives us a sense of their design style. It's basically house porn,” says Foot. Document and image storage: You can access thousands of documents through an iPad, either through an app, a browser, an online repository like Dropbox or locally on your iPad, saved with apps like iBooks in iOS, Documents to Go or Save2PDF. These might include photos of old jobs, building
code documents, estimates and agreements, tool manuals and others. “We keep all the building codes in Dropbox, and all the guys have a copy of TACBOC (provided by the Toronto Area Chief Building Officials Committee). It's a visual guide to all the building codes,” says Foot Apps for green building. Even LEED has its own app now. Green Pro is an interactive version of the USGBC LEED 2009 for New Construction and Major Renovations worksheet, letting you evaluate and track the LEED credits achieved on your projects. LEED Standards helps you understand more than 30 common standards in LEED, including ASHRAE, ASTM, EPA, and FEMA. Turn your tablet into a tool! Yes, your tablet can be a construction tool, not just a communication device. iRuler turns an iPad into a measuring device, putting a ruler on the screen. The Quad Level app turns it into
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an accurate level, with vertical, horizontal, diagonal and 2-D functions. Bonus: it tells you how far off plumb or level you are in inches-per-10-ft., saving you from having to do the math. Apps that suck There are hundreds of contractor-related apps. Let the buyer beware. They are not all of equal quality or utility. The prices for apps amaze many newcomers. Where people are conditioned to pay a few hundred to a few thousand dollars for a desktop application, the 99-cent price tag on some applications can cause reverse sticker shock. Others are free, or cost less than ten bucks. Nevertheless, do not forget to set a value the time you will have to invest in learning the app and getting it working. The problem is often the developer/contractor divide. “We’ve seen too many apps in construction that are difficult to use and don’t work the way that contractors work,” says Perez. “When you use a tablet app, you can tell whether someone has designed for a website and has never designed a tablet app before – there are so many different usability considerations… A lot of people are trying to be first-to-market, on something like a layout app. They hit on the fact that there is a need for it, but are they filling that need in a useful way? It’s kind of a gold rush attitude,” says Perez. “Some of the apps are kind of half-baked.” “There is a unique set of knowledge and calculations that a construction contractor needs. A general business approach can be very dangerous, as many people have seen over the years,” says Stevens. “The error I see sometimes is that mobile software grows into a large, complex and expensive system which eventually will frustrate the user in the field. Contractors are always wary of cost, including increased overhead. The new user typically will not want to use it after that experience.” Van Barneveld echoes the need for caution. “Some of the apps are terrible. They have just slapped something together. But some of them are very well
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thought through and work.” What makes a good app? The short answer is usability, simplicity, an easy learning curve and robustness. The longer answer? Knowing your own needs. Many people buy devices and apps backwards. That is, they buy the device first and then try to figure out how they can use it. “My message is that they have to know what they want to accomplish first, go find the software that enables them to do that, and then look for the best platform to run that application on,” says Draper. Consider any constraints imposed by other software, or your network. Business users have to consider compatibility with other systems as well as security. You are also going to have to take your staff’s level of technical savvy into account. “A little bit of a sell was required to get the other users to use the tablets,” Black says. “At first it was a pain in the butt to get it all synched up and we were having networking issues that the guys didn't fully understand. They just wanted to use the old method, with the binders. But one thing my business partner and I are really adamant about is keeping current.” So how do you find good apps? Word of mouth is one route; If you see a pal using an app on his phone or tablet, ask him what he thinks. In addition, there is no substitute for reading the reviews. They will give you a good idea of what works and what does not. “Once it's all set up and you've configured it, it's a time-saver. It's unbelievable how much more effectively and efficiently we can run our business,” says Black. cc Jim Barnes is a Toronto-based freelance writer.