Technology Trends: What’s Up With Apps?

By Troy Burwell
Published in the July 2011 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Trends are everywhere, with some becoming part of everyday life while others fade into history. Who would have thought that Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of talking into a weird looking little box would later be transformed into a much smaller handheld “little box?” And what if this little handheld marvel could perform any number of different jobs and tasks to make life simpler? Some supposedly flash in the pan trend this turned out to be!

Technology, it seems, transforms life; and subsequently, life transforms technology. Today, the onslaught of smartphones and tablet computers is managing these tasks in an increasingly sophisticated way through their many applications, or “apps.” However, managing all of this technology can be a bit of a chore. But once mastered, these apps can be a facility manager’s (fm’s) best friend.

Streamlining And Expediting Operations

This advancement in technology can certainly aid fms who want to use any form of office management tool that streamlines and expedites operation processes in their buildings. Operational apps can deliver content and action needed by all stakeholders. They solve the problem of reaching out to staff, vendors, or building occupants, for example, and there is no problem sending contracts, schematics, and much more with the right app.

Fms who need to deliver maintenance or emergency notices to building occupants can also take advantage of this technology. There is an app that can deliver maintenance requests to service personnel within seconds while logging requests and responses for fms to review and monitor. Another app can send along the schematics of a piece of equipment to technicians to have in hand during repairs, and another can be used by fms to order supplies at the click of a button. Even the time needed to hunt for blueprints or schematics can be greatly reduced by delivering the information directly to a handheld device, when and where needed. There are apps for all that…and more.

When employees need light bulbs changed, have leaking pipes, or see a suspicious person on the premises, the right app can allow them to report from a smartphone, computer, or tablet. Fms are able to pull up all sorts of pertinent information about specific suites, comparisons, and availability; floor plans, fire escapes, similar plans; comparison pricing and features, excess space, and when a new department can move in. All of this can be handled with smart technology.

Fms may wonder what happens when maintenance workers need to update a request status. No problem! Staff members can even order parts from vendors, monitor shipments, chat with tech support, and watch security footage.

All of this is provided by specially developed application programs that run on various handheld devices. These programs help make the managing aspect of facility management (FM) easier by being able to monitor response times, cost, and outcome. Management can monitor maintenance requests, cost of build out, manage vendors, cost and status of major projects, and so on.

Flexibility, But Still Challenges

While the intent of theses apps is flexibility of function and ease of operation, their development on the various gadget platforms is still a major challenge. There is no uniformity, at least not yet.

Presently, mobile device development is conducted on a platform by platform basis. While that is a workable approach, it leads to many complications and great potential cost.

For example, if an fm is communicating to associates on the same platform family, then standard development, “one size only” works. However, if communications are going out to people on different devices (whether knowingly or not), then multiple programs across multiple platforms are needed. This usually causes different user experiences, and some of these will undoubtedly be less than ideal.

Some platforms even provide more complications. An application that works on Apple’s iPhone 4 will work on the original iPhone (except for technology restraints), but an application that works on RIM’s BlackBerry Pearl won’t work on the BlackBerry Torch. This inconsistency raises development costs considerably for apps.

From Apple’s iOS, Google’s Droid, RIM’s Blackberry, to Windows Phone 7, the rush to smartphone and other handheld devices has created a list of new operating systems that do not play well together, much less with an existing web site. So what happens if management uses the Blackberry platform, maintenance has a mixture of everything, and employee and vendor platforms are unknowns? And what if the maintenance staff has a mixture of smartphones but iPads are preferred for blueprints or schematics?

Progress should require building different apps for every device and operating system with which one needs to contend. But as an aside, fms also need to take into consideration vendor APIs (application programming interface) or security.

Planning For The Future

How does an fm plan anything for the future? Will apps go the way of the pager? Will multiple apps and constant updates be the only way? Will cost be prohibitive? Maybe not.

Fms can take a look at HTML5—the new web standard that has not been adapted by the industry. (Not yet, anyway.) It is cross browser/cross operating system/cross device compatible, and it could change the way everyone uses the Internet.

HTML5 is a language for structuring and presenting content on the web. It is the latest revision of the HTML standard (originally created in 1990 and most recently standardized as HTML4 in 1997) and currently remains under development. Its core aims have been to improve the language with support for the latest multimedia while keeping it easily readable by humans and consistently understood by computers and devices.

HTML5 runs on the desktop, laptop, or whatever mobile device an fm may have. In particular, it adds many new features, such as video, audio, and canvas elements, as well as integration of SVG (or scalable vector graphics) content. These features are designed to make it easy to include and handle multimedia and graphical content on the web without having to resort to proprietary plug-ins and APIs.

HTML5 allows for optimization of information so each device works at its optimal speed while collecting data and driving content. Although the majority of the cost is the development, that is greatly reduced. Considering the many clients and devices that fms potentially reach, this is no small factor. Why is this significant? The use of handheld smart devices is growing and will continue to grow and develop.

Gartner, a top information technology research and advisory company, expects U.S. sales of smartphones to grow from 67 million in 2010 to 95 million in 2011 and become the highest selling consumer electronic device category.1 Gartner further expects over 500 million smartphones to sell in 2012.2 Morgan Stanley Research estimates sales of smartphones will exceed those of PCs in 2012.3

Fms know all too well that special management is required both at strategic and operational levels to maintain a facility properly. Considering these facilities can run the gamut (as shopping malls, office buildings and other major commercial properties, sports complexes, schools, and hospitals), the responsibilities associated with FM cover wide areas of business functions.

Reducing material costs, infrastructure and power management, building and ground management, landscaping, acoustics, waste management, and pest control are some key areas in which technology plays a vital role. Fms must keep their eyes on all of this.

HTML5, plus the many applications that technology provides, provides today’s fms with an easy and expeditious way to do just that—by reaching multiple devices across operating systems and effectively providing for future needs.

So what’s next? What about the app of the future? Only time and technology will tell.

Burwell is CEO of Houston, TX-based 4 Guys Interactive, which builds web sites, multimedia, and web-based applications.

1Gartner, Inc., “Gartner Survey Shows U.S. Consumers More Likely to Purchase a Smartphone Than Other Consumer Devices in 2011,” February, 2011.
2Computerworld, “Symbian, Android will be top smartphone OSes in ‘12, Gartner reiterates,” October, 2009.
3Morgan Stanley, “Internet Trends,” CM Summit, New York, NY, June, 2010.