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Mobility has been crucial to the construction industry since the days of the first cell phones. Staying connected to remote workers across multiple jobsites is an absolute requirement for contractors. The technologies that have enabled this have been changing rapidly for a number of years, and recently there has been an even more significant shift in what mobility means to the industry.
Staying connected to remote staff and connecting the office to the jobsite used to mean creating an open line of communication (i.e., the ability to send and receive calls, faxes and emails). Today, this type of mobile communication is all but taken for granted. According to a recent study by Eric Mower & Associates, nearly 70 percent of contractors use mobile smartphones as part of their daily work, up 35 percent from just one year ago.

[caption id="attachment_1359" align="alignright" width="181"]DexterChaney Fig1_IPvsVoice_ACP-DCI Figure 1 (Click to Enlarge)[/caption]

While mobile connectivity continues to grow toward saturation, it is also changing in nature.  Discrete “send and receive” communication is being replaced by a continuous, collaborative flow of information (see Figure 1). Data, documents and discussions are moving away from multiple, disconnected communication sessions and toward an environment that enables information sharing, teamwork and accountability.

This shift is not the result of any one new technology or trend. A confluence of related technical advances and of changing modes of communication have combined to create a transformation in the way information moves among individuals and organizations.

Really Big Data

Less than 15 years ago, voice traffic was bigger than data. Fast forward 10 years and data utterly eclipsed voice (see Figure 2). In fact, voice traffic has actually declined. Technology enabled this shift, and certainly a good deal of the data traffic involves less-than-serious pursuits. But more and more, the way people choose to communicate with each other across distances is through electronic media, not digitized voice.

The Internet as a Utility

The promise of the Internet as a platform for serving up computing power and data storage is finally being realized. This is quite simply what “cloud computing” means. Although delayed by a decades-long romance with the personal computer, the cloud is now delivering anywhere access to powerful software and large volumes of data. The real game-changing part of this story is that this power and storage can be accessed by simpler, smaller – and therefore mobile – devices.

Return of the Terminal

Before the PC and the Internet, there was still cloud computing, although the “clouds” were not connected. Large central processors and storage arrays were accessed by “dumb” terminals – CRT monitors with keyboards. Today’s “dumb” terminals are quite a bit smarter, smaller and more capable. But whether using a smartphone, tablet or laptop, when one accesses information

[caption id="attachment_1363" align="alignleft" width="407"]DexterChaney Chaos_Cloud Figure 2 (Click to Enlarge)[/caption]

or applications online, the device being used is serving as a simple terminal. This allows a tablet user to display and manipulate complex plans and specs or access powerful enterprise software.

The Most Powerful App

For more than the past 20 years, the vast majority of software has been designed for use by the ubiquitous PC (i.e., Windows-based software that assumes a fairly powerful user device). However, advances in cloud computing and mobile hardware are changing the way software is being accessed and used. The app –- a usually "lighter" task-oriented version of a full application – has taken off with nearly a million available for Apple and Android devices. The most powerful app, though, is the common web browser, part of every smart mobile device. This commonality – the pervasive use of the web as the interface to the Internet – is allowing software developers to use the cloud as a development platform. The ties to Windows architecture and all of the associated overhead are being cut; powerful applications, up to and including complete enterprise construction software, are being redesigned for delivery via the familiar interface provided by the Web.

What all this means to the construction industry is that the barriers to the efficient flow of information are being removed. Mobility means more than just staying connected; it means staying fully informed. Project managers can have up-to-date information on job financials and logistics without going from jobsites to the office and back. Field staff and subcontractors can have access to the latest versions of plans, specs, change orders and a myriad of other documents they need by simply logging onto web-based applications from any location using any device.

In growing numbers, contractors looking for ways to become more efficient are starting assess the way they manage this new flow of information. Connecting and communicating with remote staff, subcontractors and all of the disparate players who comprise a project team is a requisite step. The next step is to put all of this communication in context: to create a controlled, readily accessible environment that enables everyone on the team – inside and outside the company – to work better together. The technologies are lined up, and a new generation of software is coming online. Contractors that take advantage of this new mobility will enjoy a significant competitive advantage in the coming years.
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