Real Estate Industry Goes High-Tech

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The best thing about working inside the tech industry, especially at ground zero here in Silicon Valley, is that you get to see all of the hot new products and services before anybody. You know the people behind them, you know the strengths and weaknesses of the companies themselves – and, because you tend to follow the birth of products, rather than their deaths, you are always optimistic. Every new announcement is going to be the Next Big Thing.

The downside is that you rarely get to see these products and services in action. Unless you happen to use them yourself – and that's usually for only a short time, as we tend to be early adopters of the last shiny new toy – you rarely see what happens as these technologies filter down into different markets and professions, get hammered into different shapes for different uses, and evolve from novelties into the everyday tools of a normal workday. It is this far side of the adoption curve that is truly alien territory for those of us who write about tech.

So, this week I decide to go exploring.

The occasion was the "California REALTOR® Expo 2009" (yeah, they capitalize it and trademark it, apparently to keep away the riff-raff non-certified real estate agents -- and that's the last time I'm doing it in this column), sponsored by the California Association of Realtors and held at the San Jose Convention Center.)

If you've been to one of these events – and most of you have – you know by the name that it is basically a trade show that combines a slew of association meetings with a big trade show of vendors serving the profession.

It was the latter that I wanted to see, so I made my way to downtown San Jose, the least Silicon Valley part of Silicon Valley, to the San Jose McEnery Convention Center.

I don't have to tell you that these are tough times to be a real estate agent or broker in California. Things have picked up a little bit in recent months here in Silicon Valley, but I don't have to drive very far to find housing developments being bulldozed without ever having been occupied, and entire communities turned into half-ghost towns through foreclosures.

So, I expected this year's Expo to be pretty bleak and only marginally attended. In fact, it managed to (just) fill the exposition hall and drew a healthy crowd. If that's a leading indicator, perhaps the economy is finally turning around. Or, it may just be that California realtor profession had its shake-out a year ago, and these folks are the survivors – battle-hardened veterans who don't miss a chance to find any new tool that might give them an edge.

And, indeed, there were a lot of new tools. As you might expect from a trade show of this kind, there were a lot of what might be called "novelty" booths: refrigerator magnets, magazine subscriptions, insurance companies, even a scarf vendor. There were also the weird industry-only booths, like the one that specialized in removing bad odors from homes and the film studio that specialized in shooting online home tours. And, as you might expect in these sad times, there were a number of exhibitors who specialized in spotting and tracking home foreclosures – as always, one man's misery being another man's opportunity.

But what quickly became obvious to me was that not has the tech revolution come to the real estate business, but that, in fact, there is something of a technology arms race going on right now.

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