Oct. 9, 2009 -- 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.
This competition is taking place on a number of different fronts. Some are identical to the changes taking place across all professions – broadband Internet, streaming video, office management tools, financial and productivity software etc. All were in evidence at the show.
But the big tech battle in the real estate business these days, the Apple-Microsoft of the realty game, is being fought across multiple platforms and is for control over the biggest database in the industry: listings. It's the classic story – ten years, if you were a realtor and you want to list a home for sale, you sent the information and a photo to the local multiple listing service, which printed it up in a book that was then distributed to all other agents in the area.
Needless to say, this paradigm got blown apart with the rise of laptop computers, the Web and smartphones. Suddenly, there was a whole bunch of ways to list a house for sale, including mainstream operations like Craigslist, eBay, Google, Yahoo, and specialty sites like Frontdoor, Cyberhomes, Homefinder.com, and RealEstateBook.com
But the traditional multiple listings companies didn't just roll over under this assault. On the contrary, having access to far more information (taxes, liens, etc.) and far more members than the Web upstarts, they responded by getting virtual themselves, bringing heavy computing firepower to bear to create sophisticated websites that not only claimed to be more inclusive, but more complete than non-Realtor® services. They could also reach out and draw information from their professional counterparts around the country.
As with all such tech wars the real winners have been the users. The big newcomers like Yahoo have been forestalled from merely skimming off the easy money in this field, while at the same time their presence has forced the veteran industry companies to stay innovative. Meanwhile, the new start-ups have been a source of fresh ideas that the rest of the competition has been compelled to adopt.
A case in point is MLS Listings Inc., the service that covers not just Silicon Valley, but much of Northern California. Just a few years ago, it was a sleepy local multiple listing service with clunky software and not a lot of competition. These days, it's one of the most technologically innovative listings services in the country, having at the same time merged with a number of its neighbors in order to maintain competitive mass. A couple years ago when MLS Listings brought in its president, Jim Harrison, one of the industry's most innovative CEOs, his mission was to bring the firm into the 21st century. He's done just that, with a massive overhaul of the entire company, not least its Web presence – from the user interface to privacy protections to new caches of data (such as taxes) to multi-media.
Harrison, with his Texas drawl says, "the simple fact is that we have to run as fast as we can because the competition is always right behind us."
The result is that MLS Listings these days is less a real estate company or printing house than it is a software developer. And that's true as well for its competitors. Meanwhile, the race has only just begun. The next challenge is deliver data to multiple locations – including social networks like Facebook, Twitter, etc. – on multiple platforms, from laptops to cell phones to automobile dashboards.
Sitting right behind that is the integration of all of these vast stores of information and the delivery of it in real time – i.e., as the real estate agent drives a client couple through a neighborhood, that agent is constantly being fed updated information on what homes have just been listed or sold, price changes, mortgage rates, liens, virtual tours, as well as GPS and maps to the next listing.
It won't be easy. Jumping aboard the runaway train of high technology is always a scary business. The train keeps accelerating and forever risks jumping the track. And you never really know the final destination. But, as the numerous Web-related companies at California Realtor Expo 2009 suggest, if want to keep playing it's the only game in town.
Meanwhile, for all of those real estate agents out there walking the aisles of the show, enduring the worst marketplace imaginable and trying to keep their careers alive, seeing all of this time and fortune being spent to help them succeed must be comforting indeed.
TAD'S TAB: Curious about the future of relieving yourself? The fate of the most crucial room in your house? Here, provided by some home design blogs, including Yanko Design, is a comprehensive collection of ideas for future bathroom technologies and appliances -- ranging from water-free toilets to toilets that transform into steam powered urinals to showers that feature savannah-tall grass. Check it out at http://www.home-designing.com/2009/09/bathrooms-of-the-future.
This is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Michael S. Malone is one of the nation's best-known technology writers. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 25 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury News as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. He was editor of Forbes ASAP, the world's largest-circulation business-tech magazine, at the height of the dot-com boom. Malone is the author or co-author of a dozen books, notably the best-selling "Virtual Corporation." Malone has also hosted three public television interview series, and most recently co-produced the celebrated PBS miniseries on social entrepreneurs, "The New Heroes." He has been the ABCNews.com "Silicon Insider" columnist since 2000.