SAN FRANCISCO, Nov. 1, 2005 – The new Windows Live and Microsoft Office Live software-based services unveiled today extend Microsoft’s dedication to make the power of computing more accessible and usable through the Internet, Chief Technical Officer Ray Ozzie said this morning at a preview of the company’s latest offerings.
Using Microsoft Windows Live Local Powered by Virtual Earth, RE3W allows real-estate brokers to open a satellite-based map image of a city and a bird’s-eye view of a specific building, all in a single screen.
Built on Microsoft .NET and supporting technology, Microsoft Windows Live and Office Live combine software with Internet-based services to help users easily connect with other people and quickly find the information they need.
That promise – what Microsoft describes as live experiences for individuals and businesses – is already being realized by RE3W (Real Estate on the World Wide Web), an Internet-based application for the commercial real-estate industry developed by independent software vendor RE3W. The Orange County, Calif.-based company’s application utilizes Microsoft .NET to integrate a variety of Web services, including Windows Live Local Powered by Virtual Earth maps and local search capabilities, into a single view to help streamline many of the steps involved in a commercial real-estate transaction.
PressPass spoke with RE3W founder Richard Frost to learn more about how Web services and other innovations supported by Microsoft technologies are helping his company to transform the way its clients do business.
PressPass: What types of challenges in commercial real estate did you target in creating RE3W?
Frost: I’ve been a commercial real-estate broker for 36 years. Having handled quite a few major, multimillion-dollar transactions in my career, I came to realize how complex and time-consuming this whole transaction process can get. The initial portion of it, originating a deal, involves seeking out and identifying properties of interest. Brokers, investors and developers each have their own unique ideas about various pieces of property that they see as they drive around or consult the listings. Typically, the real-estate professional might jot his or her idea on a note but then possibly forget about it until a few weeks later, when they read in the newspaper that a competitor has executed their idea. It usually happens because they didn’t have the right information at their fingertips to follow through with finding and contacting that property owner right when inspiration strikes.
From there, negotiating and closing a sale among all the parties involved – from buyers and sellers to attorneys, engineers, escrow companies and so on – also poses significant challenges. I wanted to create a software application specifically tailored to the collaboration, document workflow, and communication needs of real-estate professionals as well as their financial partners. Streamlining this process has turned out to be a pretty daunting goal, but I think RE3W is a big step in the right direction.
PressPass: How does RE3W work?
Frost: One of the most amazing things about RE3W, which is made possible through the Windows Live Local Powered by Virtual Earth Web service, is that I can pull up a visual satellite image of the area where I’ve located an interesting property and zoom in on that parcel or building – even if I don’t know its address. Then, by drawing a box around one or more specific properties and clicking a button, I can see detailed information about each property on the same screen. This data is delivered via Web service from more than 88 million properties in a nationwide database that we’ve licensed from The First American Corp., which also is a principal investor in RE3W. Clicking another button shows me a parcel map for each property, also on the same screen, for comparison with the satellite image. Even more powerful will be the ability to pull in a bird’s-eye image from Windows Live Local Powered by Virtual Earth, so I can look at the property from an oblique, 45-degree angle – facing north, south, east or west.
RE3W integrates with a nationwide database to provide real-estate brokers with access to data about the property owners.
RE3W also provides the links to each state’s Department of Corporations Web site for researching additional information about the property. After finding a property, I can use its address in a different Web service to search for the owner’s phone number in one of the largest telephone directories in the United States. Yet another Web service allows me to check that number against the national Do Not Call registry to avoid a potential violation. Within a matter of seconds, I can be on the phone with the owner to initiate a potential transaction.
RE3W not only allows a user to uniquely search for property information but also to store that information in a digital real estate file, or REFile, which is really the center of our application. The REFiles comprise a central repository for any piece of information that users deem relevant about a piece of property – leases, floor plans, site plans, environmental studies, photographs – and then we allow you to securely and selectively share that information with other parties. Also, in the RE3W application, the home page can be a Microsoft Windows SharePoint Services home page with Web parts; we’ve customized our Web parts to view your files, and also we have a stock ticker and some RSS feeds from different syndicated real-estate columns, and weather and so forth.
PressPass: What led you to adopt Microsoft .NET and Windows Live Local Powered by Virtual Earth as key components of RE3W?
Frost: When I started the company about five years ago, it was pretty clear that finding outside development resources for RE3W would be the most effective path. That’s what led me to SoftServe, which is based in Lvev, Ukraine. SoftServe is a Microsoft Gold Partner, and its people are very intelligent, so I completely trusted their recommendation that we develop RE3W on the .NET platform – even though it was a new and emerging technology at the time. They also made a convincing case that adopting a full-fledged Microsoft technology environment for our business was the right way to go. Those were two of the best decisions we’ve made. The .NET platform is flexible, scalable and has allowed us to rapidly build our application as well as integrate it with Web services and all of our internal technology systems.
We considered using Java, Linux and a few other development platforms, but we could tell that .NET would enable us to bring RE3W to market much faster than we could have with those other development tools. With the preconfigured code that’s available in Microsoft Visual Studio .NET, we didn’t have to write nearly as much of it ourselves and could therefore focus on developing our own specialized capabilities much quicker. Microsoft has also given our developers access to previews of the next version of .NET, and it’s even faster to use.
Microsoft .NET is what enables us to seamlessly combine Web services like Windows Live Local Powered by Virtual Earth, the property listings from First American and our own unique search capabilities in one place.
Not only that, but we can deliver the information inside whichever applications our customers are using. If someone is working in Microsoft Office Outlook, RE3W can reside there so the person doesn’t have to leave Outlook in order to call up information about a property. We’ve also built a component that integrates with Microsoft Office Word that lets users call up and search all of their property files without even opening a Web browser, then pull information from the files and drop it right into a Word document. The openness of .NET and Web services is what makes all this possible.
PressPass: How are these capabilities from Microsoft helping to transform your clients’ businesses?
RE3W founder Richard Frost (R) with Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates, San Francisco, Nov. 1, 2005
Frost: Some of the most powerful feedback we’ve heard from clients is that RE3W takes the guesswork out of searching for and locating information about properties. One of our clients, like many large real-estate companies, has a fleet of property-acquisition specialists who typically drive around for several hours a day looking for potential opportunities. With the visual search capabilities of Virtual Earth and the other information resources that are woven together by RE3W, their employees can identify properties anywhere in the United States from a desktop computer or any number of mobile devices. As a result, they’re more productive and have dramatically lowered their travel costs. The same is true for our client Grubb & Ellis Company, one of the largest full-service commercial real-estate firms in the world. Its brokers are using RE3W to more clearly define their respective territories for prospecting, as well as develop more specialized techniques for evaluating properties and contacting the owners.
Also, the information that our clients save to their REFiles in RE3W is always current and available at the click of a button. Even if they haven’t opened a particular file in months, the Web services integration in RE3W pulls the most up-to-date versions of whatever maps, contact information and other records have been saved to the REFile. Unlike hard copies, RE3W is accessible from any device with an Internet connection. Our clients can locate and research a property on their Tablet PC while walking down the street, as well as immediately and securely share that information with the other parties involved. This enables real-estate professionals to communicate and collaborate faster, which ultimately shortens their transaction cycles and can lower their costs by millions of dollars on a large commercial real-estate transaction.
Another of our clients had all kinds of problems with document management and collaboration as a result of e-mailing documents back and forth between various parties for the properties that it had in escrow. With the document sharing capabilities in RE3W, the company maintains much tighter version control and no longer loses track of which parties should have access to specific documents at different stages of the escrow process. Rather than hiring a courier to hand-deliver documents to a prospective buyer, or burning copies onto a CD and mailing it, clients simply load the information into a REFile and provide the buyer with a username and password.
PressPass: What has your experience of working with Microsoft been like?
Frost: We’ve been working with Microsoft almost since the beginning of this effort. In working with Microsoft, we’ve received extensive, valuable input. Our developers were even invited to Redmond last year to evaluate the next version of .NET. The cooperation and access that we’ve received from Microsoft has really been great. We’ve had people from the SharePoint team in our office, and SoftServe, our development partner, has extensive access to Microsoft technology and resources through its status as a Microsoft Gold Partner. All of that has benefited us tremendously.
PressPass: What potential benefits do you see for your business and future versions of your applications from the new Windows Live and Microsoft Office Live services announced today?
Frost: Windows Live and Office Live services will enable us to weave even more capabilities into our applications. One of the things we value is the ability to go to where our customers are working – as with the current ability for RE3W to access REFiles from Word. That’s something that we’ve been working on for a while, and we’re hoping to make this a service that we can offer back to Microsoft Office Live.