Software review: Windows 95 wave hits real estate industry

Do you do Windows?"

If Chase Metz has been asked that question once, he's been queried it a thousand times. Thanks to the massive hype generated by the introduction of Microsoft's Windows 95 in the consumer arena ("a million copies sold!"), the real estate profession is becoming increasingly curious about the latest version of Windows. Businesses are already clamoring for the operational enhancements Windows 3.1 and Windows 95 provide, says Metz, a principal in Houston-based ARGUS Financial Software. Anticipating the demand, ARGUS is already working on a 32-bit Windows 95 version of its popular software that should be out later this year.

"Our Version 4 for Windows has been available since the first of the year," says Metz, whose company specializes in collateral valuation and financial analysis for investment-grade properties. "Actually, we are ahead of the game because we made the decision a year ago to ,write ahead, for the Windows 95 and Windows NT genre, using a conversion layer, when we went from DOS to Windows. It was a Herculean effort, taking a lot of resources, time and effort, but we feel we're ahead of the game," Metz says. "If we had written only for Windows 3.1, we would have had major work ahead of us now to put out a Windows 95 version. Instead, we'll be ready to ship 32-bit Windows 95 software later this year."

ARGUS, like other real estate software companies around the country, is riding the Windows wave. Long serfs to the DOS domain, software developers are now able to add new and exciting features to their products. Windows 95 boasts enhancements that will make programs easier to run, at faster speeds, and with more applications, say the experts. That's good news for the real estate industry as well as for software developers.

"What Windows does is helps us add features and capacity," says Dave Reitmeyer, director of research and development at DYNA Software of Clearwater, Fla. "Some companies have hundreds and hundreds of real estate projects. Before, you could merge a couple of hundred files; now, you can merge a couple of thousand because there is enough power and enough memory to do it."

Reitmeyer adds that DYNA Software has one product, DYNABASE, already in Windows and is transferring its DYNAMIS and DYNALEASE to Windows. "We ate currently writing both for 3.1 and Windows 95, because customers would like support for all Windows platforms."

Colonial Systems Inc., Exton, Pa., is using Windows 95 and working to integrate the new system with their current computer programs.

"Windows won the desk top. Windows 95 is something we will all need to deal with," says Al Lehman, president. "The challenge is to integrate the Windows desk top with a central information management database. In computer speak this is called a client/server approach which utilizes the user friendly Windows interface and local processing power for word processing and spread sheet functions while maintaining control over the accounting type information in central server."

Software developers are especially excited about the strides made by the 32bit operating system. "The first version of our Windows product took the same features of DOS and moved them but did very little to expand," says Gregory P. Carrier, principal at ARGUS Financial Software. "For our Version 5, which shipped in September, we went back and put 30 new features of which a solid one-third are major enhancements. For instance, say a national tenant is in 10 of your properties and the company files Chapter 11, you want to know what's your exposure. With our Windows product, you can now get all of the details about those leases and what the financial impact will be on your bottom line - what's your loss, what's the value of the property and so forth."

What does Windows and Windows 95 have that DOS doesn't? Plenty. "Windows 95 makes programs ,user passionate,", says Larry Roches, CEO of Chicago-based Melson Technologies, whose offerings include SKYLINE for office, industrial and retail property management and Rent Roll for multifamily residential properties.

"Windows 95 has a user interface that has a number of features to make it easier to use, such as its presentation of what is being worked on and how it lets you know the progress. You get little information messages to kind of tell you ,everything is okay, and I'm working on this.",

Roches says Melson - which already has applications for Windows 3.1 - has been developing its Windows 95 offerings for a year and will release them in the near future. "We will take full advantage of the enhancements Windows 95 brings, particularly solutions that are real estate specific," he continues.

"One example is multitasking. You'll be able to ask the system to start up a particular function, and while its doing that, ask it to do another, and then ask it to do another. Thus, a property manager who uses SKYLINE could do many things at once, where before you had to do them sequentially. Now we have enablement to do multitasking."

Windows 95 simply enables developers to expand their horizons, says Dean Schmidt, operations manager at AMSI, a division of GEAC Commercial Systems Inc., located in Houston. "Windows has led the way for us with new interest and new hype," Schmidt says. "Windows and Windows 95 are pretty much all the same stuff when you pull the covers back; the important difference is that Windows 95 permits us to use more image enabling. For instance, we can now take real estate lease contracts, scan them, link them to a data base and then pull up contracts with all the other documents that have been signed. Before, we had to go to the filing cabinet - or a lot of filing cabinets."

Schmidt adds that like many other software developers, AMSI is updating its offerings to take advantage of the enhancements. "For the most part, the new Windows products have to be rewritten, because if you only made it look like DOS in a Windows format, you're only putting a new paint job on an old vehicle.

With the changes also comes a name change. Our PowerSuite, designed for commercial property management, office buildings and shopping centers, becomes StarSuite, and PowerSite, designed for people doing multifamily apartments, is now called StarSite."

One of the major advantages of Windows 95 is that it's more stable so users don't have to reboot three or four times, points out Peter L. Miller, project manager for Yardi Advantage at Yardi Systems in Santa Barbara, Calif. The firm offers property and asset management software and was a beta test site for Windows 95.

"A user is going to have better memory management, a more stable environment and be able to utilize resources better," Miller continues. "For the coming months, we'll run 16-bit architecture, but a year from now we see Yardi possibly going to 32-bit architecture. We also see Microsoft NT playing a larger part in the industry in the future."

Stuart L. Smith, executive vice president for Cierra Solutions, a real estate-based computer network and software company in Houston, agrees the new operating system for Windows 95 makes it quicker and more stable.

"Essentially, it allows twice as much information to pass through process, the disk access is faster than Windows 3.1, and if you're using a 32-bit design application, Windows 95 protects you should your application crash," Smith says. "Using Windows 3.1, if you were working on a finicky application developed by some real estate guy and it crashed, typically you would have to reboot the computer. In Windows 95, using a 32-bit application, you would not have to do that. Windows would handle it; everything else would be fine."

The vast majority of real estate software developers say they are excited about the enhancements brought about by Windows and Windows 95 and add that users also will be thrilled. Jeff Wells, vice president of DYNA Software, notes that DYNABASE allows users to look at DYNA files and extract information across the portfolio.

"Say you're a large pension fund, and you want to see all the office buildings in the northeast over 100,000 sq. ft. that are in your portfolio, determine what is the projected occupancy over next five years and produce a graph," Wells says. "You can now do that. Another Windows application is that in those same office buildings, you can find the leases expiring over 10,000 sq. ft. with AA and AAA tenants, produce a list of those tenants, take that information and send it to management to implement a strategy to retain tenants - all at the same time."

"Windows 95 may be the natural evolutionary step for Windows 3.1 users, however, it's not the only Windows direction being closely monitored by Minicom (a Newstar Technologies Inc. company)," says Helen Tsantsoulas, product development director at Newstar Technologies Inc. "Our customers are telling us they are more interested in NT than they are in Windows 95." The findings came as no surprise, maintains Tsantsoulas, as "Microsoft has positioned the more robust NT OS as the standard for corporations on the desktop and server."

Newstar is releasing GUI versions of both their Property Management and their Asset Management products in 1996. They are also evaluating different platforms for porting their UNlX-based systems and are keeping a close eye on Microsoft's NT 3.6 and Cairo projects. Newstar Technologies provides software, applications development and outsourcing services to more than 400 financial, real estate, commercial and government clients across North America and around the world.

Software analysts caution that the movement from DOS to Windows to Windows 95 won't be accomplished over night. Merely going from DOS to Windows is a big step and going right to Windows 95 is a giant leap for many companies. Those in the software development industry point out that Fortune 500 companies as well as smaller corporations aren't going to jump aboard the Windows 95 bandwagon immediately. For the most part, companies are cautious. Many are not on the cutting edge, and they can't afford to be.

"The market needs a robust operating system; stability is key anytime a new product is released," explains David Derego, marketing manager for the property management division of Beaverton, Ore.-based Timberline Software Corp., known for its Gold Property Management software.

"Most companies will wait a little while before jumping to Windows 95. They want to make sure all the bugs are out," Derego says. "Also, we serve the real estate market, not the home computer market. It's not like the day after a software product comes out, the IS people are converting everyone. It will be a planned migration. They'll sit down and go through budget process."

What's more critical, he says, is that "our client base is telling us, ,pay attention, if the operation system proves effective," Derego adds. "They are asking, ,Is my software vendor thinking about it and taking the necessary steps? But let's make sure everything is OK before we convert.'"

Ron McComas, vice president of sales and marketing at Cleveland-based Management Reports, Inc., known for THE SYSTEM, a family of software products for property and asset management, says that Windows 95 has the best chance of being universally accepted by today's DOS/Windows 3.1 users.

"Our initial release of the nonclient/server version of THE SYSTEM will operate under Windows 3.1 and will use GUI (Graphical User Interface) technology and comply with industry standard open architectural protocols," McComas says. "This version will be converted to Windows 95 as soon as we are certain that this technology is stable and widely accepted by the industry. Given the expected processing power and performance of this version, we believe it will most successfully be installed at small and medium-sized firms and remote site locations."

Yet not all companies are jumping aboard the 32-bit bandwagon. Ted Stearns, president of Carlsbad, Calif.-based Real -Pro-Jections Inc., which offers Winack, a graphical system to produce vertical stacking plans for mid-rise and highrise office buildings, says the company's software is Windows 95 compatible. While it took a look at new enhancements offered, the company decided it wasn't worthwhile to rewrite the software to take advantage of 32-bit architecture.

"Until we start seeing greater reasons for rewriting the software, we'll go as we are," says Sterns. "We are seeing more and more people going with Windows. We have developed a package for 3.1 that is compatible for Windows 95. We are continually enhancing our packages and interfacing it with many other applications. But while there are some new features in Windows 95, we don't see enough important enhancements to make it worth while to rewrite our software in 32-bit and make it a true Windows 95 application."

So what does the future hold for the real estate software industry? Developers are sensing a window of opportunity for more innovation says Matthew Giles, manager of RE.View Online, Atlanta, a large electronic information service for the commercial real estate industry. "We already have a software product, Information Manager, that runs on Windows 3.1, Windows 95, and Windows NT," he says. "Around the beginning of year, the company will also have a multimedia Windows online service. The bulletin board industry and online services are moving to a Windows client server atmosphere."

Carrier of ARGUS says the operating system of choice today is Windows, and that won't change anytime soon. "Windows domination will be even larger in the near future, and we see Windows NT playing a larger part of that," Carrier continues. "Microsoft is also working toward more global interconnectivity solutions, and ARGUS intends to remain on the cutting edge."

The bottom line, note software developers, is that virtually all real estate companies will do Windows. "Windows is here to stay," says AMSl's Schmidt. "If you don't develop in Windows, your customers will find someone who will."

Compatibility is the key when you are considering new software and manage 260,000 multifamily units throughout the country, oversee 64 million sq. ft. of commercial property and prepare financials daily for hundreds of owners.

In fact, Insignia Financial Group, a Greenville, S.C.-based company, sought system-wide software harmony that would network its PCs around the country with its mainframe in Greenville and, at the same time, interface with different programs used by its various vendors.

"Our major need was that we had to interface with almost every real estate accounting program in the industry -- Skyline AMSI, MRI, you name it -- and allow for customized reports for our various owners," explains David P. Wilkerson Jr., systems analyst at Insignia. "Not only that, but we're a fast-growing company. We acquire other companies all the time, and there is no telling what we will need to interface with later on."

Insignia surveyed the software scene and settled on CLR's Rend Roll, which provides on-site multifamily management software. "We went through an extensive process to find software that met the needs of Insignia, and we discovered that Rend Roll was very adaptable. More importantly, the company was very willing to work with us."

Rent Roll personnel, for instance, helped Insignia develop an interface program with HUD Manager, an extremely important task, because the company deals with subsidized housing projects on a grand scale. "A major part of our business is with HUD properties. There's not a whole lot of companies who do that on the scale we do," says Wilkerson. "The software people made it so Rent Roll interfaces easily with other systems. That was important for us."

Equally important was customer support. Wilkerson says it was rare that his staff asked a question Rent Roll personnel hadn't already thought about or heard about. "Before we went with Roll Rent, we entered all receivables and accounts payable through our mainframe in Greenville. It was a paper system. With Rent Roll, we have gone to an almost completely distributive processing system. With our new software, there's not a whole lot that an owner would ask for that we aren't equipped to provide."

For companies looking for new software, Wilkerson advises them to make sure it meets all the firm's needs. "If not, go with someone else. The software should help you, not cause additional problems."

For real estate companies looking into getting new software, Bryan D. Hively of Long Beach-based Newman Properties has some advice: plan ahead.

"Don't think you can start looking at software in February and have it up and running in March; it just doesn't work that way," says the comptroller at the retail shopping center management and development firm. "Give yourself at lest six months to work through any glitches or problems. And make sure a software company can do what it says it can do."

Before selecting Yardi Systems' Advantage Series, which includes property management for commercial and residential as well as asset management functions. Newman Properties research five software companies.

Hively was especially cognizant of the fact that sometimes software firms say they will perform some tasks but later say it isn't possible. "At the beginning, we said we wanted them to help us convert our current data banks to the new system," he says. "Three said they would help, but two responded in a way that I didn't feel comfortable with; they didn't sound like it was anything they would be prepared to do. I also made sure we were dealing with the company itself and not with a broker who is going to sell the product, get the commission and not have any long-term commitment to the product or help with conversion."

By utilizing Yardi software, Newman Properties estimates it will save some $35,000 to $45,000 per year by tracking operations and sales for retail shopping centers. "Before, we were using an outside processor, sending it to the mainframe computer system, processing it and receiving reports back on a semi-monthly basis. That cost $3,000 to $4,000 a month. With Yardi, for an initial investment in software, we could do it ourselves. Yardi made the process simple."

Also, with the Yardi software, a number of functions that Newman Properties performed manually have been automated.

"Before Yardi, we had some tenants with 20-year leases whose rent increased every two to three years, and we had to do it manually; with Yardi it's automatic," Hively says. "Yardi also does other marvelous things. It takes all CAM charges for the year and prorates it based on square footage."

Liberty Property Trust

Webster's Dictionary defines customizing as "altering to the tastes of the buyer." Barbara L. Smith, information system director at Liberty Property Trust, Malvern, Pa., describes it as "ensuring that the people who really need information get it."

In today's highly-competitive environment, she adds, obtaining the necessary data is important, primarily because increasing numbers of executives require specific information. "Oftentimes the information is there, but not accessible to the people who really need it. That was one of our concerns when we were thinking about new software."

With that in mind, Liberty Property Trust opted for Colonial Systems' Property Management System. "Colonial enables us to have all the detailed information we need, making data easy to track," Smith says. "It can integrate with other packages such as Lotus Notes. When we were looking at how we were going to get information to our managers, we didn't want to invest a huge amount of programming time and dollars to re-invent the wheel. Colonial agreed to customizing integration with other packages to the extent it was more efficient to do so." That customization included integrating Colonial with Lotus Notes.

Liberty Property Trust also wanted an open system -- which other companies are also considering -- so it could use query language to just pull information from the source. "We wanted a system that would provide easy access to the data through S.Q.L. With Colonial, we can now get that information, and it's a tremendous benefit, saving us a huge amount of time and money."

Colonial Systems' software also enabled Liberty Property Trust to perform various economic scenarios quickly and more accurately. "Without much effort, we can make scenario changes to the pro forma and see what deals are pending and their impact. Before, it would have had to been done all manually, with information in spread sheet and many phone calls. Now we can sort it any way we need to, thanks to our customization."

An important factor for any company to consider when buying software is the flexibility to integrate with other systems, Smith says. "We have done that with Colonial."

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