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The Smartest Tool in the Shed
By Paul Wilkinson
March 29, 2017
Multiple Operating Systems (OS) have been a feature of IT adoption for decades. While they have provided a platform for technology development, they have also hampered the process of sharing information. However, the emergence of Web browser-based applications coupled with the growing standardization, could provide us with a “construction operating system” that allows data from multiple sources to communicate––streamlining information and workflows to deliver better services to our industry’s clients.
A computer operating system (OS) manages computer hardware and software resources and provides common services for computer programs. Just about every computerized device we use today––from smartphones and tablets to mainframes and servers––have the common power to run multiple programs simultaneously, manage security, access storage, and control printers or other devices.
Microsoft is perhaps the most well-known OS provider. When IBM launched its first personal computer in 1981, its operating system was Microsoft’s PC-DOS (disk operating system). Microsoft was also allowed to create MS-DOS for other manufacturers’ IBM-compatible PCs.
Soon customers no longer focused on being IBM-compatible, but on being able to use the MS-DOS-based Windows OS 2.0 released in 1987 (which emulated elements of Apple’s graphical user interface launched in 1984).
The Windows OS rapidly evolved during the next two decades. Landmarks included Windows 95, 98, and XP (2001). And in 2017, it is still the most popular desktop OS (with a market share of around 83.3% compared to Apple’s MacOS at 11.2%)), but not the most widely used across all devices. That honor goes to Google’s Android, launched in 2007 and designed primarily for touchscreen mobile devices.
In the smartphone sector, Android has around 87.5% market share, with Apple’s iOS coming in second at 12.1%. Out of the tablet population, around 65% are Android, 26% iOS, and 9% Windows. Linux, however, dominates the server and supercomputer sectors.
As computer microprocessors have become more powerful and as hardware has incorporated more features, periodic updates to an OS are key to maintaining an effective interface between the hardware and the applications deployed by a user.
For example, beyond the sole purpose of making phone calls, today’s smartphones typically include touchscreens, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi access, GPS navigation, still and video cameras, speech recognition, voice recorders and more––with Apple iOS and Google Android updating annually to keep pace with device advances.
Major new versions of the most widely used desktop OS, Windows, have been released at roughly three-yearly intervals; Windows 10, interestingly, is seen by Microsoft as an "operating system as a service" and its features and functionality are subject to frequent incremental updates.
Operating systems have been critically important to software developers, who have had to decide which OS to base their software upon. This tended to reflect which OS was most widely used in their target market.
In the corporate AEC market for desktop applications, for example, this tended to mean that developers focused on Microsoft Windows-based applications––as a result, most AEC-oriented tools, from design authoring, estimating, and program management to ‘back office’ financial management and general office tools, are “point solutions” founded on Windows. But, as some architects and other designers favored Apple, there has also been a (smaller) market for design tools built on the MacOS platform.
However, the advent of the World Wide Web, coupled with improvements to the speed and reliability of Internet connections, marked the beginning of a major change in our OS thinking .
During the late 1990s, providers of what we today call ‘Software-as-a-Service’ (SaaS) started to offer a remotely-hosted alternative to software loaded on devices or networks. The Web browser effectively became a “new OS.” Developers still faced initial challenges in ensuring their applications worked across Windows, MacOS, and other browsers, but the development of open Web Services standards soon eroded issues previously caused by plugins and ActiveX controls.
For a construction industry delivering projects via fragmented, geographically-dispersed, multi-company teams, SaaS-based collaboration platforms proved particularly attractive. Securely hosted by a trusted outsider to the core project team, using a standard Web browser, with little to no investment in new software or hardware, delivered on a ‘pay-as-you-go’ subscription basis, these SaaS platforms have proved to be one of the construction success stories of the early 21st century.
A factor in their continued success and in the expansion in the range of applications and functionality offered, has been how easily they span the divide between office and jobsite. Construction project information and other corporate data is now increasingly accessible to authorized users anytime, anywhere, and on any device, 24/7. And we don’t just talk about Software-as-a-Service these days, but also about “Platform-as-a-Service,” with providers hosting an increasingly integratable range of Web applications for customers and end-users to deploy.
The evolution from a paper-driven construction industry to one where many data transactions are expedited via the Web is making us rethink how we provide construction applications and associated information.
More deliverables and processes are becoming digitized and mobile. Expanding adoption of Building Information Modeling (BIM), increased reuse of data by owners/operators for whole-life asset management, and growing use of sensors (the “Internet of Things”, IoT) are set to accelerate digital information exchange still further.
And just as Web Services standards helped overcome early browser compatibility issues, new national and international data standards and classifications are supporting these new technologies––facilitating the development of what we regard as a new “construction operating system.”’
The progressive digitization of the AEC sector has reduced the volume of paper-based communications produced, though, in many cases, we are now sharing electronic versions (PDFs) of drawings and documents, and email has replaced traditional correspondence. The next phase of the industry’s digital transformation will require a shift from the “common paper environment” to the “common data environment”.
The latter phrase is often associated with BIM, but industry productivity at every level could be dramatically improved by widespread adoption of comprehensive and consistent data definitions, common operating procedures or workflows, and construction-specific Web services.
Such a ‘construction operating system’ would help accelerate AEC technology developments and streamline data flows between people, companies, systems, devices, and software applications––helping us deliver efficient value-adding services to our clients, while improving company productivity and profitability.
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