The Times, They Are A Changin’

Like many of you, I'm at the age where I have two driving teenagers now: A son who's 18 and about to graduate from high school, and a daughter who just turned 16 a few months ago.

As a result, I've done some car shopping lately. (Ok, I can't lie. I'm always car shopping.) But while getting them set up with their first vehicles, I was really taken aback at the breadth and depth of standard features in even entry-level cars these days. From GPSs, to radar-guided cruise control, to leather seating, it's easy for kids to take things for granted as being "standard" features. (pq)

My first car, by contrast, was a junky beige 1975 Mustang II with nothing included. (Go ahead and laugh. I was young and didn't realize the Mustang II would become the only model of the line to never become a collectible, as a Pinto in disguise. And, mine was indeed wholly possessed by demons.)

Since it was bare bones, I quickly took out the old AM radio and replaced it with a fancy AM-FM cassette player. Then I added driving lights, a powered antenna (remember real metal antennas?), cool low profile tires, and finally, the best thing yet: Cruise control. Woohoo! Of course, it was a vacuum-driven add-on, which I bought at Sears if I recall correctly, and it had the annoying property of sending the engine immediately to redline if you shifted gears while engaged. Lovely. But, in today's parlance, it wasn't "integrated" into the car, so it's really not Sears' fault that it didn't work perfectly.

Of course, if a car manufacturer today told you that cruise control wasn't standard on a typical car, you'd laugh. Likewise for a superb audio system, power windows and locks, anti-lock brakes, and so on. Features that we once paid dearly for as add-ons become not only standard, but completely integrated and more useful than they were when they were sold a la carte.

Now consider the contrast to most appraisal software. When I look back at ads for our software and others from 10 and 15 years ago, I'm struck at the number of add-ons from then which are still sold as extras today, when they shouldn't be.

Take street mapping for example. Why do appraisers pay extra, above and beyond the forms software, for street maps - many times, even paying additional fees on a per-user basis just for maps? Back in 1994, I could understand it. You had a separate CD, and you had to integrate it. Even in the late 90's, when Internet mapping was coming on strong, I could understand it, as the back-end services charged high fees. But today? A software vendor can buy unlimited mapping from Microsoft for a few hundred grand per year, and that's a cost they should eat.

How about digital photo systems? Photo tools are clearly commodities these days, and I can't think of any vendor who charges extra for them now. That's the correct route.

But my favorite example of a commodity that's still somehow charged as extra is sketching. What makes sketching so different from digital photos? Software vendors can snap in photo processing tools, and they can snap in sketching too. It's not rocket science. There are free CAD and sketching tools all over the web, and so it's hard to see the value of basic floorplan sketching being anything above zero. Source code toolkits are available from a wide variety of sources, and a moderate effort at customizing such a toolkit for the specific needs of appraisers is measured in man-months, not man-years.

More importantly, when designed from scratch to be integrated into the forms engine as a standard feature, more can be done to make the integration smooth than would otherwise be possible through selling it a la carte. Like my old cruise control, bolting on a third party device built to generically work with all sorts of brands often results in some unintended consequences.

Now don't get me wrong: I don't think software vendors should prevent you from upgrading a component of your software to an add-on brand of your choice, whether it's sketching, mapping, photo handling, or anything else. But just like my son was able to replace the perfectly usable exhaust system on his pickup truck with an aftermarket (i.e., "window rattling") brand, he shouldn't be forced to pay extra to have a basic exhaust system installed before he drives it off the new car lot. Having an exhaust system isn't a luxury. It's not an option. It's a core part of a car. And it's a commodity.

Ditto for photos, and street maps, and yes, for sketching. They aren't optional. You can't do a report without them. And you shouldn't be charged to have them as features.

Now that we've given away our DaVinci sketching product absolutely free to all WinTOTAL users (click here to learn more), I suspect you'll see other forms vendors follow suit over time. It's only logical, since you have to do a sketch no matter what. It's a core function of filling out the report, and to charge extra for basic sketching seems, frankly, unfair. It's not a business decision you're making. It's like breathing: You have no choice.

So, in my opinion, you shouldn't have to pay for sketching. A few years from now, I suspect you won't. You'll hopefully look at a software vendor who wants to charge you extra for sketching the same way my 16 year old daughter looks at a car salesman who says that leather is an extra cost.

No, I take that back. You probably couldn't muster that look of utter, withering contempt that seems to be the unique domain of a teenage girl. (Love you honey!) But I bet the software vendor will get the point nevertheless.