This post attempts to be useful on two fronts. First, that you would come to know the wonderful capabilities you have (or can have) to easily communicate across the internet in your own system using your own data, and secondly, that you begin to take a higher view on the advice you're getting on these matters from self-described real estate technology experts.
My first point will deal with how to do what I'm talking about and the second with "tech advice" that I feel is pervasively damaging to the business of real estate practitioners.
What is a router?
A router is a fantastic device. It make's the internet work. It handles addresses. Your house has a street address and your connection to the internet has an address too. There are big routers that sit between you and your internet service provider (Cox, Comcast, Verizon, etc.) and direct traffic that's coming and going from your house as well as your neighbor's house and so on. Routing works because of addressing. There are little routers too. The typical home or office wireless network is created by a wireless router from manufacturers such as Netgear, Apple and others. Routers route data traffic.
Is my address static or dynamic?
Google Maps - thing of beauty. All you have to know is the address and... awesome. Same thing with any device on the internet. All you have to know is the IP address (and have permission to access the device) and you can connect. Those web servers you connect to? They all have IP addresses. You can thank the Domain Name System (example: www.example.com translates to 184.108.40.206) for making things easier to remember, but the meaningful address is the IP address. Your computer also has an IP address, and if you know it, you can connect to it from anywhere.
The typical difference between a web server and your computer is this: the server gets a STATIC IP address and your computer gets a DYNAMIC IP address. Static IP addresses don't change; dynamic IP addresses do. This presents the obvious question: if my home/dynamic IP address changes from time-to-time, how can I always connect to it from anywhere? Remember the Domain Name System (DNS)? Well, you can use something called Dynamic DNS to notify a domain name server of changes to your address in real time. This means a domain such as my_computer_at_home.com is always translated to the latest IP address your computer has even if it is dynamically allocated by your ISP. There are free dynamic DNS services that handle this with ease - we've recommended No-IP.com for years.
Your router even lets you share your internet connection with multiple computers on your wireless network. Here's how it works: your ISP gives you one address (sometimes static, but usually dynamic). This address is known as an EXTERNAL address. Your wireless router creates additional INTERNAL addresses for each computer on your wireless network and manages the traffic for everything. Your router can allow an external connection from say, you out in the field, directly routed to a specific computer on your internal network. This is a powerful feature, is very easy to do and is often referred to as "port mapping".
So I can connect to my home or office computer from anywhere. What does this do for me?
Two things. It cuts out a middle man and a middle step. You don't need to pay for an additional monthly service to store your data on a vendor's servers and you don't need to perform any syncing - you're accessing your data live and in real-time.
Syncing versus real-time access.
Assuming you have internet access, real-time access beats syncing hands-down. Moving data around between multiple devices through syncing is inherently complex and is typically restricted to simple, personal datasets and not larger-scale business datasets. Syncing is an answer to slow, non-existent or too-expensive connectivity. Real-time access is simpler and facilitated by fast, ubiquitous connectivity.
What kind of connecting can I do?
Although there are many types of connections you can make to your home/office computer such as FTP (File Transfer Protocol) and RDC (Remote Desktop Connection), there are two types I'll focus on here: direct database connections and browser-based access. For direct database connections, we'll look at a relational database program called FileMaker and for browser-based access we will also look at FileMaker as well as other web-based services such as GoToMyPC.
FileMaker allows you to run one copy at home to access your data files but also allows you to serve your data files so that they can be accessed (by you) remotely. You simply launch FileMaker on a remote computer (such as a notebook computer you travel with when away from your home/office) and select "Open Remote" from a menu. Then, just enter the IP address of the home/office computer that is serving your data file, enter your name and password, and your in. What's cool about this, is that you are not in some limited, browser-based environment, but a rich, desktop-based software application. You can do everything in your data file remotely that you can do while sitting in front of your "base" computer and every keystroke is automatically saved just as if you were home. Indeed, an assistant or partner working at the "base" would see your remote entries appear real-time before their eyes. You can have up to 250 people in the same data file at the same time and all of them can be anywhere in the world - perfect for teams and brokerages.
But there are more options: FileMaker also has something called "Instant Web Publishing" (IWP) which allows for browser access to your data files. Again, this is live, real-time access. This means that if you do not have your notebook computer with you (with FileMaker installed), you simply fire up a browser (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, etc.) on any computer, then enter the IP address of your "base" computer and your name and password. The browser software environment is not as rich as a direct FileMaker-to-FileMaker connection, but you get the benefit of anywhere, anytime access.
So what about my phone - is there a version of FileMaker I can install on my phone?
This is where FileMaker's browser connection to your data file comes in really handy. FileMaker's Instant Web Publishing allows the browser interface to be formatted to fit the form factor of any mobile device. Got an iPhone, Blackberry, Android or Windows Mobile based device? Guess what? They all have browsers and you can point them to the data file you're serving from your "base" computer. This means no syncing whatsoever. Your main data file is always up-to-date because it's the only one you ever work in and there are no "copies" to keep track of holding your latest changes, additions and deletions. Finally, because FileMaker can actually store internally your Word, PDF and other files, you can access both individual bits of data (i.e. someone's phone number), but also any other file you decide to store in your FileMaker data file. But let's say there's a file on your "base" computer that you haven't added to your FileMaker data file - one that's just sitting on your desktop? GoToMyPC is an excellent choice here. While similar to Microsoft's Remote Desktop Connection or Apple's Screen Sharing which both allow you to control your home/office computer remotely just as if you were sitting in front of it, GoToMyPC does this through a browser window. Simply log in to GoToMyPC and you'll be presented with a live view of your "base" computer.
But what if you want all your business data to show in the free calendar and address book programs that come with your computer?
The key word in this question is "all". An important fact to accept is that these programs are not designed for a real estate business. Those free apps that come with your computer are for simple, personal datasets only. (Now I know, some will say: "But I used Outlook/Exchange at my job prior to getting into real estate and had access to "everything". Well guess what? Your company had an IT department behind those systems to make sure you had access to everything. The personal versions of these programs are not the same animal.) I've dealt with thousands of real estate agents - from those at the top to those just starting out and I can state emphatically that successful agents use larger systems designed for business.
But what if you just love the features and functionality of these free, included apps?
Well - you have a choice to make: Do you want to try to shoehorn a real estate business into programs designed for shopping lists, haircuts and soccer practices or do you want a real business database application that you will never outgrow? Do you want business software that allows you to manage every bit of your real estate business and that you can add new users to should you decide to grow or even sell your business at some future date? I can guarantee you that you'll get more money for a meticulously maintained database than you'll ever get for boxes of paperwork on your past transactions. A business is valuable when you can leverage past work into future earnings by maintaining long-term follow-up with the relationships (people) that comprise those past transactions. I know agents who sold their businesses for significant sums of money. What made the sale was that the buyer was handed a working, well-maintained database in exchange for their check.
So what is "cloud" computing?
Repeat after me: "cloud" means "other people’s computers". There is absolutely nothing new about "cloud" computing - it's just a new marketing name for something that's been around for a very long time: software that is sold, not for a one-time purchase, but as a service for which endless monthly payments are paid. It is a way to get you to stop thinking about owning anything - and to be a perpetual customer to never-ending subscription payments. Granted, your ISP doesn't make it obvious that you can turn your home/office PC or Mac into a powerful hub for your business, but just because it's not obvious doesn't mean it's not the best way to go. After all, you paid for the computer and you pay your ISP for the connection, but now "cloud" vendors want you to consider your computer as just another dumb terminal to the real power of the "cloud". I don't think they'd sell as many subscriptions if they simply said: "Hey... wanna rent space on our computers forever to access your data?" So-called "cloud" computing is antithetical to the strength and purpose of the internet - which is decentralization. Extreme decentralization is your own business data accessed only by you and perhaps a few team members. Which would you rather work in: some web-based app with thousands of users or your own private internet-accessible app?
And it gets better...
So if I showed you how easy it is to do this, what if you wanted it even easier or better? Turning your home/office into a powerful hub for your business is one option, but what if your internet connection is not great or you just want to step things up in terms of performance and reliability? Hosting companies like Godaddy offer low-cost dedicated and virtual dedicated servers that are fast, reliable and offer backup options. Some might think: "But I don't know how to run a server." Forget it. It's called a server ('cause it serves stuff), but it's exactly like any other computer you're already used to. It's just like your home or office computer - you can install and run applications and have free reign to add and delete data. Added benefits come from Godaddy's maintenance of the infrastructure that supports the server; i.e. huge bandwidth for super-fast connections, FTP backup of your data files and more. The beauty is that you can start what I'm proposing on your home/office computer and upgrade to something like Godaddy when and if you want.
Bottom line: this is easier than you think and puts an end to the constant struggle to find some mix of web-based apps that only serve to keep others in control of your business data as well as the (often painful) migrations of data from one system to another.
OK. What about security?
We'll set aside for a moment the infamous data breaches of vendor-hosted apps, or the downtime, or the we're-no-longer-in-business-and-you're-data-is-toast scenarios for now, but from a security standpoint, should you be concerned about opening your own, home or office computer to the internet for your private remote access?
Watch out for router weenies.
You can't talk about routers without addressing (no pun... but you’re starting to get this, aren't you?) the types of people who use routers, at least restricted to our context of real estate business. As time goes by, and people get better informed, fortunately there are more of the best type: they know and love their router for what it can do and value it for the power it brings them. These are people that buy the best (you can't really buy an "expensive" consumer-level router) and are caring enough to be aware of software and firmware updates for their router. The type I want to call out, however, are "router weenies" who view using a router for it's intended purpose as dangerous. Most people have heard the term "firewall" used in relation to their internet connection and it is common (and good) to have a firewall. But I've found a common misperception that opening a port on a router (see port mapping above) means that somehow the firewall is less safe. But ports are already (and have to be) open for you to surf the web, get and send email, and other types of connections. Opening up a port for other purposes such as database access or file transfers should and does require your name and password; commonly referred to as authentication. So managing your router for your benefit may mean you are more secure because you know what the configuration settings are and how to change them. Most router weenies simply don't understand when thinking that opening a port is making them less secure. I'm not going to go esoteric on you, but ports are not some anything-can-come-in opening to your computer or internal network. Ports, by definition, handle certain types of traffic. A port opened by you, requiring your authentication to use, is as safe and secure as you'd want. Now, a router weenie with just a little more knowledge might say: "But big servers are hardened in ways my home computer isn't!" Note: router weenies are never security experts. Let me give you some perspective: although some in the internet security biz snicker at the concept of "security by obscurity", the people actually responsible for providing security always employ it the most they can. So if the thought of some boogie man hacker comes to mind when opening a port on your router, let me calm you with respect and not even a hint of sarcasm - the people with these "skills" aren't desperately seeking to peruse the contents of some real estate agent's hard drive. So get to know your router and if your office tech guy or gal is a router weenie, you need to work to change that.
I've been setting up these kinds of private networking systems for 30 years. Everything has gotten easier because standards are in place. But you, Mr/Ms Real Estate Agent, are not being served by self-described real estate technology experts and their rabid adherence to the idea of some amorphous "cloud" as the place to yield yourselves to. The truth is, you can have your own private system just like those employed by the thousands of business, medical, education and governmental entities I am personally familiar with. If you don't think the data that flows in the conduct of your real estate business is of any value, by all means, go "cloud" and sign up for another monthly-payment system until the next one comes along and you discover the data migration issues imposed by vendors who don't want you to leave. But if you're trying to do something more than live from transaction to transaction, get informed by people who understand network and data technology first and foremost and take most of the self-described real estate technology experts off your reading list. I am very pleased to know thought leaders in the real estate industry who are damn good at things relating to real estate, but are painfully clueless about technology. Unfortunately, this doesn't stop them from writing and talking about technology from their platform. Some have revealed to me, either accidentally or through hushed "don't tell anyone..." comments, how lacking in the basics they really are. I say this not to deride these individuals (I would have used their names if that were my intent) but to persuade you to take a higher view on the advice you're getting on these matters.
• Five Questions from Mike Antoniak of REALTECHTOOLS
• Real Estate Success Tracker (REST) is recommended by Realtor® Magazine Buyer's Guide
• Business advantages of understanding your router
• Q & A on Real Estate Success Tracker