Now that I’ve been liberated from some of my confidentiality constraints (see my previous post, which required permission from various companies I had non-disclosure agreements with, as well as permission from a client to discuss work I had done for them), I can opine more freely about the topic of RPR, Advanced Multi-List Platform (“AMP”), and the future of MLS technology.
Let’s start by a fair criticism of RPR leveled by a level-headed guy. Brian Boero of 1000watt, emerged as a reluctant critic last Friday, writing this in his post “Friday Flash: The Last RPR Critic“:
RPR is going to get into the business of providing MLS “Back-end” services – the database/data management/heavy lifting sort of stuff – so that more MLSs and MLS subscribers can implement their own “front-end of choice.”
The bottom line is that a lot of money has been spent on an initiative for which the market has provided no convincing validation. And now it seems poised to expand into an entirely new dimension.
I don’t get it. I really, honestly, don’t. It was a noble idea put forth by well-meaning, intelligent people. But now it seems to me like the driving force is saving face, not saving member dollars.
I think this is a very fair criticism, if what you assume RPR is doing is pivoting to becoming a MLS vendor. Since I believe (well, hope, since I’m no longer advising RPR) that RPR is doing something completely different, I think people should take another look at least at the concept of AMP.
Brief Summary of the VAR Concept
If you’ve read my last post, you know the full scope. I think you should go read it if you haven’t. But… the summary is:
The Modular MLS
should must be run as a VAR/Platform model to capture all of the benefits of making the big change:
- Contract the level of support the MLS needs
- Rapid development and response times
- Avoid vendor lock-in
- Lower cost, with shorter contract terms
All of those require that the Platform Vendor do as little as possible, beyond delivering a single advanced platform, in order to reduce the costs to the Platform Vendor. In the case of RPR (or Zillow, Trulia, Move, CoreLogic, or a couple others I can think of), almost all of the R&D and development has been done.
All of those also require that there be a smaller, tech-savvy company — the VAR, or systems integrator — that can handle developing on top of the Platform, build and maintain the “external API’s” that third-party developers will plug into, the tedious but critical work of localization and customization, and of course, provide the day-to-day tech support to the MLS.
Not Your Father’s MLS
This is not an “MLS vendor” as we have come to understand that term. In fact, even saying “MLS backend vendor” as Brian does misses the overall scope of the vision. Brian writes:
Existing MLS system vendors like Core Logic, Black Knight and FBS are looking at a new competitor funded by the NAR. Some MLS execs, haunted as they are by the recurring nightmare of a national MLS, are sharpening their knives. On the other hand, big brokers, never the NAR’s most adoring constituency, may actually get some love out of this move.
Existing MLS system vendors have everything to fear, but not from RPR. (Again, I’m assuming that RPR will actually follow the above model, instead of trying to become just-another-MLS-vendor.) What they have to fear is the same thing that the old mainframe computer companies had to fear when the personal PC and client-server and ultimately the Internet came about: the basic business model was changed.
Once the modular MLS becomes the norm, there will be — there cannot be — any such thing as a “MLS system vendor”. Instead, there will be a few very large, well-funded, technology companies who can provide the Platform technology and maintain the data centers (including all of the security, backup, bandwidth, etc. etc.), and dozens of VAR’s who work with one or more of these major “Big Iron” vendors. We may see things like VAR certification programs from the Big Iron vendors, or partnerships, but we won’t see a “MLS system vendor”.
Why? Because with the Modular MLS, there is no such thing as a “MLS system”.
The MLS System is Dead! Long Live the MLS Mashup!
In my previous post, and in the conversations amongst those-who-have-an-inkling, the prominent “feature” of AMP is the so-called “front-end of choice”. But honestly, there is a failure of imagination even in something like this.
The typical understanding of “front-end of choice” is that the REALTOR subscriber to the MLS can choose to use Matrix, or Solid Earth, or Fusion, or FBS, or whatever front-end she is used to. Instead of an MLS spending months to prepare for, and then weeks to do training session after training session, to switch vendors, with front-end of choice, the subscriber can keep whatever front-end she wants — or even go purchase the front-end from a whole host of vendors.
The future that other people, like Matt Cohen of Clareity, have pointed out is that brokerages could develop their own MLS front-ends.
(By the way, if that image on the right looks a lot like what Project Upstream is rumored to be… well, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.)
That’s true, of course, but that’s merely the first step. Data going both ways is a wonderful step forward, and is already something that the good folks at RESO have worked out (sort-of) with the Update protocol in RETS 1.8.
What the Modular MLS, however, envisions is a bit more fundamental. At its core, an MLS “system” is a database, and a bunch of applications that put data into the database or take data out of the database. There is no reason why that has to be limited to just the “front-end”.
A Modular MLS might actually be able to have something like “Search & Display of Choice”, such that different vendors could develop better/faster/unique ways to search and display listing data which plugs in to the “system”. CMA-of-choice is a given, of course, as are a whole mess of mobile apps, CRM platforms, email gateways, what-have-you.
But it’s also possible to have things like “rulesets of choice”. Matt Cohen talks about “data validation and business rules (“DV/BR”)” in his post. Well, with the Modular MLS, a MLS can deploy different DV/BR for different users. Maybe the rookie REALTOR with less than a year’s experience can choose something more “foolproof” to minimize errors, while the power-user REALTOR whose listing coordinator has 10 years of experience can use a “advanced” DV/BR that lets her do things faster and more efficiently, with fewer hoops to jump through. I see no reason why commercial practitioners wouldn’t get their own DV/BR set that are different from residential folks. Why would the MLS need to use the *same* DV/BR for a short-term rental as it does for a 4-unit multifamily investment property? For that matter, maybe a large national franchise company might decide to layer on some of its own rules on top of the MLS’s rules… and as long as the VAR is competent, it can do just that.
My point is that there will be no more “MLS systems”; instead, there will be “MLS mashups” with different local MLS’s, different brokerages, different national companies, and even different agents (don’t underestimate how much money agents have to have custom software built for them) who cobble together exactly the system they want. We’re talking about mass customization of the MLS for each individual user within the larger framework of the core rules and regulations of the MLS that (a) governs professional conduct, and (b) ensures data integrity.
This goes way, way beyond “saving member dollars”. It goes into the realm of “transforming member lives”.
We Are Spirits In a Modular World
One thing Brian touches on is that big brokers “may actually get some love out of this move”. He’s correct insofar as custom front-ends for big brokerages. Thing is, again, if the Modular MLS is implemented correctly, the impact is far reaching and goes beyond big brokerages alone.
The Modular MLS fundamentally transforms the relationship between the MLS and the brokerage, of any and every size. I’ll have to dig deeper into this topic in a future post, but for now, think of it as the difference between providing equality of results (what we have today) vs. providing equality of opportunity (what we’ll have tomorrow).
I don’t think it’ll be only the big brokerages that take advantage of a liberated MLS, where data flows freely both ways, and customization is limited only by the rules of the MLS, imagination of the developers, and available technology. I actually think some of the smaller boutiques who have proven more nimble and more adventurous with technology will beat the pants off their larger competitors.
A way to think about it is to consider Project Upstream in a Modular MLS world. The stated goals of Project Upstream are for brokerages (particularly the larger ones who belong to The Realty Alliance and LeadingRE) to have more control over the flow of data to the MLS and to the portals. (There’s some politics there too, but no technology will resolve those….) Well, with the Modular MLS, there’s no need for brokerages large or small to spend any time and treasure on building something “upstream” of the MLS. The MLS is happy to be both upstream of and downstream from the brokerage (or anyone else, for that matter). It’s like building Upstream right into the MLS “system” itself, from the very start, right at the core of what constitutes an MLS in the first place.
Seems like a cleaner, less contentious, solution to me.
At the same time, I don’t know what Dale Ross, Jeff Young, Marty Frame, and the leadership at NAR are thinking with respect to RPR. If after all this, what we get is a slightly improved MLS vendor competing with the existing vendors for market share… then yeah, I think Brian’s criticism is on target. Precious little point in having RPR enter the crowded field of “MLS vendors” and keep everything else more-or-less-the-same.
But… I don’t think that’s where RPR is heading. Again, since I am no longer advising them, I don’t know what RPR’s plans are moving forward. But I know the three gents named above, as well as the people involved with RPR. They’re extremely smart, extremely savvy people with decades of experience in technology, MLS, and the world of organized real estate. If they’re going to make the $100+ million investment “pay off”, they may as well transform the industry from the ground-up, or go down swinging.
Before I keep rambling… let me conclude by saying that future posts will delve more into what data liberation really looks like, and how RPR, AMP, or more generally, the Modular MLS can and should and will drive innovation in the industry.
Your thoughts, as always, are welcome.