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Supra Products eKey Palm V

More than a lock box key, Supra's handheld solution seeks to answer many modern Realtor needs

by Larry Becker

January 2002, Pen Computing 43

For decades, Supra Products, Inc. of Salem, Oregon has built and evolved the business of lockboxes for real estate agents, as well as other commercial applications. Originally they built mechanical devices that required a key, which anyone who has bought or sold a house would recognize. Over the years they have produced various mechanical combination boxes, and for the past nine years Supra has been producing an electronic lockbox that requires a digital 'key' that looks like a small pager with a keypad. Their latest major advance came two years ago when Supra introduced a new form of 'key' for their electronic real estate lockbox that is based on a Palm Vx. But that only tells part of the story.

Supra Products is an Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) Partner with Palm, Inc., in that they distribute a Palm Vx with the Supra logo on it. As well, Palm has a business arrangement with Supra Products to provide their engineers, marketing, and management with insights and special information that helps Supra develop their products and strategic plans appropriately.

Turning a Palm Vx into a lockbox key so agents can access homes that are for sale is an intriguing idea. But because Palm devices are actually a computer, the development team at Supra developed a much more comprehensive solution, designed to provide a much wider array of information intended to empower real estate agents and brokers. Several major information needs were addressed.


As a listing agent works with their client to understand the perceived value of the home to prospective buyers, the agent benefits from knowing how many times a property has garnered enough interest to be shown by other agents. The Palm-based Supra key (called an eKey) tracks this information and delivers it back to the listing agent daily.

The Multiple Listing Service (MLS)

The database of all properties available for sale in a particular geographic region is called the Multiple Listing Service, and real estate professionals live by this data. They used to carry around a printed (and quickly outdated) MLS book with pictures and complete descriptions of all available properties. While 'the book' is still available, most agents receive the information electronically and access it with their laptop when they're on the road.

Depending on the decisions of local governing boards and their members (who are practicing real estate professionals), the local MLS may be maintained by the board itself, a separate non-profit company, or a separate for-profit company. Regardless of who maintains the MLS database for a particular area, Supra negotiates agreements whereby eKey owners can download a scaled-down version of the MLS automatically every day. While it doesn't contain photographs, and the total number of data fields is around 30 (the 'full' MLS is usually around 150 fields of data), this mini version is usually more than adequate for the needs of real estate professionals on the road. There are other limitations but the speed of access and automated updates makes the mini MLS very worthwhile to most agents and brokers.

The Agent Roster

Some real estate professionals have a tendency to move where they work on a somewhat regular basis. This means that accessing the latest phone number for a particular agent can require calling an assistant, looking for the latest agent roster printout, or calling the local board of realtors office in order to track down the right number for a particular agent. Supra has

developed a complete agent roster for the Palm that gets updated automatically every day. And while agents can look up others in the agent roster portion of the Supra software (it is separate from the Palm's built-in DateBook) the nice feature is that, while browsing the MLS listings on the Palm, a user can simply tap next to the agent's name within the listing and jump to their listing in the agent roster.

Finding the Perfect House

Typically when a buyer contacts an agent and requests help locating appropriate homes, the agent asks about the buyer's home budget, size and location needs, and design preferences. Then the agent looks through the MLS database and compiles a collection of properties that meet the needs of the buyer. From the resulting list, the agent develops a 'tour' which is simply a plan to visit as many of the potential homes as possible in hopes of finding the right one.

Because the Supra eKey already receives a thorough collection of MLS listings daily, and because it's a computer, Supra engineers developed a 'Buyer Profile' form which agents complete for up to ten clients. The agent enters the buyer criteria and, following the daily update, the collection of appropriate properties automatically is ready for a tour. Agents in markets where properties move quickly are especially appreciative of this feature. People in the process of moving frequently need to postpone a tour and the research collected traditionally would have to be recompiled so that new properties aren't missed and sold homes don't become a wasted visit. With an automated system, the tour is always ready. Plus, there is a 'Quick Search' feature that acts like a buyer profile but can be performed with the available MLS data on a moment's notice.

LockBox Key

The lockbox that gets clamped to the doorknobs of homes for sale enables agents to access homes to show prospective buyers even when the listing agent and homeowner aren't available. Because Supra Products has built more than 90% of these boxes nationally, their Palm add-on hardware can access these boxes. A tremendous feature is that the box keeps track of who entered, for security purposes.


Through an agreement with the Mapopolis people, Supra enables agents to look at a map of the location on Mapopolis maps by simply tapping the map button from within a listing in the Palm MLS.

And more...

There are many more features to the Supra system that are especially helpful to real estate professionals, ranging from the ability to paste listing information to a Memo Pad for beaming to clients, to the ability to reprogram lockbox showing times and track lockbox inventory.

The Network

Automated updates of the MLS, agent roster and showing information are possible because of a central computer owned by Supra. eKey owners place their Palms (still in the eKey shell) on a special cradle that does everything the standard Vx cradle does, plus the Supra cradle contains a modem. Every night every eKey calls a local number and uploads its recent activity to a Supra server. After the upload, it receives activity reports from other users' Palms and updated MLS information. This 'clearing house' system requires users to pay a modest monthly fee (less than most Palm VII & OmniSky users pay) for the valuable nightly updates.

Overall the Palm is a great device for professionals to track their schedules and personal information. Supra Products has gone much further with the addition of special hardware and software to make the Palm Vx a real estate agent's power tool. Palm's vision of enterprise solutions based on Palm devices couldn't have been more perfectly crafted by Palm Computing itself. As Palm users, we can only hope that leading edge companies in other industries follow the Supra example and Palms continue to be incorporated into many more enterprise solutions.

-Larry Becker

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