Editor’s note: When I went searching for a good technology reviewer, I found Nevin Freeman right under my nose. He is a web developer from Oregon who is taking urban planning courses at the University of Amsterdam [yes, Holland] for the next six months and he happens to be the web developer of RIABiz.com. I would call Nevin, 21, a true webbie, which means that he is easily disappointed by compromises that other developers [or his clients] make in the name of expediency.

Here’s what he had to say:

Schwab is about to release Schwab Advisor Center — the website that will go live September 1, and eventually phase out schwabinstitutional.com. I bicycled through a thunder- and hail-storm to get back to my Amsterdam apartment by 10:30p.m. on Friday for the 1:30 p.m. Pacific Time demo with Schwab’s top web developer, Mike Golaszewski, and it was worth it.

The new system leaps ahead of the old one on several fronts, with its mind-reading algorithms and a slick new look. Golaszewski makes clear that Schwab has much further to go with this website. The new technology is built largely from scratch on Microsoft.net but it appears to have come strong out of the gate.

First, some background: Currently, clients of Schwab (advisors) deal with two systems to access their investor’s information — schwabinstitutional.com for most things, and the desktop application SchwabLink to download data to their computer. Schwab has been working on Schwab Advisor Center for over two years, and has had 60 clients in a pilot program for two months; they are now ready to release it for wide-spread use.

Schwab Advisor Center includes many significant improvements, including:

  • Improved overall site design
  • Data download is now accessible from the web site, so no more need to use SchwabLink
  • Users can create custom groups of accounts, or import groups from many other applications that handle the same accounts
  • Once groups are created, data can be represented on numerous aggregate levels
  • New search functionality makes it easy to find accounts based on a number of criteria
  • Data displays are (very) enhanced

Visual improvements

Old vs. new - Schwab's new interface is highly functional
Old vs. new – Schwab’s new
interface is highly functional

The first thing users will notice on the new system is the color. The new orange/black/grey scheme looks to be less focused on branding and more focused on functionality. Along with well-crafted icons, the landing page immediately feels intuitive. If you are familiar with what the site is supposed to do, you can perform the basic tasks even if it is not written in your native language (which is something many web-developers strive for).

The second big change in design is that the new site has what is called a “liquid-layout.” This just means that the content of the site fills the whole window on your computer, instead of being scrunched over to the left (like the old one is). It’s a little harder to build a website with a liquid-layout, but this smart use of space will improve the experience of using the site overall.

Schwab Data Delivery

Data Delivery can be launched from the web interface
Data Delivery can be launched from
the web interface

Schwab Data Delivery seems to be nothing more than Schwablink 2.0. It can, however, be launched right from Schwab Advisor Center, and includes some handy features. The user can schedule automatic downloads of data, and perhaps more importantly they can see the download history, including any errors that might have occurred. Once data has been downloaded, the user can access it in its tabular format right inside Schwab Data Delivery, in a manner that is (ingeniously) similar to MS Excel, and then choose to export it at any point.

But the feature that strikes me as most critical was Schwab Advisor Center’s ability to find numbers from a specified date range. This allows advisors to go back and find quarterly balances for billing purposes. I understand that some RIAs generate bills based on average balances during the preceding quarter. Unfortunately Schwab did not develop a built-in capability to generate averages or any other calculations on-the-fly, so computing numbers for billing purposes still needs to be done post-export.

Custom groups and aggregated data

Schwab Advisor Center allows the user to create groups of accounts arbitrarily, which gives advisors a lot of control in how they organize their accounts. Additionally, the user is given the option of importing groups from their portfolio management system, something that may save a lot of time. Then, once groups have been created, it’s possible to view their combined data in “near-real-time.” This just means that the numbers are calculated every 30 or 40 minutes so these aggregated figures will always be almost up to date.

Custom groups of accounts are easy to make
Custom groups of accounts are easy
to make

Other nice features

The last three features to note are search, “associated items,” and data displays. The new search functionality is easy to get to, and should minimize time spent pulling up accounts when your clients call. The “associated items” section on the left-hand side is the part that is meant to save you time once you’ve found the account. Items are based on whatever you are looking at, and the system will remember what you click on most. As you use the system, items that are most relevant will eventually “bubble up” to the top, so that you won’t have to go looking for them every time.

Last, but in my opinion not least, are the enhanced data displays. Every time the user sees tabular data, they are allowed to drag-and-drop to re-order and re-size the columns. These operations are “sticky,” meaning the site will remember how you left a table, and display it that way forever. I see this as a key feature that will really add to the user experience.

Drawbacks

The web application really impressed me as far as it goes. There is simply work to do. For example, Schwab Advisor Center is built for Internet Explorer 7, so the experience is not as nice in other browsers [though I understand that Schwab can intervene to make its new platform work with Firefox, too]. Being a developer, I can completely understand why Schwab chose to stick to one browser; even making RIABiz.com work in many browsers was a chore. I can hardly imagine how many hours it will take Schwab to work out the kinks for this giant application in every browser. Nevertheless, Golaszewski assured us that he was committed to cross-platform compatibility, and that he would be strive to support other browsers like Google Chrome in 2010.

Nevin’s post-script: Though it may seem elementary, Schwab has a big advantage in rolling this web site out on the web. For example, I recently reviewed the breakthrough platform of Pershing LLC called NetX360. It allows commission accounts to be managed alongside advisory accounts. What seemed a shame was that that its rollout would be slowed because NetX360 has not yet been built for web delivery. On the other hand, Schwab’s system requires assets managed for commission accounts to be viewed on a separate system, unlike Pershing.

Schwab also seems to have positioned itself well for future upgrades. The design of its new site allows for modules to be added in a way that avoids the cobbled-on effect that apparently occurred when features were added to its previous system.