The Google Phenomenon and ESRI's Dilemma

Sun 17 July 2005 | tags: Open Source, Sociology, -- (permalink)

If you’ve done GIS for a long time, the stuff on Google Maps is old hat. They were doing this back in the 60s, you might say. The concept of a pre-rendered tile index is old hat too (see TerraServer for a fantastic, prior-art implementation), but Google trades CPU for storage in a way that only Google can. As one prominent #mapserver user said, “Everyone wants to do it like Google, but not everyone has Google’s resources.” Google Maps is the perfect mix of “good enough” data, responsiveness, and a slick UI that is amenable to non-GIS types.

But there’s something else that Google Maps has going for it that the other web mapping giants (MapQuest, Yahoo, ESRI, Topozone, and TerraServer) don’t have — hackability. Google positioned their product to be hackable in the “O’Reilly Hacks” sense, giving free reign to web developers with little or no geography background to embed location in their applications.

I get the feeling that those in the GIS arena are watching what ESRI might do next. I have a hunch that they will attempt to grab some mindshare by opening up ArcWeb services in some limited way to developers, but this might be a bit late. From my involvement in the MapServer community, I know that there are typically two audiences for web map development. Those that are coming to it from the GIS side (and understand all of the data issues), and those that are coming to it from the web development side (and understand scale, deployment, and usability). In MapServer, the ratio has gone from mostly GIS folks to mostly web developers learning GIS as they develop an application.

In my opinion, ESRI doesn’t carry the web developer perspective with them into ArcWeb Services. Even if the pricing structure of ArcWeb Services becomes more attractive, the developer uptake might be kind of slow because of the “enterprise” overhead of SOAP (and SOAP’s poor fit with dynamic, hackable languages like Python, PHP, Perl, and JavaScript) and the depth of GIS knowledge required to use the services effectively. Maybe it is easier than I think, but it has been such a walled garden for so long there is no way for me to know. ESRI has correctly seen that the future is back on the server again, but are they in a position to do it the Google Way ™ — so large, so big, and so bulletproof that everyone gloms on and starts using it?

I’ll finish by describing some behaviors of ESRI that illustrate for me that they won’t be able to make the jump. First, they are being dragged kicking and screaming (mostly through the Geospatial Onestop requirement of being OGC interoperable) into supporting OGC interop. Even when they say they are OGC compatible, it’s not fully there (see ESRI’s OGC page here). ArcIMS cannot cascade WMS services (which is the whole point of WMS, IMO), and we’ve heard forever that they will be in the next version (wait for the next version is the mantra of all monopolies).

Bryan Baker (who’s position in ESRI is unknown to me) made some inflammatory postings on a Directions Magazine article that were later retracted (see here for the article, where most of his comments were in-lined in other comments and preserved). There was a great hub-bub when the comments were retracted and David Maguire stepped in and made a kind of a blah post about Open Source.

Anyway, the point is that Mr. Baker’s comments, whether sanctioned or not, illustrate ESRI’s fears about openness. Like another monopoly we all know and love, ESRI has made good hay on being the software provider who’s software develops the data. Open Source lowers those barriers (and hence their fears), but Google made the whole point moot. The data most people care about are their GPS tracks, house locations, and addresses, not environmental modeling data. People or businesses can now generate their own data (or take what they might already have in their databases in the form of addresses and the like) and plop it into Google Maps.

And that’s the bit that big providers like ESRI should worry about. The size of the market I described above (people plotting their own points) is orders of magnitude larger than people doing environmental data development. But don’t completely count ESRI out. When they were up shit creek without a GUI (think ArcView 3.x and Arc/Info days), they turned on a dime and jumped headlong into COM and Windows. Maybe they still have a few tricks up their sleeves. We’ll find out next week at the User’s Conference if they react or stand there and play the fiddle.

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