An Interview with Blue Marble’s Jeff Cole

By Adena Schutzberg

Q: How will becoming an ASP change Blue Marble, until now, a software and component company?

A: Blue Marble Geographics has been developing and marketing geographic software tools to individuals and organizations who are making or using maps or building mapping applications for nearly 7 years.During that time, we've developed a vast amount of core technology.We have the systems, processes, and people in place to build and deliver high quality geographic software tools rapidly - we've built a community of over 120,000 customers in 60 countries that demonstrates that we've got the software development and marketing process fairly well figured out.

We know what we stand for and we're extremely focused - but we're very, very adaptable to change and challenge.A few years ago we were faced with a fundamental decision - what is the Blue Marble solution within the Internet mapping marketplace?

It was clear that growth opportunities existed within the traditional GIS marketplace.The results of GIS analysis are powerful when a talented person uses sophisticated tools to answer compelling questions.As an individual who has used traditional GIS solutions I find it very disappointing that many, many GIS projects never see the light of day.Isn't that the whole reason for doing GIS analysis - to get the results out to people who need to know? There's no better way to do that than to publish the story (of which interactive maps are a part) on a web site.It's very likely that traditional GIS software and services vendors will continue to develop and evolve highly complex and expensive solutions that will address only a fraction of the "real" opportunity - but that fit well within the constraints of their business model.

As we investigated further it became clear the opportunities within the non-traditional GIS marketplace were orders of magnitude larger.Literally any business that has a database of locations (be they real estate listings, dealers, customers, ski trails and lifts, members, grant recipients, survey sites, tax parcels, assets, etc) can dramatically enhance their message by publishing a customized interactive, database-driven map on their web site.But, the solution needs to be understandable, affordable, very easy to use, and have the essential features that visitors to their web sites expect.

We began by asking a few simple questions.We talked directly with over 100 of our existing customers who had expressed an interest in an Internet mapping solution.We talked to over 100 other businesses that we felt could enhance the message by publishing an interactive map on their web site.Through this process we learned what customers were asking for and how existing solutions met (or failed to meet) their expectations.

It became clear to us that they weren't asking for another traditional GIS Internet map server (IMS) solution.The vast majority of them don't host their own web sites - this single fact alone totally rules out a traditional GIS IMS - you can't install anything on a web server that you don't own.They were absolutely amazed by the cost and complexity of traditional GIS IMS solutions.

Well, that's the long answer.The short answer is that we're faced with a very, very large opportunity and we've built and delivered a world-class solution that offers what subscribers expect.Quite simply, we view as a better way to deliver our core technology to customers who are compelled to offer an interactive map on their web site as part of their message.

Q: What are the main arguments for ASP map hosting house hosting?

A: The vast majority of businesses and organizations who have a compelling reason to publish an interactive map on their website don't host their own web site.You can't install software on a web server if you don't host your own web site.This single fact immediately rules out traditional GIS map server solutions.Try calling your ISP and asking them if you can install software on the server that's hosting your web site.They'll immediately steer you towards a collocation arrangement (your hardware at their site) or recommend that you host your site.When you collocate or host your own site you are responsible for paying for hardware, server configuration and administration, backup power, and bandwidth (a T1 line costs ~$1500/month, a 530Kb DSL connection costs ~$550/month).It's your responsibility to keep it up and running 24/7/365.Hosting your own web site doesn't make any sense for all but the largest companies and organizations.We view the potential market opportunity as being much larger.

It's interesting to think that each and every developer building a traditional GIS map server application is working on nearly the same application as other developers using the same technology.As we add new features to each and every visitor to a subscriber site sees them immediately.

The technology behind putting an interactive map in a web page isn't rocket science.Is it really reasonable to expect a business to invest in software, hardware, custom development, training, support, and bandwidth just to publish an interactive map on their web site? Are they being asked to use a cannon to kill mosquito's? It's amazing how complex traditional GIS software is - even after all these years.

Q: You mention that the "non-traditional GIS marketplace were orders of magnitude larger" than traditional ones.Are there any special challenges working with "non traditional" users?

A: Non-traditional users are totally scared of the word "GIS" - totally intimidated.People are looking for a "show and tell" solution that works on top of a map background - not GIS.Is there any field in existance that has as many acronyms as GIS? Even a leading vendor is an acronym.Your average business in AnyTown, USA that has investigated traditional GIS map server solutions is totally blown away by the complexity, cost and time.The response that we're getting to the message is "Wow, I didn't think it was possible for us to do that on our web site...".The biggest challenge we face is education, getting the word out that publishing an interactive map on a web site is a totally realistic proposition without a ridiculous investment.

Q: Are there plans for routing and other services down the road?

A: Absolutely, we've got the core technology to add geocoding, routing, and other features as soon as we need to.Customers will tell us what they expect.

Q: What percentage of web mappers really need interactive maps vs static ones?

A: Static image maps are a highly effective way to convey information that doesn't change and that can be presented simply.Visit Minor League Baseball's homepage and Gorham Savings Bank (Maine) for outstanding examples of web sites that publish static image maps that are highly effective.The locations portrayed on these sites and their database attributes don't change often.But, an interactive map is more effective if you're representing dynamic databases that do change often or if a visitor to your web site needs to scale the image and maintain detail as they view smaller or larger areas, or if they need to drill-down to better understand the information that you're presenting.

I don't have a clue as to the percentage of sites that can use static images versus interactive maps.What's interesting though is that I would suspect that many don't think interactive maps are "doable" and take the static image map approach.Low cost, simple, realistic solutions may change that.It's also interesting to note that building and maintaining static image maps isn't cheap, especially if they're complex.

Q: How should potential users position the offering in comparison to linking to MapBlast or others?

A: Comparing to MapBlast (and other map portals) is like comparing apples and oranges. There are fundamentally two different types of subscribers.Some subscribers have their own maps and/or databases that they want to publish as part of a story on their web site.In this segment, is a realistic extension of their existing GIS investment.For very little incremental cost these folks can realize tremendous additional value.I was presenting a paper at a conference recently and I asked the audience how many GIS projects they had worked on that never left their desktop.The responses were amazing.One gentleman had 30 Gigabytes of GIS projects on his desktop that only he and his organization knew existed.Unbelievable!

The second type of subscriber has a database of locations and simply wants to display it on an informative, interactive map directly within their web site.MapBlast, MapQuest and other "map portal" sites provide canned maps of a defined area that can be linked to from within a page.The applications for map portal maps are widespread (driving directions, travel planning, here's where our office is located, etc.) but distinct from the applications we're addressing with portal maps can't be customized (you can't overlay your database on their maps) or published directly into your site without engineering and a "custom" business arrangement.Map portals are obviously focused on the big fish (large retailers, national chains, etc.) who can afford expensive subscribers can include a scalable, detailed, enhanced street-level map of the United States within any of their maps simply by selecting a map area.They can overlay their location database and publish the map directly within their web site in less than an hour with

Q: Is there a particular market is aimed at? Any particular GIS software user base?

A: We've made the map data format issue irrelevant for existing mapping software supports ArcView, MapInfo, and AutoCAD map file and database formats (as well as MrSID and TIFF images) directly, without conversion.Any user of these mapping programs can subscribe to and publish their projects easily at a reasonable cost in less than a day, without having to invest in software, hardware, bandwidth, training, support/maintenance, or web development.More and more traditional GIS software users will realize the absolute absurdity of traditional GIS IMS solutions as they investigate them over time.

The market opportunity is huge.Literally any organization or business that has their own maps or databases of locations (be they real estate listings, dealers, customers, ski trails and lifts, members, grant recipients, survey sites, tax parcels, assets, etc) can dramatically enhance their message by publishing a customized interactive, database-driven map on their web site.



Published Saturday, May 19th, 2001

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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