An Open Letter to GIS/Geospatial Software Companies

By Adena Schutzberg and Joe Francica

We've followed your work for many years and wanted to share some observations on the market (writ large).We suspect you know much of what we are going to tell you, and have explored the questions we pose.Still we feel obligated to put our thoughts in writing for you, your partners and users.

1) The geospatial data creation world has changed. Once upon a time you were the only ones with the know-how to create the data for digital maps.You owned and managed virtually all of the tools to make, update and share (or not) that data.Not so anymore.People in basements, in small towns in foreign lands, and even kids with GPSs are creating and updating data.Sometimes it's with your software, sometimes it's with CAD programs or even open source solutions.What is your role in the creation/update of data?

2) Expectations are changing. Once geospatially savvy (and perhaps more importantly geospatially non-savvy) people got a look at Yahoo! Maps, MapPoint and Google Maps, their expectations for Web mapping immediately changed.Those quaint, but slow and feature laden offerings from your customers (often towns, counties and states, but also the federal government and businesses) seemed years out of date.Why else would hackers spend so much time with Google Maps? Why else would bosses insist on solutions that look like, or in fact are, based on those solutions? Can you catch up and regain your customers (and your customers' customers') support?

3) Data is king.It always was, but most of you have moved out of the data business, leaving it to a few, perhaps ever fewer by year's end, worldwide companies.Certainly they have the staffs and expertise to update and package data in ways that perhaps conflict with your common vision of being tools and services providers.But, perhaps more than you, those companies (NAVTEQ, Tele Atlas and friends) are the "Intel inside" of geospatial applications.There are a few of them, and they hold a key part of the puzzle.

A few players jumped in to try to be the distributor/indexer of that data (the next best thing if you can't own the data), but so far, no one is winning, really, not even some of the federal governments.What is your role in the data business?

4) Slick, fast and simple wins.
We know you all aim to serve the professional marketplace.But more and more you want to serve the executive and the enterprise marketplace, too.(You must, as those terms pop up everywhere in your marketing literature!) Those CXOs and other potential users across the enterprise are professionals from other arenas.They like simple.

Enough already with feature/function battles: Just how much functionality do you think your customers employ with the existing desktop mapping products they bought from you? 20% maybe? Products have become so over laden with features that most of it goes unused.Do you remember the first version of MapPoint? It was a joke, right? So limited in (GIS/geospatial) functionality wasn't it? Today, several hundred thousand copies later it is still fairly simple.It does a few things very well and now with an open API, many more users are customizing it for enterprise applications that you only wish companies were doing with your products.

Remember the first Palm Pilot? It did five things.Remember the first widely known desktop "viewer"? It did five things.Others are outwitting you on this front these days.Why?

5) Communication is key. You've all done a fine job communicating with your users.But, remember, they have, over the years, learned your language.The rest of the planet has not.Look at the new names in this space: MapPoint, Google Earth, Virtual Earth, Where 2.0, location GIS, no geospatial, no jargon.Why are you afraid of simpler, accessible terms?

6) Open is the future. Nearly every company is on the "open" band wagon.That's great.Still, open means something different to every vendor and every user, and that likely will not change.How do you measure your openness? Do you? Is it the number of interfaces you implement? The number of tools that are open source? Or, should it be something more difficult to measure, like the number of solutions that tap into yours, without your explicit aid? Are people (especially non-GIS people) hacking your software?

7) The Web won!
Yes, you got that right in the early excitement of the Web.And then you let it go.Maps on the Web were the sole purview of the GIS companies in the late 90's.Only MapQuest and MapBlast were on the radar screen.So, where were you? Were you the engine behind these companies or the ones that came later? No, the opportunity slipped through your fingers.Data...did you have the data? Yes, you did, and then you let them go, too.Did you have the APIs? Yes, you did and then you let them go.

8) Nothing personal, it's just business. The business drivers that led to Google Maps, MapQuest and others were not those of GIS companies, or so it seems.You looked at yourself as software companies; not technology providers.You were out to sell boxes and licenses, not per click transactions.It was a different model and you were not prepared to deal with it.You tried your hand at wireless location-based services and the market bubble burst.Now, "search" is here and few are prepared to deal with this new business model.So other companies with different business models than yours stepped into the void: Telcontar and GlobeXplorer and NAVTEQ dealt with the opportunity differently.

9) Stop and smell the opportunities: Anyone can put together a website that uses maps.New mapping applications appear daily.Each one is driven not by GIS specialists, but by business necessity and innovation.You need to be mixing and matching your own solutions and finding ways to bring your customers technology that aggregates location-based data and other location solutions, and distributes the information in a way that conforms to mainstream enterprise architecture.You can not stand alone anymore.You need to play in a bigger IT arena.

This is not to say that you will go away anytime soon.There will always be a market for some basic data capture and integration solutions.But, when it comes to applications in enterprise computing, you are behind.For applications in the consumer market, you are behind.For applications in pervasive location intelligence, you are behind.The market is shifting beneath your feet and the foundation is cracking.We hope we've revealed these cracks in a valuable way.

We wish you the best of luck in this time of change.


Adena Schutzberg
Joe Francica

Published Saturday, June 4th, 2005

Written by Adena Schutzberg and Joe Francica

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