mom was a librarian. She explicitly told me that if I thought there
should be a book about something, there probably was. I proved that to
myself in my final year of high school. I explained to the reference
librarian at the Winchester Public Library that there should be a book
with all the words of Shakespeare that listed in what plays they were
used. She laughed and showed me the concordance of Shakespeare and
similar tomes for the Bible and the stories of Star Trek.
That experience prompts me to tell today's "younger generation" that if
they think there should be a Web application for something, there
probably is. Mostly, of course, I'm thinking about apps related to
mapping. My experience is that many of these do in fact exist. I don't
think much about why that's true, but I suspect it's a mix of available
free APIs, datasets and the developer's passion for the subject or a
hope of making a profit (someday).
My favorite tech gurus on C|net's Buzz Out Loud podcast made quite a bit of fun of a recent announcement of an app store for netbooks.
They chided: "They have a store for that, it's called the Internet" and
reminded listeners that "before these apps were called apps, they were
known as applications." I do see their point, but I'd argue "app" means
something different than "application." What is it that differentiates
the 2009 "app" from the 2005 (and earlier) "application"? For one, apps
are written for lightweight OSs or browsers. For two, apps are
different than widgets, those small applications meant to be embedded
on web pages or blogs or on your TV screen. Finally, the term "app"
suggests a quick install, single focus, no or low fee (compared with an
application), and ease of use.
What, then, does this plethora of apps on the Web and mobile platforms
like the Blackberry OS, iPhone OS, Android and others mean for
traditional packaged software? I think it's another factor pushing
generic horizontal desktop and Web mapping/GIS out of widespread use.
When I started in this business in 1989 my then boss explained that for
most computer users in our space (we were building ArcCAD) AutoCAD was
their "operating system." They lived in it 40 hours a week and never
really "got out of it." Some used it out of the box, but many more used
third-party applications to tune it for civil engineering, architecture
or perhaps, mapping. In the intervening years the core CAD software
providers (I'm thinking of Autodesk and Bentley in particular) bought
up the leading third-party players and encouraged users to leave
generic CAD behind and step up to a vertical application. That's pushed
many small, independent third-party developers out of business.
Compare that history with the explosion of third-party apps (free and
fee-based) now available for consumers and business people who at one
time lived in specialized desktop software and data (perhaps these were
their operating system?). Here are a few I've written about just this
year that offer B2B/B2C "apps for that."
Need iPhone access to the geology of California? There's an app for that. GIS iPhone app
While we are not yet to a point where there's an app for all the
possible B2B GIS opportunities, I think we are heading that way. The
idea of starting from scratch with a generic desktop or Web mapping app
is less and less attractive, especially as these services (and the
underlying developer-friendly tools) begin to make a name for
themselves. That's happening even as many public datasets are available
as generic desktop GIS is lessening its grip on users, so too are
generic Web mapping sites. While many still go to Google Maps or
MapQuest to get directions or find a hotel or bar, specialized,
vertical apps are gaining traction and buzz: these are the foursquares, Yelps, or in my case GMapsPedometers
for laying out running routes. Having said that, Google is working hard
to make Google Maps serve more and more users by adding real estate
listing searches and other layers. Still, it's those vertical types of
consumer apps, I'd argue, that professionals will expect in their work
I know I'd like ready-to-use, relatively inexpensive (or free) apps,
with data already ingested, that I can "tap into" for work, just as I
would for my personal life. Is it realistic to think that's possible?
Can we have "GIS apps stores" for electric, gas, local government,
forestry and other professional areas that use GIS? It's hard to say at
this point, as there are some definite challenges.
Consumer facing applications can tolerate "good enough" data. If the
street data are a bit off, it's not a life or death issue. If the
restaurant review is the average of those from all who visited, that's
"good enough." Professional apps (say, for surveyors or engineers)
demand high data standards, clear data sourcing and in some cases,
authoritative signatures. Those are all possible to gather and make
available on the Web or a mobile phone app, but they are more expensive
to collect and maintain than data out of Wikipedia. Would such
requirements price the professional apps out of reach?
Consumer facing apps can offer limited functionality and serve up a
"one size fits all" interface. Business workflows need to be more
tailored and broader ranging. Could that requirement take away the
"quick and easy and immediately useful" feel of most popular Web and
I can't say exactly what may come down the line as "professional apps"
for geospatial. But I do expect more than one organization to test the
waters in the coming weeks and months.