ESRI UC 2000: Closing Session

By Bill Huber

Key personnel at ESRI discussed their plans and vision for the future with some 1200 people at the closing session of this year's User Conference.

Questions from the audience focused on ESRI's most popular software product, ArcView.Jack Dangermond, owner and president of ESRI, reported that 600,000 copies of ArcView have been released.However, ArcView is about to change dramatically.This change clearly is of concern to ESRI and its many customers.

Dangermond articulated some of the key reasons for the change."We told exactly the same story over the last two years.We want to move to open development, out of proprietary languages and interfaces." ArcView uses a proprietary language, Avenue, and ArcInfo--ESRI's high-end GIS software platform--uses a different proprietary language, AML.

"We are going to face some pains.A translator [from AML or Avenue into VBA, the open language for development in ESRI's new products] would minimize the pain, but we can't do it. I have no other option but to get real and support two platforms:" the current version of ArcView and the planned new versions of ArcView and ArcInfo.

Later Dangermond suggested the problem is not the impossibility of writing a translator, but rather the cost."If we could [write a translator], it would take our best people off [developing ArcInfo/ArcView] 8.x."

Scott Morehouse, Chief Software Architect for ESRI, offered a technical explanation."Much of what happens in Avenue is in the object library," rather than coded within Avenue itself."The difficult part [with writing a translator] is differences in the object models, such as how symbols are defined.This is not a superficial difference.So comprehensive translation is difficult."

David Maguire of ESRI pointedly asked, "Why translate? Keep using ArcView 3.2" (the current version of ArcView).He suggests developers begin writing their ArcView applications in Visual Basic, which would work (using a thin "wrapper" of code) on both the new and the old platforms.

Morehouse continued this theme, suggesting that completely rewriting existing applications will provide developers "an opportunity to enhance their applications.[But] there's no magic bullet."

Dangermond promised ESRI will "continue to support Avenue" for years to come.He suggested ESRI would offer some workshops on translating Avenue to Visual Basic and that these workshops will "travel around the world" to help developers migrate to the new technology.

To help users make the transition, ESRI will also allow users to run ArcView 3.2 and the new version (tentatively numbered 8.1) simultaneously on the same computer.Nevertheless, the software developer is committed to its new architecture and programs."This last week you have seen an architecture that will last for many years you are seeing the next ten to fifteen years," stated Dangermond.In support of this anticipated longevity, he pointed out that the ArcInfo architecture is itself already some twenty years old.

What does this new architecture mean? We will be "moving computation and functionality to the server," says Morehouse.Clint Brown of ESRI elaborates, "We want to support an architecture that works across the Internet." It is a server plus thin client model, with the "heavy stuff like ArcView" still running on local workstations (Windows and Sun Solaris operating systems).

"Java is a linchpin" of this vision, adds Brown, "so Java and COM are strong initiatives.We want to unify ArcSDE [middleware to support geometric operations on enterprise databases] and ArcIMS [ESRI's Internet Map Server product] for server-side computing."

Dangermond, on the other hand, articulated his vision without reference to software or systems architecture.He sees a change in computing itself.We now see "maps as the interface: this is a fundamental shift in the [human-computer interaction] metaphor." The recent emergence and accessibility of LIDAR and other imaging technologies imply an enormous shift in perception and capabilities, says Dangermond."There is an image in all of your futures."

Another theme that Dangermond touched on is visual programming.This is a technique developed by the early 1980's for drawing pictures of processes or algorithms to control the computer.The first ESRI product built around visual programming is its new Model Builder interface to the Spatial Analyst software."Model Builder has a substantial future.It is going inside all Arc environments," according to Dangermond.He pointed to a sequence of file-processing tasks as an example of procedures that could be described by visual programs.

With so many products appearing, one member of the audience wondered what the scope of ESRI's output would be."ESRI intends to provide only core [GIS] tools," responded Dangermond."We don't have the resources to support systems integration and other value-added services.We work with partners for solutions, training, research.We want to be more focused.Most diversified companies do not succeed."

In response to a question, Dangermond indicated ESRI is working on a true three-dimensional GIS."We're focusing research on a volumetric GIS model." He drew up short of making any commitment, however, noting "there are not many true N-D [three and four dimensional] data sets out there."

That is reminiscent of the not too distant past when there were almost no two-dimensional data sets but entrepreneurs like Dangermond proceeded to develop the software to create and analyze such data.Is that entrepreneurial spirit still there? The next several years will tell.

--William Huber
San Diego, June 30, 2000.

Published Saturday, July 1st, 2000

Written by Bill Huber

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