An old adage says if you want to know what's really happening, follow the money.
This weekend ten thousand people converged in San Diego for the annual ESRI user conference.Travel, meals, hotel, and conference fees will cause these people to part with more than twenty million dollars this week.
That's a half year's gross income for MapInfo Corporation, one of ESRI's competitors.
However, Jack Dangermond, founder, owner, and chief executive officer of ESRI, touched on money only once during his opening address."ESRI is debt free" and has grown 15 percent in the last year, he said.
It is clear, though, that Dangermond is far more than a businessman and marketer.His attention today moved from the visionary future of GIS to the prosaic needs of his customers, then returned to the ether as he honored "GIS explorers" Mike Fay and Michael Goodchild for their achievements.
This year, ESRI is trying to bring its users-and therefore the rest of the GIS world-closer to a vision of "pervasive computing." ESRI's David Maguire outlined the strategy in a late morning plenary session."Our product strategy is to try to support all types of users," stated Maguire. ESRI-watchers will immediately wonder about the low end: the casual user, the "personal productivity" market segment, the person who just wants to use maps.
ESRI's answer is the new ArcReader product.Don't think of this as "ArcView Lite," says Maguire.ArcReader's inspiration instead is Adobe Acrobat.Like Acrobat, ArcReader will be free.
"Extension" software for ArcMap (a part of the ArcGIS 8.1 suite) will "publish" maps.ArcReader is a viewer for the published maps.The maps are not static documents, however.ArcReader will generate them on the fly-even projecting the data if necessary-from a geographic database.Change the database, and what ArcReader displays will change, too.
Another step towards Dangermond's pervasive computing vision includes "converging" all ESRI products to a single architecture and building them to standards: Windows for the operating system (although server software, like ArcIMS, will run under Unix and soon under Linux), C++ and Java for the source languages, XML for the Web, and the usual alphabet soup of data and metadata standards: ISO, OGC, POSC, SDTS, and so on.
ESRI has also been developing standard data models for various applications: environmental facilities, transportation, and a dozen others.
These approaches-convergence and data model templates-are supposed to help resolve the problems of marrying ill-matched datasets from incompatible sources.Dangermond hopes, for instance, that cadastral data developed in Moscow eventually will be just like cadastral data in Buenos Aires or New York.
Maguire says ESRI is "proposing a merger of the desktop and the Internet." Exactly what he means is unclear.Part of it is technical, but one aspect is what he calls a "loosely coupled network" and Dangermond, an avowed non-programmer, calls "community."
"Community," at its core, is a network of "producers" and "consumers." (Dangermond's concept certainly includes more than that, but the economic aspect of community is nevertheless important to ESRI.) Producers "serve" ("sell" is perhaps more apt) data and services.Consumers use ("buy," to put it bluntly) these things.
Consumers need a way to find suitable producers.This is done by "exposing" metadata about available data and services on the network.That is the role of ESRI's Geography Network (TGN), introduced with great fanfare at this conference last year.
Dangermond believes the technology behind TGN, which he calls "g.net," will drive this three-way relationship and serve as a model for geographic communities at all levels ranging from private ones through international ones.
In short, ESRI is committed to developing TGN and community, in addition to technology.
Rich Turner, head of ArcGIS development, reminded us of ESRI's stepped-up support for users of its software.There are "rich online information resources," including the Web-based Virtual Campus now comprising thousands of hours of course material.ESRI Press has published several dozen books this year and has two dozen more in the works.
Detractors argue that all this information is needed to cope with the complexity of ESRI technology.There's some truth to that, but the criticism is as unfair as it is glib.Many aspects of GIS, done right, are inherently complex and intellectually demanding.ESRI's leadership in providing information and instructional materials ought to be more widely appreciatd and emulated.
So what is it: is GIS too complex for the ordinary person, or is map making becoming prevalent and easy? Dangermond may have had these questions in mind when he insisted that there will remain an "important role for GIS professionals." There had better: without these professionals, there would be few customers for ESRI's products.
San Diego, July 9, 2001