ESRI User Conference 2009 Themes

By Adena Schutzberg

As has become tradition for major events, I wrap up our coverage of the 2009 ESRI International User Conference with these key themes that I teased out of the event.

Calm Before the...
This year's weeklong event in San Diego had a calm about it. There was definitely excitement in the air from both ESRI staff and attendees, but it was subdued. There were no big announcements from ESRI to generate universal buzz. Most of the “news" had been shared well before the event. Why this calm? Perhaps it was the economy. Perhaps it was just ESRI's typical conservatism in the marketplace, made even more conservative by the economy. Perhaps it's simply a result of the maturity of the technology, the company and the user base.

Image Processing Ahead
ESRI's longtime relationship with Leica/ERDAS changed in recent years, leading the company to team up with a number of other players including ITT VIS as a partner for image processing. At the same time ESRI's own image technology has grown and will take quite a substantial step forward in ArcGIS 9.4 with on the fly color balancing, ortho-rectification and pan sharpening of raw data. In the same way that ESRI has reached out to surveyors to support survey data, it is now courting image analysis users to support remotely sensed data. ESRI seems to be laying a framework to not only include access to these spatial data types, but also to provide basic tools, at first, and then later, more advanced analytical solutions. Underlying those technical advances is a commitment to integrate these analyses and data types into geospatial workflows. LiDAR didn't get much play this year from ESRI, though LizardTech announced a new product for it, but I expect we'll hear more about it in the coming months.

The Cloud
I was hoping ESRI would outline suggested use cases for the cloud for different user organizations at this year's conference. Instead, I think users got just the first part of the story: how ESRI is tackling the cloud. Perhaps that's because ESRI is still thinking through the role it wants to play. (Gartner, the technology research and advisory company, suggests we are two to five years from widespread adoption, per one slide shown in a cloud session.) What attendees heard, mostly in broad strokes, were ESRI's own plans for the cloud.

That term has come back into fashion in 2009. I learned about geoFuse (a GeoEye portal that offers tools to explore imagery and ultimately acquire it), Microsoft and ESRI's Fusion Core Solution ("to help public safety and homeland security professionals more effectively prevent today's evolving physical and virtual security threats")  and even Rolta's GeoSpatial Fusion (which provides a "geospatially integrated view of ... critical information and work processes"). My suspicion is that these companies are trying to bring the term, which I for one associated with military apps and U.S. Fusion Centers, into more general use. The battle over who will own the marketing term has so far not produced a winner.

This year, unlike others in recent memory, ESRI didn't highlight its relationship with a major IT player. Perhaps the economy is making such relationships more challenging or perhaps competitive issues prevent such "lovefests." Microsoft announced not one, but two new products with ESRI: MapIt got just a mention in passing on the main stage; the Fusion offering got even less buzz, though it is a more vertical solution. ESRI showed off an iPhone app, but didn't mention Apple in any significant way. ESRI typically wants to be more than "just another third party developer" with key players like Oracle, Microsoft, Google, Autodesk and others. I'm thinking back to ESRI's celebration of its relationship with SAP onstage a few years ago as an example of such an intense connection.

When GIS required souped-up hardware, the speediest new Sun box or server was an attention getter at the User Conference. The hardware at this year's event included many ruggedized devices, some "not so new anymore" interface tools like the touch table and the "new to GIS" Wacom pen-controlled device. Adapx hardware still draws a crowd and seems to have many converts, especially with its new "voice-to-text" solution, but outside of that solution hardware has become invisible, perhaps by its "genericness."

Social Networking
ESRI has made significant strides in using social media to communicate with users in general and about the User Conference in particular. While tweets were flowing (I estimate about 500/day), blog coverage from non-ESRI bloggers seemed to be a bit sluggish. (Why write full blog posts, when you can zip off 140 characters?) I was not monitoring Facebook, so I can't comment on that. Did the use of these tools enhance the event? While I'm sure there was value for many in tweets about free food, pins and upcoming sessions, I found the pithy quotes from speakers at sessions I didn't attend particularly poignant. I also appreciate that tweeters in particular were quick to point out (ostensibly to ESRI) opportunities for improvement for the User Conference as well as the software products. I am very curious how ESRI will parse and use all this feedback in the near- and long-term.

Inspiration in One Session
ESRI hit a homerun in the second half of the plenary on Monday. After lunch, speakers Hernando de Soto and Dr. Willie Smits had everyone riveted (and many quotes flying on Twitter). There was also universal praise for a mentor and students from Maryland who shared their work on the main stage. In contrast with past years when Jack Dangermond explained the importance of the work many users do, complete with their own maps on the big screen, this year exceptional visionaries shared their larger mission and how it is changing the world. My sense is it was simply a different way to "get to the same place." I heard many, many people note they felt they had received their annual "dose" of inspiration during those few afternoon hours.

Published Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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