GIS: A Mature Industry Tackles the Disruptive Technology Question

By Joe Francica

QuestiontoGIS Tim O'Reilly, the host of last week's Where 2.0 Conference in San Francisco, and arguably the champion of open source software development, shared his stage with Jack Dangermond, president of ESRI, arguably the leader of the non-free, commercial GIS world.

O'Reilly may have surprised Dangermond with this zinger."How does it feel to be the incumbent in an industry that is being disrupted?" It put Dangermond on the spot.But it is not just a question for the man responsible for bringing GIS to worldwide commercial prominence; it's a question for every software provider that has been in the GIS business more than a few years.And depending on your perspective, you could argue that it is not even a fair question.ESRI is the market leader and has been for several years precisely because it innovates and is a disruptive influence as well.Still, coming from the person looking to introduce "hacks" to the mapping arena, it was one of those awkward moments that sent the audience into silence.

Dangermond was cautious in his response; perhaps pensive is the right word.If he answered negatively, he would sound out of touch with the "young guns".If he answered affirmatively, his answer would sound politically correct."I think it's good.You know, I'm going to die soon," he said.It was a crowd-pleasing, tight-rope walking rebuttal.

Disruptive Behavior
The word "disruption" has been used a lot this spring in conjunction with the location-based information technology sector.The word was used extensively at the Oracle Spatial Special Interest Group Meeting in Denver in March and IDC, the market research company, has used the term in its reports to describe the current situation in this technology sector. In the context of location-based services, the word has been used to describe the "mainstreaming" of location technology to a broader buyer base for information technology that is suddenly more mapping savvy.From the location-aware enterprise to geocaching to pet finders to online traffic maps to The Weather Channel to parking meter management to spatial interaction models, more people understand how to use location-based information. As such, it is not only the mapping technology providers who started this business that seem to be driving the public awareness, but those companies who are addressing a consumer market such as MapQuest, Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft.

Dangermond told me just after his presentation that he was not spending the money in public relations that Google has in promoting the features of Google Maps.I think what is beguiling to Dangermond is that there is so much fuss over this current wave of Internet mapping.His company has been "mainstreaming" the cost cutting advantages of GIS to companies like Sears, Suzuki, and many others for years.And, to ESRI, this current wave of interest looks like a flash in the pan."It reminds me of LBS," he said, referring to the bubble caused by wireless location-based services that was once touted as the "killer app."

Historically, there has been "disruptive behavior" every eight to 12 years or so that challenges the location technology sector.In the mid 80's, mapping software was moving off mainframes and onto mini computers and PC's allowing greater flexibility in deploying workstations for applications in remote sensing, and geophysical data processing, for example.In the early 90's, the introduction of Microsoft Windows precipitated a wave of innovative desktop mapping products whose user interfaces allowed a more intuitive workflow for creating maps and performing spatial analysis.In the later 90's and the early part of this century, developers are tapping into databases and the Internet to build solutions that do not rely on monolithic GIS software products.

Freedom is not Free
The difference with this latest "disruption" this time can best be described as the point on the technology adoption curve where the "hockey stick" takes the 90 degree turn upward.In every successful development of information technology, described in "Crossing the Chasm", there is a mass market adoption phase.Guess what? We are there."There is much more to come," said Dangermond.And he's absolutely right, but whether it is ESRI and its traditional competitors in the GIS sector that drive the market or others like Google, Microsoft, Oracle, Sprint/NEXTEL, or Yahoo, is a huge question mark.

The disruptive part of this trend that is unsustainable is that the new, "hacked" applications based on Google Maps or Yahoo Maps appear "free" to the users and developers.Whether it is by someone else's advertising dollar or per transaction cost to download maps to your wireless handset, it will not remain "free" to the consumer (See "The End of Free Maps).Eventually someone will determine the appropriate business model to pay for data licensing and other geospatial content such as that provided by NAVTEQ and Tele Atlas.While many are free to explore the possibilities via the APIs offered by Google, Yahoo and others, content is still king and that comes at a price.

Missed Opportunity?
I think O'Reilly's real question was this.How come the traditional GIS vendors were not driving this latest wave of disruption? Why where they not the technology suppliers for the Google's, Yahoo's etc.? What was it in the mapping tool boxes they offered that didn't pass muster with the hackers?

Or maybe this wasn't a missed opportunity after all? Maybe ESRI, et. al.have the "incumbent" expertise to still compete quite effectively.There may still be time to "ice the competition" with this hockey stick.

Published Thursday, July 7th, 2005

Written by Joe Francica

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