2006 may be the Year of Open Source Mapping.Recent events indicate
that significant change is afoot for all software, including mapping
software, and this may be the opportunity for which open source has
been waiting.The open source conversation has been getting louder for
years, and we are now seeing distinct events that suggest that now is
the time for open source.
Looking outside our world, Microsoft recently announced its plans for
Windows Live and Office Live, Web-based services that will allow users
to leverage Microsoft software via the Internet (Boston Globe, November
2, 2005).The company will abandon several desktop titles in favor of
this new direction, which indicates that a lot of thought has gone into
this decision, and not the kind of thought that leads to a decision
like paper or plastic "¦ This kind of thought is supported by tons of
research and months, if not years, of market analysis.Obviously,
Microsoft sees a stronger future for Internet services than desktop
software.Chairman Bill Gates was quoted as saying this was "a
revolution in how we think about software," but you have to wonder if
this is more of a reaction than a revolution.With the proposed model
of selling advertising to generate revenue, this new Windows looks like
what Google has been doing for some time.
In our own GIS world, ESRI recently began the process of reacting to
Google Earth in its pre-marketing of ArcGIS Explorer.This glorified
Web client will enable Google Earth-like functionality with an added
level of GIS functionality.Using blogs to get the word out, ESRI seems
to be following Google's lead again, if not the lead of open source.
Certainly, expectations are high and ESRI will need to meet those
expectations in order to reap the benefits of all its efforts.
Otherwise, Google and open source will still be seen as the pioneers.
And if ESRI does meet expectations and takes ArcGIS Explorer (and its
supporting player ArcServer) to new heights in Internet mapping, what
will become of the desktop GIS platform? Will industry-leading ESRI
discover the same future that industry-leading Microsoft seems poised
If so, we have a lot to talk about.It is no secret that open source
mapping has found its greatest successes with Internet mapping
solutions (GeoServer, MapServer, MapBender and others), and it is easy
to see why.Governed by Open Geospatial Consortium standards, the
playing field is as level as Fenway Park.In many ways, the open source
community has made a home for itself on the Internet.The fact that
propriety software vendors are moving into the neighborhood only gives
the home field advantage to open source.
The desktop environment was a different matter entirely.Both Microsoft
and ESRI based their businesses on desktop licensing and format
ownership, and now they are being pulled into a new business model
where they will no longer own the data formats.Without this ownership,
only two pieces remain: data and service.Many wonder if these industry
leaders can derive the same levels of success in this new venue.After
all, both Microsoft and ESRI are currently defending their turf against
a search engine company, a situation that in itself proves this venue
is a whole new world.
But even in this new world, the market must take open source more
seriously and raise its acceptance above historical levels in order to
enable open source success.As evidence that this is indeed happening,
we only need look at the State of Massachusetts' recent mandate for the
OpenDocument format (which is the default format for the open source
suite OpenOffice).In effect, this mandate establishes a standard
format for data storage and exchange that no one owns, which removes
the power that vendors have had on the desktop market for decades.In
addition, the Massachusetts Department of Revenue initiated a pilot
project earlier this year involving 3,500 Linux-based desktops.These
moves have been lauded by many as major steps forward for open source,
and by others as professional suicide for state leadership.Regardless,
the buzz has only increased the open source conversation.If
successful, Massachusetts has raised the bar for open source and
widened the opportunity for open source success.
Up to this point, all this discussion has focused on factors outside
the open source community.And while each of these points is critical
to the opportunity for open source, the fact remains that the future of
open source rests with the open source community itself.This community
must stick with the approach that got them to this point: unity.A
visit to the many listservs will show anyone the effectiveness of the
open software development model.From the open source conferences, it
is clear that the levels of innovation and experimentation are
supported by a sense of camaraderie.In a way, open source listservs
and conferences feel a lot like proprietary listservs and conferences
without the competition.This distinct difference may prove to be the
most powerful aspect of open source in 2006 and beyond.
Open source companies are raising their standards to meet and exceed
those of their proprietary counterparts.They are building the very
same kinds of management tools and development support systems found at
proprietary software shops.It is getting increasingly more difficult
for propriety vendors to point a finger at poor open source
architecture, especially when many of them have themselves had to
re-write their own software architecture in the past several years.
This continued trend towards professionalism is beginning to erase the
long-held reputation of open source as a hobby for hackers, while
building a culture of high expectations and broad technical expertise
within the open source community.
The Year 2006 may be the year open source mapping makes its biggest
move yet.Certainly, the stars are lining up.And while many will say
that patience is a virtue, now is not the time to sit and wait.
Now is the time to go for it.