My Take: Open Source Libraries of Map Projections - The Significance of Autodesk’s Acquisition of Mentor Software

By Adena Schutzberg

The big announcement at OSGEO's Free and Open Source Software for Geospatial (FOSS4G) Conference on Tuesday morning was from Autodesk. The company has acquired Mentor Software of Thornton, Colorado and will put its map projection libraries into open source as an OSGeo project. When Geoff Zeiss of Autodesk made the announcement at 9:30am here in Victoria, to a room of nearly 700 attendees, it seemed only a handful of us "got it." I was the first to clap loudly, getting odd looks from my neighbors.

They didn't know what I know. What do I know? Let's go back in time. It's 1990 or so. I'm doing AutoCAD mapping at a consulting firm. I'm using a product called Hawkeye from Mentor. It lets me work in two different coordinate systems at once (if I recall correctly). At some point I need technical support. I call the support number. I get Norm Olsen. He helps me out. He's smart. Later I read Mentor's newsletter and, like many others, use the 1-800-ask-norm phone number for help with projections. Fast-forward to 1998 or so. I'm working for ESRI. I head to Thornton to meet Norm (I can't recall why, and if I did, I probably couldn't say why...). As I come in, the then product manager for AutoCAD Map is leaving. Hmmm. This code and this guy must rate! And, I should say, Mentor is a small shop. I checked the website today, and it said it hadn't been updated since 05/06/03. But the phone number was still in use back then!

Bottom line: Mentor Software's CS-MAP is the standard software library for mapping software. Nearly everyone licenses it. Who does not? Of note: Blue Marble and ESRI have their own. I have to guess in time they, too, may come over to the open source version.

After the announcement I checked in with a few people here at the conference. Some of their thoughts, and mine:
  • Not every user of other libraries may jump to the new open source version (at least not right away) since their clients may well need the consistency of using the same library over time. Different libraries can give different "answers."
  • This deal was signed the night before it was announced.
  • Over time it may be that "everyone" uses the same projection code, ideally meaning they all get the "same answer." That'd be cool.
  • On the commercial side, Blue Marble will be competing with "free." It just licensed it's libraries to ERMapper before its acquisition by Leica.
  • The currently used open source library, PROJ.4, is an open source, and part of the MapTools [corrected 9/29 per comment: originally said "GeoTools OSGeo project"] project. It may exist and be supported for a while, but it is likely that in time one library will "win."
  • Some are concerned that the support they've known and loved from Mentor will change as Olsen goes to work for Autodesk. That happens sometimes when big companies acquire smaller ones.
  • Word is, the licensing for the open source library will be the most lenient one available (LPGL per CNET).
This really is a huge change in the availability of a core part of geospatial software. While it changes little for end users (don't worry, your data will still be projected, one way or another), it shifts revenues and likely some worker time... and further enables the open source geospatial community.

Published Wednesday, September 26th, 2007

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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