The GeoCloud: Is it as nebulous as it seems? PBBI thinks it’s here now

By Joe Francica

Geospatial in the cloud. Software as a Service (SaaS). The GeoCloud. That was the buzz at the Insights Conference hosted by Pitney Bowes Business Insight (PBBI) this past week in Miami. Last year, PBBI President Mike Hickey proclaimed that "cloud" was the future direction of his company; this year, he made it so.

Let's start with the announcements. First, Hickey announced that he was delivering 10 new SaaS solutions within the next 12 months. Exhibit A: SMART Marketer, an SaaS marketing application for the small- to medium-sized business (SMB) market that marries Pitney Bowes' mailstream solutions with location intelligent (LI) analytics by PBBI's Ann Arbor-based retail technology team. Exhibit B: PBBI struck a deal to include a Bing Maps service for use with every MapInfo Professional (MI Pro) version 10.5 license. Now, every map window can retrieve image and aerial data with one click of the Bing Maps icon in MI Pro. Exhibit C: PBBI announced MapInfo Stratus, a way to embed custom mapping applications in websites along with business data. Stratus provides a means to rapidly build and deploy custom mapping tools or widgets for specific business problems or deploy them within business intelligence systems, such as a customer relationship management system.

But the big announcement was the public launch of a project internally called "Miami." It was the unveiling of PBBI's Data Market, a Data as a Service (DaaS) solution to distribute geospatial data in what PBBI described as something parallel to an iTunes-style portal business model approach. PBBI will use WeoGeo's content management delivery platform currently hosted on Amazon Web Services. It will allow users to geographically search the Data Market catalog and deliver data as whole file sets, subsets or bundles of variables. The Data Market will hold free and fee-based data sets from the Americas, Europe and Asia/Pacific.

PBBI's objective is to solve the problems and questions often cited by users, such as "How current is my data?" "Why can't I get data faster?" or "Will you host my data?" The DaaS model expects to provide some key benefits such as 100% availability of data, limitless storage and a scalable architecture.

The big question is whether users will buy the story. At the very least, it's a vision for them to follow and one that, according to Hickey, the company must adopt if it is to ride the cloud computing wave that he believes is already here. It's a first step in changing the way geospatial data are delivered. Gone are the days of 25 DVDs and quarterly updates being delivered to the client, some of which were never installed anyway.

And for the PBBI partners... a carrot. PBBI will allow business partners to "white label" their own Data Market. PBBI owns many of its data sets, for telecommunications and demographics for example, and licensing data directly or through partners is not an issue. However, in cases where a third party is involved, red flags are already being raised. How will PBBI cut deals with myriad data suppliers to support a DaaS model? It will need license agreements from companies as diverse as Tele Atlas and ADCi, as well as suppliers in Europe and Asia. The task could be daunting. It's the one big question that has yet to be answered fully.

But there is another way to look at it. PBBI could position itself in the driver’s seat and dictate the licensing structure. If the data suppliers are not ready for the cloud, they better get ready fast or an era of increased sales volume could pass them by. Companies like NAVTEQ and DigitalGlobe rely heavily on big government contracts. If they want to expand their visibility with SMBs they had better figure out how to work at both ends of the client spectrum. The DaaS model may offer that opportunity. Finally, PBBI wants the Data Market to be supplier neutral, so even if ESRI wants to offer its data through this model then PBBI is open to that relationship.

The Data Market is scheduled to launch in June 2010. In the near term, an online catalog will be available and users will manage their content in a cloud environment. Partners will be allowed to launch storefronts. In the future, PBBI will offer the Data Market as either a cloud service or a "behind the firewall" appliance. (See "Is a Geographic Appliance in Your Future?")

PBBI has taken a bold step. It will most likely bring into focus other geospatial cloud providers in addition to WeoGeo, such as eSpatial, GIS Cloud, Skygone, CloudMade, and others. It will force others to not only talk SaaS, but to "productize" their strategy.

Will this approach work in the long run? I think it has a fighting chance. PBBI will be one of the first companies to offer a DaaS model. It’s a vision that will, no doubt, be refined but as the first one in the market, PBBI has staked its position in the geospatial technology sector. As history proves, the first one in the game is usually the one people remember. Now PBBI needs to brand it, cut the deals and make hay while it has a leg up on the competition.

Published Thursday, May 20th, 2010

Written by Joe Francica

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