GIS Nostalgia at the Base of the GIS Pyramid

July 15, 2006

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_Over the course of the last several years, I have identified two major voids in the GIS software market. I have discussed them with many of my friends at ESRI and at other software shops. As far as I know, nobody has jumped at the opportunity to make millions of dollars from my insights. Yet.

The first void, which I will only mention in passing, is the lack of a solution for GIS/CAD users. Since ESRI retired ArcCAD, a product I loved, in 2001, a majority of my clients have suffered. Some of the younger individuals have come up with product development ideas for a revolutionary product that would be pretty much like… ArcCAD. I know all the vendors' official positions on the subject ("Ours is the solution!"). But looking from where I sit, there is no solution for the small-to-mid-size AutoCAD shop that also wants to implement ESRI's GIS and keep both databases in sync. There are many, many, many such shops. ESRI and Autodesk: take heed. Join forces again. You'll thank me later.

The second void is a product to serve the populace at the base of the "GIS pyramid." ESRI ended development of ArcView 1 and released it under free license for several years, in the 1990s. It no longer runs on today's operating systems. It was another product I loved, and there hasn't been an adequate replacement for the hundreds of thousands of casual GIS users who just want to look at a map once in a while.

Let me first explain what I mean by GIS pyramid, as I have heard the term used to describe varying concepts I refer to the pyramid-like structure of a GIS implementation in a typical organization. The GIS guru sits at the top, running all sorts of fancy GIS analysis and data management tools. A second tier of GIS professionals sits below the guru. These individuals are responsible for data creation and maintenance. Finally, at the base of the pyramid is a large pool of casual GIS users, with casual GIS needs. These are the users who would have used ArcView 1. But what are they to do now? Use ArcView 9.x? ArcReader? ArcExplorer (which version)? ArcIMS? A homegrown application? Google Earth? ArcGIS Explorer?

There seems to be a lot of confusion, not only among the members of this largest of GIS users group, but also among seasoned GIS professionals, system integrators and software developers. I submit that a significant part of that confusion comes not from the very real uncertainty about which technology will prevail or take off, but from a more fundamental cause: a lack of understanding of the most important need of this group - the need for a simple and reasonably lasting solution.

Everyone seems to agree that this group should be using tools that are inexpensive and are simple to use and maintain. But the rate at which software vendors develop, and then often abandon, one solution or another often exceeds the rate of adoption of these tools. Almost all tools share the same downsides: they are usually half-baked; "free" is not really free; all are quite inflexible; by the time they are implemented, the technology is almost obsolete.

Hence - confusion. Wouldn't you be confused if your bank changed your ATM's interface every week? I would. After a few weeks, you would probably stop using the ATM altogether. So is it surprising that the base of the GIS pyramid is still not using its version of ATMs, and is opting to go to the teller instead (e.g., walk down the hall to look at the tax map book, or manually generate the 200-foot abutter's list)?

I am not nostalgic, and I am no GIS Luddite. I am not calling for the revival of ArcCAD or ArcView 1. I know that this would be impractical and impossible. But I am contemplating the lack of a simple solution to replace each of them, because those products did fill a need. The GIS pyramid base is real, and it's huge. It needs a simple solution. That is the only solution that will work. And whoever finds it will deserve the rewards it will generate.


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