Between a rock and a hard place

Rock and a hard place - thanks to Shemp 65

On Tuesday I went to the Google Geospatial Summit at the Science Museum with the guys from who had a booth at the event.

It's a long way down there from the rear stalls, thanks to Stuart Grant of for the pic


The event was pretty plush with the background of the Science Museum and the auditorium was the IMax cinema which was impressive, particularly if you were sitting high up!

The main focus of the event was to launch Google Earth Builder in the UK. GEB follows on from Google Earth Enterprise to offer organisations with large volumes of imagery and vector data the oportunity to upload their data to the Google cloud and then manage secured or public access via the Maps API, the Earth desktop application or browser plugin or the mobile versions of those tools.

At the moment the functionality seems to be limited to viewing data but as a scalable distribution platform for corporate spatial data delivered through highly familiar and intuitive interfaces I can see how this would appeal to organisations with massive volumes of potential occasional users. I have been saying for a while that Google could pose a difficult challenge to the established GI tech companies because of the incursion into their market of it’s free products. Now Google are offering massive cloud infrastructure and scalability in a reasonably secure environment (the US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency are apparently among the first customers). If the pricing is reasonable, GEB has to have the potential to eat into some of the lighter implementations of  your favourite GIS vendor.

I was sharing some thoughts with a few folk at the event and on the twittersphere and one friend who works at a big GI company commented

“..rumours of the untimely demise of GI giants are greatly exaggerated.. “

I agree. Buuuuut and it is a big but, Google’s push into the enterprise market must prompt some changes from the existing players – commercial models, ease of use, performance, scalability and innovation to name a few.

I was struck by the size and composition of the audience at the event. There were industry people from ESRI, Intergraph, bing, PBBI MapInfo, Ordnance Survey, Blom plus a load of consultants. On the customer side, there were delegates from local and central government plus a range of corporates some of whom I remember as clients from my MapInfo days and others who we never got close to. The “Customer Success” panel (see pic above) featured Shell talking about the app that developed for them (got to get the plug in), Rightmove who have some pretty neat functionality in their app, the Space Reconnaissance Center of the UAE Armed Forces who already use GEB and the Met talking about their public crime mapping application. Trevor Adams of the Met in response to a question about usability said (not verbatim)

“I can do this at home, why can’t I do it at work?”

Which for me sums up the challenge to some of the plugin dependent, GI centric applications that many of us have grown up with. Who after all uses ArcGIS or MapInfo Pro as their tool of choice at home?

I recall a conversation with the boss of a big GI tech vendor who while recognising the encroachment of new entrants into the consumer space and simple visualisation in the professional space maintained that his company’s strength was their dominance in the “heavy lifting”. I also recall several presentations from Ed Parsons in the past where he reassured the audience that they would still need traditional GI tools for the “heavy lifting”. Now “heavy lifting” may mean different things to different people but I lost count of the number of times that the Google presenters talked about “leaving the heavy lifting to Google” or “stand on our shoulders”. There is a definite change of tone from Google and based on the steely grins on the faces of some of the industry people attending, I think they recognised it.

When I got home I glanced at the feed from the FOSS4G conference. I have written quite a bit about the opportunity for Open Source recently and how adoption is growing within the public sector. Webmap servers and spatial databases are becoming commodities, the ecosystem around OSGeo is evolving and it will become increasingly difficult to make a good case for paying license fees to proprietary vendors for technology components that are robust, proven and free (and yes I know that open source is not free, neither is proprietary after you have paid the initial license fee). I haven’t used a desktop GIS for ages (fortunately) but I was massively impressed by the capabilities of QGIS which is not only free but also runs on my Mac which not much other GI software does. No way is this a replacement for MI Pro let alone ArcInfo but it certainly will satisfy users who underutilise the massive functionality of those products.

Open Source on the left and  Google on the right (or vice versa depending on your politics) and you might think that our old favourites are between a rock and a hard place.

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