Cocktails on the Titanic – the final chapter from #GeoCom 6

I presented Cocktails on the Titanic to a pretty full room at GeoCommunity on Wednesday. I have been developing my thoughts for this presentation over the last 6-9 months. It started with the AGI Foresight study and my section of the editorial on social and economic trends, it evolved with “Without a business model you are FCUK’d” at and then presentations to the ESRI UK user conference, The GeoData 2010 event, State of the Map in Girona and a lunch time lecture at CGS in Nottingham. You could say that I have been hawking this stuff around for a bit now, I would respond that my thinking has developed and refined as I have engaged in conversations with different audiences.

Thanks to Cliff1066

Now that I have just about closed out my thinking on this, I consider the key elements to be that

  • Free API’s are going to dominate simple web presentation because they incorporate good quality free data, are highly performant and scalable and offer slick intuitive interfaces. The traditional GI industry can and is responding by moving to the cloud but they will face some fierce competition from an advertising funded business model with massive resources.
  • Open Source software is increasingly recognised as a cost effective alternative to proprietary software, particularly for web mapping applications where the functionality is quite well established and becoming commoditised through open standards interfaces. Open Source is not free but it is potentially a very cost effective alternative to traditional license models, particularly if hosted in the cloud.

In his barnstorming defence of his Soapbox champion’s trophy entitled “Free, my arse” (note the importance of the comma) Ian Painter had a light hearted lampoon of me ranting “You are all doomed” in a Scottish accent (not sure about the accent). It was good fun and he was making the perfectly valid point that access to source code is usually irrelevant to customers (I agree) and that implementation costs can be much higher than for well designed proprietary software (I doubt this but would like to see some evidence to that effect, the Accenture report that I found did not support this statement) and that support costs could be higher than those for proprietary software (possibly but I doubt that TCO over 5 years would be anything like the cost of licenses and support and maintenance for a proprietary solution). So am I suggesting that Open Source is the answer to every problem, absolutely not!

Open Source appears to me to be a very attractive option for server based applications. Linux, Apache and Java power a mass of web applications from many of the giants of the internet including a large part of Google’s applications. Many enterprise vendors including IBM, Oracle and most of the GI vendors use some of these Open Source products or components. They aren’t doing this without carefully evaluating their costs of ownership. So as web mapping becomes more mainstream and the pace of functional enhancement slows, Open Source becomes a very viable alternative and new services businesses will spring up to implement efficiently and offer competitively priced support.

Where Open Source is unlikely to compete so strongly is on the desktop (most of the user interfaces that I have seen are just too clunky to gain widespread adoption even if they are free, of course that could change as some government bodies are considering dropping Microsoft and deploying Open office on a Linux desktop) and in the specialist niches where it is unlikely that a large enough community of developers will form around a project.

The implementation of the UK INSPIRE implementation on Open Source, distributions of complete geostacks loaded with Open Data by academics and other initiatives suggest that Open Source geoweb is gaining ground fast. The next year should be very interesting and no doubt the traditional vendors will have some strong and competitive responses all of which should be for the benefit of UK Geo.

You can view the slides for this last presentation here

The mindmap for the presentation is here and is open for edits

That may be the final chapter for me on this topic as it is time to get on with doing some stuff in the cloud with and on Open Source with CGS in Nottingham. The epilogue will need writing by someone, maybe this time next year? Ian P, I am sure you will remind me about this post at next year’s GeoCommunity.

6 thoughts on “Cocktails on the Titanic – the final chapter from #GeoCom

  • steven


    Phew that was a long comment!

    It prompts a short response – I agree with just about everything you have said above (and I think you agree with most of what I said in the original post).


  • Ian Painter

    Okay rather than my SoapBox rant which was a little OTT in its quest for laughs, here’s the gist of the point I was making in more considered manner….

    Firstly, it would be wrong for me not to recognise that there are scenarios where Open Source is best value, but at the same time there are many scenarios where Closed Source offers significant cost and time saving over Open Source. The Apache Web Server you mention is a good example where Open Source is a no brainer, serving HTML pages is now a commodity. In our industry I would say that Web Mapping is now starting to become a commodity and the likes of Geoserver, MapServer, MapGuideOS are just as functionally rich as the Closed Source alternatives. Closer to home for Snowflake, basic WFS functionality is also just starting to become a commodity and Open Source solutions are getting better as WFS adoption grows. However, a WFS capable of performing on the fly complex model transformation is far from commodity and so if you have a problem which requires model transformation (aka INSPIRE) then a Closed Source solution may be best value (or even the only option). Let me give an example, in a recent project we did the customer previously started with an Open Source solution, after 6 months of trying they could not get it to work on many fronts, after switching to our product 10 days later the project was able to create its first INSPIRE dataset. Yes we charged the client a licence fee but the saving compared to the services cost made our Closed Source far better value and the best choice for the project. I remember reading a UK Gov quote on this very blog stating something like ‘When all else is equal then the UK Gov should prefer Open Source’. You know what … I actually agree with this statement it make sense … when all else is equal. What I find frustrating are statements such as ‘we only use Open Source’, I’d prefer to hear something like ‘We will use what’s best value and has a best TCO for our project’, or even ‘we prefer an Open Source solution so justify why your Closed Source product is better value’.

    The Open Source outreach is very powerful and many people advocate Open Source as an ideology but it should also be recognised that it’s also their livelihood so naturally they have a vested interest in its adoption. From a one-man band Open Source consultant to a large System Integrator they are both making money (to varying degrees) from implementing Open Source. Open Source / Closed Course are just two business models both of which have a cost. Open Source is not free as in beer (its charter is very clear about this), and it’s also not free to implement. Again, both models have a cost and depending on the scenario it’s about choosing the one that will deliver best value.

    Addressing your issues of TCO. No organisation provides SLA based support for Open or Closed Source for free. Yes you can get basic support from the open source on-line community, however, if you want the assurance that somebody will be at your site to solve a problem, then you need to pay for this no matter what option you choose. On that front, if you just do a quick Google for Open Source support packages you’ll find the costs are no different from Closed Source alternatives. In fact the leading Open Source commercial support provider for Geospatial is more expensive than us. So I do believe that in certain scenarios TCO can also be cheaper.

    Finally, I will share one last fact with you … every WFS customer we have has worked with Open Source beforehand and / or has bench-marked us against Open Source, they then decided to purchase our product. Surely that’s a very clear indication that at times Closed Source can be best value both initially and TCO.

    Now somewhere in my AGI SoapBox rant was the same message, trust me it was in there 😉


  • Mike Cooper

    Steve, as per my 3rd paragraph, I suspect it’s about management of Risk and what you are comfortable with but it’s critical that the risk is well understood.

    My argument is that where geography is concerned, from my experience, that the risks from both technology and data perspectives are less well understood. Perhaps that is because I work with the private sector where geographic thinking is less prolific.

    I do get concerned when as an industry that has something special to offer we get caught up in academic ideology rather than focusing on the benefits and outcomes.

    Sure we probably use OSS components ourselves in our systems at Esri UK where it makes economic sense but not without understanding the risks associated with future proofing, ongoing support and the total cost of ownership etc..

  • Mike Cooper

    I would suggest that few business leaders would consider running critical back office operations based on open technology or data with uncertain provenance, and yet where location is concerned, many businesses are either basing decisions worth £m’s by placing their trust in data that they don’t understand the provenance, currency or accuracy of or ignore the geographical dimension altogether.

    I think the critical issue here is the value our business leaders place on geography.

    In much the same way as businesses may consider an IT strategy or a HR strategy; geographic thinking needs to take a more central role as a boardroom issue. From better understanding, leaders can then evaluate the risks and benefits associated with open or proprietary options or a blend of both.

    From my experience, where and when we engage with the leaders of our major UK companies and they get the geographic advantage, we deliver £m’s in hard financial benefits and in softer social returns. What does appeal is the speed at which geo centric or geo enabled web services can now be deployed to discrete groups or teams that would not have been economically viable a couple of years ago. It’s the outcome rather than the how that is important.

    A view expressed this week is that we are now at a tipping point. As Malcolm Gladwell points out in his 2000 publication on the subject, there are 3 rules for epidemics; 1. The ability to connect and sell the message 2. The stickiness of the message and 3. Context.

    I truly believe what we have is sticky enough and the context or timing is perfect. It now comes down to our collective ability to connect with and sell the power and benefits of geographic thinking to our business and Government leaders without letting academic ideology get in the way.

    As Michael Macintyre said last week, “interesting that the first thing people do with Google Earth is look at their own house and neighbourhood when they could engage in an exciting journey of discovery anywhere else in the world”. What I took away from this week’s AGI is that we are about to undertake an exciting journey of discovery of our own and my hope is that as an industry we can avoid the icebergs.

    • steven


      I don’t want to take on the role of Defender of the Faith re Open Source. But I have to contest your statement that “few business leaders would consider running critical back office operations based on open technology or data with uncertain provenance” that is just scare mongering particularly when you choose to conflate issues of data dependability with the reliability of OSS.

      Linux has a substantial and growing share of the server market supported by massive vendors including Oracle. As Jim Zemlin, the executive director of The Linux Foundation, sys re who is using Linux.

      “I am not joking or trying to be trite, but the answer to this question is: every single person in the modern world every day. Everyone who searches Google, picks up a phone and uses telecommunication infrastructure, watches a new televisions, use a new camera, makes a call on many modern cell phones, trades a stock on a major exchange, watches a weather forecast generated on a supercomputer, logs into Facebook, navigates via air traffic control systems, buys a netbook computer, checks out at a cash register, withdraws cash at an ATM machine, fires up a quick-boot desktop (even those with Windows), or uses one of many medical devices; the list goes on and on.” That is without considering the substantial usage of Java and Apache

      There clearly are many responsible business leaders running critical back office systems on OSS. So perhaps the difference is that geo is in some way special and that the trends of other core server software don’t apply. Well the UK government (plus the Canadian, Dutch and NZ ones) don’t seem to think so which is why INSPIRE is being based upon a standards based deployment of OSS, is that irresponsible?

      I am sure many would agree with you that we need to better articulate the value of geography to senior business and government leaders. But I don’t think that we should confuse that value proposition with the assertion that only proprietary software (and its current pricing models) is the only way to deliver that value.

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