Esri isn’t evil 9

Yup you read it here, an open source advocate said that the leading GI proprietary vendor is not evil. Let me go one step further and say that I think Esri are pretty damn good. Now that is not to say that there are not aspects of their business model and practices that I wouldn’t criticise but more of that in another post.

Come to the Dark Side.

So what has prompted this outburst from an open source advocate? A mail from Suchith Anand to the OSGeo Discuss mailing list entitled “Is it possible for properitery GIS vendor to market thier properitery product as Open ?” (sic).

Hi all,

I have a query. If a properitery GIS vendor starts marketing thier properitery products as Open platform and software then what rights do the organisations and customers have who are mislead buying the  properitery software thinking it is open have ?  The definision of Proprietary software is very clearly defined, so  how can it be possible for any properitery GIS vendor to market their  software knowingly as open platform if it is properitery?

This also greatly affects the business and revenues of true open source software companies .  Who is responsible for any misleading marketing that results in losses to both customers who are mislead to buy the properitery software thinking it is open  and also to other companies who do true open source business who lose out on the business opportunities? Is it right business ethics to do this?

Best wishes,

This has prompted several thoughts which I want to share in a wider format than the OSGeo mailing list (I will post this blog back to the list) partly because the list tends to be a bubble of OSGeo geeks and activists and I want to share these thoughts with less committed users or those who have not yet chosen open source.

I am going to try to deconstruct the propositions of the initial mail (others, particularly Jody Garnett have also expressed contrary views in the mail thread).

a properitery GIS vendor” I am pretty sure that this unnamed vendor is Esri inc and that the mail was prompted by Esri’s Open Vision which would understandably cause a few ruffled feathers and raised eyebrows amongst open source advocates.

The argument seems to be that proprietary software cannot be open, in my opinion that is patently incorrect. We use the word ‘open’ with regard to software and services in numerous different ways e.g. Open Source, Open Standards, Open Data, Open Access and some people even confuse or conflate open with free. The open source community does not have a copyright or any other ownership of the ‘open’ and cannot claim to be the arbiter of who can use the adjective ‘open’ or in what context. As a community we cannot even agree amongst ourselves on the differences between ‘open’ ‘free’ and ‘libre’ (watch this very good presentation on the Free, Open & Libre by María Arias de Reyna).

Furthermore the use of ‘open’ in Open Standards is specifically intended to encourage all (proprietary or open source) to support standards that enable data sharing, as the OGC’s welcome says:

The OGC (Open Geospatial Consortium) is an international not for profit organization committed to making quality open standards for the global geospatial community. These standards are made through a consensus process and are freely available for anyone to use to improve sharing of the world’s geospatial data.

Our members come from government, commercial organizations, NGOs, academic and research organizations.

Open Standards facilitate interoperability and limit ‘vendor lock-in’ which would hardly work without major proprietary vendors supporting the OGC and its standards. ‘Open’ is not the exclusive terminology of the open source community. Whilst we may not like it proprietary software can be described as ‘open’ even if the source code is not freely available.

And let’s be honest about this, apart from a very small number of users who really wants access to source code or has the ability to fix or enhance the code? For many users of open source software the cost of ownership is a major factor and in that case the ‘free’ bit is probably more important than the ‘open’ bit (although the cost of ownership is much more than the license cost).

If a properitery GIS vendor starts marketing thier properitery products as Open platform and software then what rights do the organisations and customers have who are mislead buying the  properitery software thinking it is open have?” Most businesses marketing software (regardless of whether it is open source or proprietary) consider that their potential clients have made a mistake if they eventually succumb to the sales patter of a competitor, we all think we have the ‘best’ offer (specification, quality, value). I doubt that many organisations that purchase Esri software consider themselves to have been mislead by their marketing materials about openness.

Sometimes the open source community (and I include myself in this mea culpa) can position themselves on the side of the angels in a battle between good and evil. That is bullshit! We deliver solutions to customers’ needs that hopefully enable them to harness the power of geography to manage assets, make better decisions and inform stakeholders, the choice between proprietary and open source software is made by informed buyers on the basis of what is best for their organisation in terms of functionality, service, lifetime cost and a whole range of other criteria. Sometimes proprietary solutions are the best answer and sometimes (increasingly so in my opinion) open source represents the most scalable and cost effective solution. The geo market is shifting rapidly from enterprise software implementations to services in which the underlying technology is less visible and less important to the buyer.

Rather than trying to wrestle over the usage of ‘open’ by Esri, open source businesses could learn a fair bit from the effectiveness of Esri’s marketing in building such a successful business that dominates our market. Along the way, whilst making profits (not a dirty word) Esri and in particular Jack Dangermond have done an enormous amount to promote the use of GI, provided employment for thousands of talented people and created the GIS category which has enabled many other business to prosper. They also give the OSGeo a nice big target to aim at!



9 thoughts on “Esri isn’t evil

  • Gert-Jan van der Weijden

    Excellent post.
    To my opinion Esri’s open platform is just a technical oriented software platform, as opposed to a more business oriented platform like the one Harry Wood describes in his reply to this post. Apparently the geospatial community (whether open or not!) is still mainly focused on the bits and bytes beneath the hood.
    That said, I’d encourage anybody to read a blogpost (although more of a a long read) by Thomas Baele.
    In his post, Thomas describes the characteristics of a) a platform, b) an open platform and c) the potential role of open source software in developing and maintaing and open platform. The fact that his post is about a platform for health IT, and the fact that he uses examples from the automotive industry makes it even a more refreshing read for anybody working in geo-spatial IT.

    Point your browser to

    • Steven

      Thanks for the link Gert-Jan

      Good thinking on platforms and open source and standards.

      “Open source is primarily about models of collaboration and IP ownership.”

      open “source primarily matters around interoperability components”

      whether “high quality secure back-end components are open source or not is largely irrelevant”

      Very selective quoting by me

  • Ho Lee Fuk

    Give me a break! Esri is “open?” Jack Dangermond has gotten to be so disconnected from the real world that he thinks he can redefine what open really means. Go away old man, no-one needs you around here. The geospatial world will be a much better place without him!

    • steven Post author

      I can’t agree with you. I doubt there is any individual in the last 30 years who has made a bigger contribution to the ‘geospatial world’ But hey, in the spirit of openness we are free to disagree

  • Albert Bowden

    i’m perplexed as to how non open source code can be labeled open if the source code is not open source; that completely goes against the very definition of open source.
    sure open is a term that can be used by anyone, but anything not open source, labeling itself as open is open washing.

    • steven Post author

      That’s your definition of ‘open’. The open source community does not own ‘open’. For most users open standards and interoperability are more important than access to source code

  • Jody Garnett

    Thanks for the callback, from the tone of the email I wondered if we were confusing “being marketed as open”. We have a number of uses of open as you highlight: open standards, open data, open source, and open development (inclusive project governance – because open source if not quite enough).

    The interesting one here “open platform” which refers to a business model that should provide a win/win/win for provider/customers/third-parties. It is the creation of this “open platform” that was the key marketing driver. I can point out that the third-parties can include open source projects that use the open platform as an avenue to reach customers.


    * Many startups dream of building just such a biz model in order to chase after a high valuation an “open platform” can command.
    * “open platform” does not need to be proprietary: QGIS is on the cusp of creating just such a platform – what is needed to succeed is a discussion for qgis-devel.
    * Wish we had a better word than “open platform” as the key element is in the marketplace aspect of the biz model.

    • steven Post author

      Agree that the debate is more about business models than source code. There’s nothing inherently evil about proprietary based business models, particularly as we move to services from licences. Many open source businesses have some secret sauce that isn’t open source

    • Harry Wood

      It would be nice if “open” was used to mean the thing involves some open source, open data and/or open standards. We come to expect this, but occasionally someone like come along and remind us that “open” might just mean the much weaker “open access” (as in website!) or open to contribute to the closed data. A very weak kind of open. A particularly weak justification for having “open” in the name. When it feels like open washing like this, we can complain about it, but… we can’t exactly say it’s incorrect. “open” is not a new tech industry word.

      There are some fairly precise and well accepted definitions of “open source”, “open data”, and “open standard”. The former is the oldest, which is maybe why it feels the most well defined. You can see pretty clearly if somebody claims software is open source when it’s not. As a result people don’t. And when they do, they get set straight pretty quickly. Hurray for clear definitions! By “setting straight” I mostly mean social heckling, but “open source” is so well defined, I imagine trade description laws could also be invoked. We should shore up the definitions of “open data” and “open standard” to the same level. Don’t allow people to erode the meaning of these terms.

      Then there’s “open platform”. That is an interesting on indeed. Actually it’s one I’ve given some thought to while working at TransportAPI, because our website used to have a strap-line prominently declaring us to be an “open platform”, and we got some flack for this from an open tech advocate. I don’t feel it was too misleading/open washing. Our API is open for anyone to sign up for and free to a point *and* the data is open licensed. We tick at least some “open” boxes. There’s a similar worry about calling ourselves an “Open API”. These things are not precisely defined, and so maybe it is just falling back to problems with the word “open”.

      “platform” to me implies hosted API/saas features. So in esri’s case, this is not referring to their software (which is mostly proprietary) Their platform is all the stuff (and whatever else they’ve been setting up recently). Is that an “open platform”? Well it’s open for people to sign up and use. You can also use it to publish maps openly. You can use open standard data formats with it. They’re ticking a few “open” boxes.

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