Esri isn’t evil

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!



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