Oh Sh1t! Spin the wheel, that looks like an f’ing big iceberg ahead! 4

Some nifty footwork may be needed to avoid these... Thanks to Bods https://www.flickr.com/photos/bods/

At the beginning of 2010 I was involved in editing the AGI Foresight Study and focussed on changing business models and the challenges that we foresaw for the UK industry. My personal take on this evolved into a presentation that I gave a few times entitled Cocktails on the Titanic. My final slide asked the audience whether they felt they were facing a threat or an opportunity, implying that the impact of change could be determined by their response.

Following on from that I had a spirited debate with Ian Painter on Open Source vs Proprietary software in which I think we both agreed that the whole life cost of a solution was much more than simple license costs, I blogged my position on that here which prompted some lengthy comments from Ian and Mike Cooper of ESRI UK. Back then I said

“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.”

Step forward a year and Mike Saunt of Astun (an Open Source focussed business) points me to this blog by Chris McCartney of PBBI (I used to work for PBBI up to 2008, Chris used to report to me) entitled Open Source is not as free as you might think it is. You can read the post and form your own judgement, I have not changed my views from the post that I quote from above however I think the best possible response comes from Paul Ramsey who has pretty much done a word replace substituting “Proprietary Software” wherever Chris used “Open Source” to show how much of the opinions expressed in Chris’ piece can be applied to his own company’s software as well as Open Source. So for example when Chris says

“I’ve already seen firsthand, organisations that have tried and given up on building a sustainable product to sell based entirely on open source, and organisations do a complete U-turn on their own bespoke open source project because of spiralling costs and concerns over maintenance.”

Paul responds

“I’ve already seen firsthand, organizations that have tried and given up on building a sustainable product to sell based entirely on proprietary software, and organizations do a complete U-turn on what they were told were “off-the-shelf” systems because of spiralling costs and concerns over maintenance.”

This is not a religious war and I am not an Open Source zealot or fundamentalist, it is simply down to answering the question “what get’s the job done most economically (considering whole life cost), fastest and with best performance/scalability/fulfillment of clients’ real needs”. If that is ESRI, MapInfo or MapServer or QGIS, who cares?

I was puzzled why a PBBI employee felt the need to post this kind of competition bashing stuff about Open Source which seemed to be a rehash of some fairly out of date and largely debunked FUD (that’s Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) so I reached out to friends in the geotwittersphere and got back a few observations:

  • 3 current or former MapInfo partners in the UK have either wholly or partially switched to Open Source
  • Public sector users in Australia and France are switching to Open Source for web applications
  • At least one client is switching from MI Pro desktop to QGIS (I doubt many “Power Users” will find that to be a satisfactory alternative)
  • Korem who are, I believe, PBBI MapInfo’s largest partner are sponsoring FOSS4G this year and say on their web site

“Recent years have seen substantial changes in the geospatial industry. One of those changes has been the growth in maturity and adoption of free and open source solutions.

At Korem, we use a mixture of open and closed source solutions. Rather than applying a one-size-fits-all option, we carefully explore our customers’ business challenges and requirements. We craft a solution that fits today and scales into the future.”

So maybe someone in the cockpit of the good ship PBBI has just spotted the icebergs ahead and is yelling out “Oh Sh1t! Spin the wheel, that looks like an f’ing big iceberg ahead!” It looks to me as if they view Open Source as a Challenge rather than an Opportunity to their business.

Perhaps someone from PBBI would like to have a georant off or an impromptu debate with me on this topic at GeoCommunity?

4 thoughts on “Oh Sh1t! Spin the wheel, that looks like an f’ing big iceberg ahead!

  • Nathan

    “As for why I wrote the post, it was off the back of a few conversations with people who’d got the understanding that open source was free and would be easy to implement. in short they really thought it would be Eutopia with no risk.”

    And I guess this is the biggest misunderstanding with open source. There is always a cost with everything even if it is “free”, time, money etc. I prefer the openness to the cost aspect, although not everyone cares about openness and it can be a hard thing to sell by itself.

  • Chris

    Hi Steven,

    Enjoyed your post, and perhaps my original post wasn’t clear enough as really I was pointing out something very similar.

    Evaluate your needs and pick what suits you.

    As well you know, we’ve used a mixture of open and closed software for some time now to try and provide our customers with the best offering. No doubt we – like everyone – don’t always succeed in the way we anticipated, but thats life. I said to Paul that prior to all the interest in my original post I was considering writing another peice to say how buying propietary software equally was not necessarily the answer, but then he went and did it for me. The second post Paul wrote was a very good counter balance and one I will reference.

    Maybe if a sales man from a propietary vendor sells the wrong software he gets a short term win. But that usually results in a long term unhappy customer to deal with. I have never advocated customers buy technology when there is a better alternative to suit their needs and I’m not about to start. Obviously in my position I’d love everyone to look at our stuff and go “wow, yea I want that” but thats not the real world. Some people got the context of my post, and some didn’t.

    Open Source is an opportunity both to PBBI and the industry. It will help push us to add further value to our software and make sure we look to deliver the best solution to customers. If we don’t do this, then we will fall by the way side.

    As for why I wrote the post, it was off the back of a few conversations with people who’d got the understanding that open source was free and would be easy to implement. in short they really thought it would be Eutopia with no risk. I’m amazed it’s drawn the attention it has. Everyone you reached out to is at the forefront of the industry, just because you’ve seen these debates a few years ago doesn’t mean everyone across the world has. Of course, if you really wanted to know the answer, you’d have picked up the phone 🙂

    I lost all my contacts hacking around in my phone the other week, so send me a text if you fancy a beer/lunch.


    PS – I recall working with you, I don’t recall working for you 🙂

  • Ewan

    Great article Steve. I think the key point for me is understanding what you are trying to do and make your solution fit that. Not try and push a tech to fit something for the sake of it. In my experience the client is not overly bothered how you do it as long as it works and is reliable. Seems fair enough. I can see how the “traditional” vendors (no names) see open source as a threat. Surely though the more people that end up using this tech the better. We all win in the end ?

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