Are we returning to a time of heated GIS software competition?

by Matt Ball on June 17, 2011

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It’s not likely that we’ll return to the degree of competition in the GIS software space that marked the late 1980s through the late 1990s, when geospatial software platform companies and service providers proliferated. There has been a good deal of maturity in the market with fewer opportunities for newcomers, and a lot of consolidation of companies since then. However, there have been several high-profile changes of late that speak to a return to greater head-to-head GIS platform competition.

While the competition among vendors has certainly never gone away, there has been an effort to diversify and not take each other on directly. Esri has widened their lead with strong marketing and software development, and a continued focus on defining GIS, while other traditional players have moved away from branding themselves as GIS providers or even geospatial platform developers. That seems to be shifting now with a resurgence on platform development, and with new players elevating their presence.

Diversification and Distractions

From the flurry of desktop GIS development that marked the 1980s, there were a handful of major players that emerged — Esri, Intergraph, MapInfo, Smallworld and Autodesk among them. These companies competed head-to-head for the large and long-term contracts of government and  enterprise implementation throughout the 1990s, but as the frequency of these large contracts receded, there was greater diversification. First we saw MapInfo focus on the business user and speak about their offering as enterprise software, then we saw Intergraph take a solutions approach that moved toward integration of technologies for specific markets rather than platform development for broader markets, Smallworld was purchased by GE and was subsumed into other utility-focused software, and Autodesk made much of their geospatial capability open source.

In addition to the strategic diversification, Intergraph, MapInfo and Smallworld each faced some distraction when they were acquired by other entities. The need to assimilate technologies and adapt strategies caused some disruption in software development. Additionally, there has been the impact of the economic downturn that has caused these public companies to focus on their core competencies and their bottom line, placing less resources on research and development (particularly true of Intergraph as they have been owned by a venture capital firm before the Hexagon purchase).

Enterprise and Analytics

The picture is rather different now with Intergraph and MapInfo particularly. These companies both held their annual conferences last week, and for the first time in a long time there is talk about further geospatial platform development with a focus on enterprise enablement and spatial analytical capabilities. MapInfo just launched a Spatial Server product and have discussed plans for a next-generation modular suite. The combination of Intergraph and ERDAS under Hexagon has led to new integration and discussion of products and capabilities that is being touted as a ‘dynamic GIS‘ that combines both raster and vector analysis.

There’s a similar level of analytical integration taking place in the GIS/CAD/BIM convergence end. Both Autodesk and Bentley are adding a richer set of analytics to inform design process with such metrics as energy efficiency and resource use, and providing tools to visualize at the broader landscape scale. Autodesk’s Project Galileo is a conceptual design tool that takes on some of the ideas of broader GIS use for planning and design encapsulated in Esri’s GeoDesign concept. Similarly, Bentley has placed an emphasis on 3D geospatial workflows with their Bentley Map Enterprise tool.

Customization and the Cloud

The upswell of companies that offer custom geospatial coding capabilities for mobile or web-based platforms continues, although it isn’t as energetic as of late. There are issues with business models, particularly for those that have offered tools tied to mashups to build upon the consumer-oriented platforms of Google and Microsoft for visualization. The open source toolset is tough to categorize, but probably fits best in the category of customization given the full access to source code, and the active developer community. Functionality of these tools is often a good match to GIS capability, and in several areas superior in terms of processing speeds.

Meanwhile, the vision for cloud-based processing, analytical, and networking capabilities provides great promise to extend the user base to those that don’t have an interest or the capital to take the traditional enterprise GIS route with its expensive and complicated server installations. The cloud is an accessible extension for smaller players through capacity offered by Amazon, Microsoft and others, with new players such as GeoCommons offering cloud services. At the higher end of the vision it’s a significant investment. The recently announced Google Earth Builder combines processing and storage capacity to host and serve geospatial data. Esri has announced the coming ability to host cached map and feature services via the cloud as well, making a significant and ongoing investment on aggregating geospatial data and computing capacity for use on the cloud.

While there have been continued GIS advancements over the decade or so of a diversified geospatial platform space, things could get really interesting with more direct competition. With the heated competition, it will be an entertaining and rewarding next decade as GIS functionality continues to proliferate and expand into new markets with new capabilities. Nothing sparks innovation like heated competition, and the geospatial toolset and platform development space certainly appears to be heating up.

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