Proprietary vs. FOSS in the Geospatial Web

Thanks for the prod Chris, an ideal world that brings open source collaboration to geospatial data does beg the question as to what software will look like. I do strongly suspect that the core components of an architecture of participation for geospatial information would need to be open source, see my post on holarchies of participation. But I think that the edges will likely be proprietary. So the core collaboration server components will be open source, and the easy to use software pieces that aren’t whole hog GIS will be open source. But there will still be proprietary desktop GIS systems, that just have integration with the collaboration components. There is a lot of advanced functionality which it will just not make sense for the OS community to hit.

Weber provides a good lens to examine the implications of open source taken further:

The notion of ‘open-sourcing’ as a strategic organizational decision can be seen as an efficiency choice around distributed innovation, just as ‘outsourcing’ as an efficiency choice around transaction costs.

The simple logic of open sourcing would be a choice to pursue ad hoc distributed development of solutions for a problem that exists within an organization, is likely to exist elsewhere as well, and is not the key source of competitive advantage or differentiation for the organization.

So pieces of the stack that aren’t a source of competitive advantage for anyone will be those most likely to be open sourced. We see this with Frank Warmerdam’s GDAL library, which the All Points blog reports is included in ESRI’s crown jewel software. Why would the most proprietary software of the GIS world start using open source software? Because the task of reading in a variety of different formats isn’t a competitive advantage for them, so it makes more sense to cooperate than compete. How will this play out in the longer run? Data formats make the most sense, and along the same lines is projection libraries. The next step I see past that is the basic user interfaces.

This is starting to happen with new pluggable GIS systems like uDig. I see it quite likely that such toolkits that handle the reading and writing of formats and basic UI’s will have proprietary functionality built on top of them relatively soon. There will continue to be innovations in GIS analysis, new operations to be performed on data, better automatic extraction from vectors, ect. as well as innovations in visualization and more compelling user interfaces. These will be sold as proprietary software which integrates with the open source systems. The cool thing about this is it lowers the barrier to entry to new innovations in GIS, since a new company won’t have to write a full GIS system, and they won’t have to be dependent on a single company (like the current ArcGIS component sellers who are hosed if ArcGIS decides to replicate their functionality). And you will likely still have proprietary databases for advanced functionality – Oracle has great topology and versioning support that is not yet there in PostGIS. PostGIS will catch up in a couple of years, but by that time Oracle should have even more advanced functionality.

Another place we might see proprietary at the edges is open standards. We’ll likely see the basic standards – WMS, WFS, WCS – mostly fulfilled by open source. But proprietary software will likely do the more interesting analysis, the real web service chaining thing. Just like you’ll have proprietary plug-ins to uDig, so too will there be plug-ins for the Web Processing Service specification. One will be able to take an open source WFSor WCS and pass it to a proprietary WPS for some special processing (generalization, feature extraction, ect.), displaying the results on an open source WMS. I also suspect geospatial search will be best done by proprietary services, as is the trend in the wider web world. Of course Google and Yahoo run open source software extensively, but they keep their core search logic private. So geospatial web services that require massive processing power will likely have core logic proprietary, but will base it on open source software. This again follows Weber’s point – the basic functionality isn’t a core differentiator, so there will be collaboration on basic functionality – returning WMS and WFS of processed data or search results, for example – and proprietary innovation on the edges (more advanced processing algorithms on huge clusters of computers).

In short, proprietary software will continue to exist, it just won’t play the central role. It will be forced to push the edges of innovation even more to stay afloat, but I suspect it will always be a leading edge. Of course I believe open source will innovate as well, especially in this geospatial collaboration area. But the ideal is a hybrid world with the right balance of cooperation and competition to push things forward faster than we could alone.


4 thoughts on “Proprietary vs. FOSS in the Geospatial Web

  1. Funny I’m just listening to this talk where Larry Augustin mentions that on average 82 % of the new license of a piece of “enterprise software” goes to pay for sales marketing (source of the figure is Golden sacks or some such). That doesn’t leave much for innovation.

    My 2 cents, 82 % of which I keep for myself 😉

    Yves Moisan

  2. Pingback: IONIC Tech Blog » Blog Archive » Opensource vs proprietary software
  3. Chris,

    It is no coincidence that I picked data translators as the easiest wedge where I thought I could get proprietary companies to cooperate on an open source component. Exactly because it is messy, but generally not a source of competative advantage.

    I also really like your point about open source components lowering the barriers to entry for proprietary (or open source) projects wanting to build specialized applications. I’ve definately seen this play out in my world, with new proprietary startups using components like GDAL/OGR, and PROJ.4 as components so they can focus on their competative advantage.

    As you point out, I think uDig is a next level up in terms of provided components on which custom solutions can be built. It will be interesting to see what sort of adoption it attracts as a platform on which to build various custom solutions.

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