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Pathways for Growth

Prof. Josef Strobl
Centre for Geoinformatics,
Salzburg University,

As GIS has been around for many decades, can we really expect major innovation, or do we rather look at slow, incremental evolution? Are we expecting any more than further maturing, with periodical technology-driven improvements in line with overall development in ICT?

Or, is there a potential for a broader expansion of geospatial thinking and toolsets into our daily lives, going far beyond the professional instruments of traditional ‘mapping disciplines’? Exploring this question requires starting from an assessment of some current issues. It certainly is correct to observe that over the last decade GIS has integrated well with mainstream ICT. This means that GIS now can leverage innovations from the computing industry and apply these for the benefit of its own applications. GIS development can increasingly build on top of established architectures and is in a position to reduce ‘platform infrastructure’ development for the benefit of geospatial core functionality.

At the same time, developers are facing the effects of the law of diminishing returns regarding their efforts: increasingly higher levels of complexity, interfacing tasks and reliance on generic components (the downside of what was pointed out

in the preceding paragraph) and a very diverse range of application demands are leading to ever more complex development. Read: longer release cycles, less than perfectly reliable software, major interfacing problems and architectural incompatibilities etc. All of this translates into a potentially spiralling cost of development for a somewhat saturated user base. In other words: user revenue is growing at a slower pace than development cost dictated by the ever increasing complexity required by users. This discrepancy is exacerbated by many users’ expectations that software can be acquired for free, that different business models in the software and consulting industries can somehow magically reduce the cost of providing advanced GI services.

While there certainly is some truth to all of those observations, the industry follows different strategies for coping with these current trends and to evolve towards tomorrow’s GIS foundations:

Focus and Specialize
We all (ie, certainly a majority of the computer literate population) have made the experience that even as an above-average user of any standard office software product we use perhaps 5 percent of the functionality offered by today’s advanced and mature products. Does this mean that more can 50 percent of the market can be satisfied with a product at only five percent the (development) cost? And, due to greatly reduced complexity, at much higher quality and reliability?

This is the line of thinking followed by a number of alternative software products. KISS (Keep It Small and Simple) is a proven strategy to avoid bloated and over-specified software. Many niches and specialized applications are doing well by employing ‘their own’ products, and several industries are well advised to explore this option.

Of course this option is not without problems and may cause enormous difficulties in the long run. Scalability of specialized niche applications typically is very limited, whoever had experienced out-growing one’s software and having to completely change an architecture will be able to tell several less than funny stories. Any change in scope and focus might lead to similar effects. Interfacing with other systems along a value chain or to enable a new workflow requires adherence to continuously evolving standards specialized developers rarely have the potential to take care of this. Plus the staffing issue: out-of-the-mainstream qualifications are more expensive to acquire and maintain, harder to find and staff will be more reluctant to personally invest into more outlandish skill sets.