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Quest for Maps: Boon or Bane for Geospatial Industry?

In 2003, while visiting the Esri Campus in Redlands, I got my first exposure to the geospatial content aggregation programme called Geography Network. Dozens of desktop servers were networked to create a platform for Esri users to populate their maps and share them with other users through the Geography Network.

Come 2005 and Google launched its first ever aggregated and organised geospatial content in public domain at a negligible cost (almost free of cost). The move made billions of users around the world gain access to maps and satellite images. Microsoft followed suit with its own programme called Microsoft Virtual Earth, which eventually came to be called as Bing Maps. The ever expanding and burgeoning navigation market added a new dimension to overall value of geospatial content, triggering big acquisitions of Tele Atlas by TomTom, valued at about $ 4.3 Billion. And, fearing growing competition from Google, Nokia too jumped into the ball game and went on to acquire Navteq at an unimaginable price of $8.1 Billion.

Despite the fact that Apple didn’t join the bandwagon, businesses across the world continued to rake in the moolah and transactions close to $25 billion dollars on account of geospatial content were carried out from 2004 to 2009. In fact, acquisition of MapInfo by Pitney Bowes also found motivation in Pitney Bowes’ quest for having its own exclusive geospatial information and software capabilities.

While building exclusive self-owned geospatial content empire, big IT and telecommunication giants acquired a range of small, medium and large geospatial companies. Their quest for the acquisitions continued until recently when Google bought Skybox, offering a constellation of small satellites to constantly monitor and update each and every activity happening on the face of the planet earth. Additionally, since social media is the latest buzzword and an easy access tool for data, various social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin are building their own platforms for using geospatial information in their respective business processes.

Acquisitions, buy-outs and partnerships are reverberating on the business front, hence comes the time to monetise such investments. Google, with its largest IT machinery, managed to leverage its outreach to monetise and harness the value of its investments through efficient advertising revenue streams and online navigation tools that are available on smartphones. Furthermore, Google went on to offer geospatial software solutions, bundled with its geospatial data suit to large businesses and government organisations. Despite all of this, the technology giant finally showed a sign of losing its faith in geospatial exclusivity by terminating its software solutions group in February this year; and offered compensation to its large customer base for withdrawing itself from professional geospatial market.

Following this move by Google, the uncertainty over Microsoft Bing Maps was looming. The clouds of uncertainty hovering over Microsoft Bing Maps winked today, when it offered to collaborate and share its platform, people and data with Uber.

The story of Nokia is known to one and all. Probably, the acquisition of highly valued Navteq marked beginning of its downfall as the investment as huge as this wasn’t easy to be recovered for an engineering company like Nokia. Changes in PND based navigation market took TomTom by surprise; its revenues continued to fall on a regular basis and brought it almost to a closure. But, thanks to Apple’s sudden realisation and affection for maps, and exclusivity of content by other big players, TomTom found ground and trotted towards economic recovery by selling and reselling its geospatial content to Apple.

This makes me ponder – how all of this happened over a period of last one decade? Who has been behind this upsurge and growth of geospatial content? How come geospatial caught overnight attention of Google, Microsoft and Nokia? Or have there been geospatial champions who attributed to this revolution? Of course, competent geospatial professionals were the backbone of this movement, though it would be difficult to attribute this upsurge to them, officially.

While tracing the movement of few geospatial professionals in last 12 to 15 years, it is imperative to understand their extraordinary vision towards making geospatial a commodity. After having been denied opportunities by leading geospatial companies, they did venture out and joined hands with large IT and Telecommunication companies to create huge markets and ultimately succeeded in their mission of making geospatial information a public commodity. And it’s the same set of people who are moving on towards setting next frontiers for geospatial market including business intelligence, target advertising, media and entertainment, social media, e-commerce and Internet of Things.

But why am I concerned today? The future is promising and the geospatial industry is expanding and growing to its fullest potential. How does it matter to me as a geospatial advocate if big players are making an entry or an exit? Or for that matter losing or gaining money in their businesses. Ultimately, I should be looking at the growth and maturity of geospatial industry and nothing beyond. Yes, actually I am in a state of flux, where excitement is challenged by equal, if not more, sense of concern.

Did we oversell dreams, which eventually caused exit of big players? If so, then did we take lessons from our earlier experiences? Seems like ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Despite hundreds of billions of dollars having been invested in geospatial capabilities in last one decade, we still do not see an organised and mature geospatial industry. We are, time and again, debating on setting up mechanisms and methodologies to assess return on investments. We are yet to fully evolve and integrate geospatial workflows with user industries. None of the significantly large IT, Telecommunication and Engineering companies came forward to invest and strengthen geospatial business and practices. There is not even a single 5 billion plus geospatial company, we are yet to have one. But how does it affect? Yes it does, long term business value and sustainable growth is driven by constant investment and improvements in overall industrialisation, capacity and infrastructure supported by cutting edge technical, financial and managerial equity.

We, as geospatial industry, need to develop our capabilities and serve the needs of user industries instead of creating buy back oriented captive plants of geospatial content. In order to make attract constant investments towards improving the quality and currency of geospatial content, we need to enhance its economy of scale by serving to larger number of organisations across different industries, globally. The resort will make geospatial content more service oriented, solutions more valuable, products more affordable, investments more steady, innovations more open, and companies more profitable. This will ultimately move the industry towards business maturity and multiplying sustainable growth for industry.