This past month we had the privilege of attending two events prominent in the world of GIS — the Executive GeoEngineering Summit, sponsored by Bentley Systems, and a meeting of the OpenGIS Consortium Technical Committee. We enjoy attending events like these because they present you with a good picture of what is really happening in the industry at large — usually from candid user and vendor perspectives. Through exchanges with colleagues, peers, pundits, proponents, and detractors, you can come away from events such as these energized with new ideas and points to ponder. You can also come away from these events slightly bruised if you get involved in the heated discussions and debates that inevitably occur.
While the two events were quite different in content and nature, we couldn’t help but notice a few recurring undercurrent themes emanating for them both.
GIS Is Not CAD, But They Are Converging Anyway
Although some have made more progress than others, most of the major CAD and GIS vendors are working very hard to develop and market products that bridge the gap typically found between CAD and GIS products. Keep in mind, though, that by their very nature, CAD and GIS are quite different applications with regard to the functions they perform and the roles they are expected to fulfill. To fully appreciate the effort put forth by vendors to converge the two applications, we should briefly discuss why this gap has existed in the first place.
Historically, CAD products have been used to enter and manipulate graphics. CAD typically has all the necessary coordinate geometry, accuracy, and differentiation to provide the best graphic representation of geographic features. GIS, on the other hand, has been used to store and analyze data. GIS leverages the graphics found in CAD data to support problem-solving by supplementing the graphics with spatial data capabilities.
GIS is not a true discipline per se; rather, it is a way to integrate a process across related disciplines through sharing data and application logic.
GIS applications for solving problems typically require complex spatial analysis and customized routines, because they are driven by the need to solve a variety of problems and speculative scenarios. To support "what-if" scenarios and analysis problems, a number of additional abilities are needed beyond the CAD representation of geospatial data. These additional capabilities increase the return on investment in CAD/GIS data by increasing its applicability to a wider variety of problems.
Today, the most prominent positive results in efforts to converge CAD and GIS are coming from Autodesk with AutoCAD Map running on top of AutoCAD, Bentley Systems with MicroStation GeoGraphics running on top of MicroStation 95, and ESRI with ArcCAD running on top of AutoCAD. These CAD-based GIS applications are among the first of the CAD/GIS hybrids that can not only create, edit, and manipulate graphic entities (drawings), but they can also handle topological spatial relationships between those entities.
Now that CAD and GIS are heading toward convergence, users will be faced with the monumental task of evaluating and selecting the products, services, and technologies that best suit their needs for today, while also having to deal with yesterday’s data and tomorrow’s challenges.
Look Out Below
For all the goodwill the OpenGIS Consortium is putting forth and the apparent love-in that is taking place in the spirit of cooperation of its member vendors, there is a strong undertow just below the surface that could threaten to slow down the Consortium’s efforts. This possible rift seems to be coming from Microsoft and Sun.
Let’s look briefly at a couple of examples.
For all the press it receives, ActiveX (formerly OLE), Microsoft’s answer to Sun’s Java, is not a favored technology or environment in a lot of software development circles. This fact alone has Microsoft concerned, nervous, and on the defensive for virtually the first time in its history. Contrary to what Microsoft would like you to think, ActiveX is not truly platform independent — guess which platform it is optimized for. In light of all this, we were surprised, however, to hear from many people (even some Microsoft foes), that contrary to popular opinion, Microsoft is not the primary driving force or main sponsor behind the OpenGIS Consortium and its efforts.
Sun, on the other hand, would like to be the software product development platform of choice for Intel-based PCs, as well the rest of the computing universe with Java and applets.
This platform independence is very popular with most users, but (understandably) something of an unsettling situation for vendors developing products — especially a couple from northern California and Alabama that have literally bet the farm on the fortunes and future of Microsoft’s domination as the desktop operating system.
Oracle is charging ahead into new markets and making alliances with new partners, largely in areas that Oracle was not associated with as recently as a year or two ago. The company is increasingly becoming a powerhouse to be reckoned with.
Although relatively new on GIS turf, Oracle is a very intelligent company that is positioning itself to be a major player, if not one of the major players in this arena. The company sees that there are problems, realities, and opportunities in this marketplace. Oracle perceives today’s main problem as the current hybrid CAD/GIS architecture and model that is interfering with enterprise-wide data management. The realities it sees are the fact that we are currently in a third, interactive wave of intra/inter-networking — a "Network Society" that consists of objects, components, and distributed computing. The opportunities include being influential for the new standards and infrastructures evolving for geoinformation and geoprocessing. Oracle is clearly in a position to grasp the problems, deal with the realities, and seize the opportunities.
We overheard an interesting chain of events that may portend Oracle’s future. Just as Microsoft gave Bentley and Intergraph "guidance" with their software products; Netscape is giving Oracle "guidance," but Oracle may ultimately give "guidance" to everybody. This "guidance" chain may come to pass with Oracle becoming a probable big winner in GIS, because even today, many independent software vendor (ISV) products sit on top of Oracle. As these Oracle products continue to proliferate, many proprietary GIS database products from smaller vendors may be rendered obsolete. We, therefore think that GIS vendors that are cozying up to Oracle are doing the right thing for both today and tomorrow.
Much like Sun, Oracle was a very vocal presence at the OpenGIS Technical Committee that we attended. We felt that the significance of this presence was not only the fact that they are among those that have potentially the most to offer, but because they also have potentially the most to gain.n
Jeffrey Rowe, Editor