Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Is It Time for Open Source?

The Year 2006 may be the Year of Open Source Mapping.Recent events indicate that significant change is afoot for all software, including mapping software, and this may be the opportunity for which open source has been waiting.The open source conversation has been getting louder for years, and we are now seeing distinct events that suggest that now is the time for open source.

Looking outside our world, Microsoft recently announced its plans for Windows Live and Office Live, Web-based services that will allow users to leverage Microsoft software via the Internet (Boston Globe, November 2, 2005).The company will abandon several desktop titles in favor of this new direction, which indicates that a lot of thought has gone into this decision, and not the kind of thought that leads to a decision like paper or plastic "¦ This kind of thought is supported by tons of research and months, if not years, of market analysis.Obviously, Microsoft sees a stronger future for Internet services than desktop software.Chairman Bill Gates was quoted as saying this was "a revolution in how we think about software," but you have to wonder if this is more of a reaction than a revolution.With the proposed model of selling advertising to generate revenue, this new Windows looks like what Google has been doing for some time.

In our own GIS world, ESRI recently began the process of reacting to Google Earth in its pre-marketing of ArcGIS Explorer.This glorified Web client will enable Google Earth-like functionality with an added level of GIS functionality.Using blogs to get the word out, ESRI seems to be following Google's lead again, if not the lead of open source. Certainly, expectations are high and ESRI will need to meet those expectations in order to reap the benefits of all its efforts. Otherwise, Google and open source will still be seen as the pioneers. And if ESRI does meet expectations and takes ArcGIS Explorer (and its supporting player ArcServer) to new heights in Internet mapping, what will become of the desktop GIS platform? Will industry-leading ESRI discover the same future that industry-leading Microsoft seems poised to embrace?

If so, we have a lot to talk about.It is no secret that open source mapping has found its greatest successes with Internet mapping solutions (GeoServer, MapServer, MapBender and others), and it is easy to see why.Governed by Open Geospatial Consortium standards, the playing field is as level as Fenway Park.In many ways, the open source community has made a home for itself on the Internet.The fact that propriety software vendors are moving into the neighborhood only gives the home field advantage to open source.

The desktop environment was a different matter entirely.Both Microsoft and ESRI based their businesses on desktop licensing and format ownership, and now they are being pulled into a new business model where they will no longer own the data formats.Without this ownership, only two pieces remain: data and service.Many wonder if these industry leaders can derive the same levels of success in this new venue.After all, both Microsoft and ESRI are currently defending their turf against a search engine company, a situation that in itself proves this venue is a whole new world.

But even in this new world, the market must take open source more seriously and raise its acceptance above historical levels in order to enable open source success.As evidence that this is indeed happening, we only need look at the State of Massachusetts' recent mandate for the OpenDocument format (which is the default format for the open source suite OpenOffice).In effect, this mandate establishes a standard format for data storage and exchange that no one owns, which removes the power that vendors have had on the desktop market for decades.In addition, the Massachusetts Department of Revenue initiated a pilot project earlier this year involving 3,500 Linux-based desktops.These moves have been lauded by many as major steps forward for open source, and by others as professional suicide for state leadership.Regardless, the buzz has only increased the open source conversation.If successful, Massachusetts has raised the bar for open source and widened the opportunity for open source success.

Up to this point, all this discussion has focused on factors outside the open source community.And while each of these points is critical to the opportunity for open source, the fact remains that the future of open source rests with the open source community itself.This community must stick with the approach that got them to this point: unity.A visit to the many listservs will show anyone the effectiveness of the open software development model.From the open source conferences, it is clear that the levels of innovation and experimentation are supported by a sense of camaraderie.In a way, open source listservs and conferences feel a lot like proprietary listservs and conferences without the competition.This distinct difference may prove to be the most powerful aspect of open source in 2006 and beyond.

Open source companies are raising their standards to meet and exceed those of their proprietary counterparts.They are building the very same kinds of management tools and development support systems found at proprietary software shops.It is getting increasingly more difficult for propriety vendors to point a finger at poor open source architecture, especially when many of them have themselves had to re-write their own software architecture in the past several years. This continued trend towards professionalism is beginning to erase the long-held reputation of open source as a hobby for hackers, while building a culture of high expectations and broad technical expertise within the open source community.

The Year 2006 may be the year open source mapping makes its biggest move yet.Certainly, the stars are lining up.And while many will say that patience is a virtue, now is not the time to sit and wait. Now is the time to go for it.