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[archive] Inaugural Issue of GIS Monitor

I started GIS Monitor in 2000. My pitch to my then boss, Tenlinks CEO Roopinder Tara, was that the GIS industry needed a newsletter akin to Ralph Grabowski's Upfront.ezine. Roopinder thought that was a great idea and we agreed the first issue [full archive on Archive.org]would go out later that week, on Thursday Aug 18. The timing was perfect because on Wednesday Aug 17, 2000 GE bought Smallworld and I was among the first "insiders" to write about it.

I wrote weekly for five years and  stepped down on Feb 10, 2005. My goodbye "Editor's Note" follows the first issue, below. That issue announced the beta of Google Maps.

The GIS Education Newsletter I currently send out each week on Thursdays stems from what I learned at this and other publications over the last two decades.

Welcome to the premier issue of the GIS Monitor!

August 17 - GE Power Systems to Buy Smallworld for $210 Million

In a move that startled some industry observers, GE Power Systems announced that it will buy UK-based Smallworld for a sum of $210 million. This amount dwarfs the last significant sale of a utility focused GIS company when Autodesk bought Vision* from MCI Systemhouse for $26 million last year.

Once a stock market favorite, Smallworld had seen it share price dip from a post IPO high of $35 in 1998 to as low as $5. Initial talk of new products, expanding into new markets and an expensive marketing effort gave way to layoffs and restructuring. Rumors of acquisition circulated with each downturn. Smallworld stock recovered somewhat, but its share price tended to stay close to its initial $12 IPO price. 

This time, Smallworld may have been ripe for purchase. They'd just announced a good quarter, acquired key tools (from Convergent), forged strong partnerships (Stoner Associates) and acquired the Spatial IT unit of Navigant consulting (formerly GeoData). Smallworld held not only a more complete set of tools, but also more brainpower than ever before in its history. In addition, Smallworld has been well received by users. Its object oriented model and exclusive work in the utilities market drew much acclaim and interest from gas and electric utilities. Its ability to manage long transactions -- changes to the existing model that are made over hours, weeks or months -- was best in class. 

One has to wonder how Smallworld will fare as part of GE, a company better known for consumer products and jet engines. Can GE integrate Smallworld into its multiple offerings? To its credit, GE is not with some prowess in software, producing much in the way of plant monitoring, optimization and custom power generation software. Interestingly, they also produce a product called MAPS, used to assess power demand. GE provides all sorts of services to test, service and install its hardware. And finally, there are professional services consulting services, including a software group. Many of GE Power System's clients are exactly the type that have purchased or may purchase a Smallworld system.

Still, large multidisciplinary companies do not have a good record with GIS, especially GIS development. IBM's foray in to GIS (GFIS) was short lived. GDS, EDS, and ultimately Convergent Group spun out GDS. Even Autodesk, who knows a great deal about software, has had its fits and starts with GIS. 

Smallworld's main competitors include ESRI's (and partner Miner and Miner) ArcFM, Autodesk's Vision*, Intergraph's FRAMME and others. Each of these companies, however, supplies a much broader base than utility-focussed Smallworld. That said, each one certainly strengthened its utility product line when Smallworld entered the market. And, to their credit, when Smallworld tried to move into traditional GIS arenas, such as local government, its competitors held the newcomer at bay. 

Finally, it appears that GE Power Systems does not support telecommunications. It will be interesting to see what becomes of this part of the business. Smallworld had gained some renown, especially with a big contract at British Telecom in April, and the release of a series of telco products in the late 1990s.

Aug 7 - MapInfo miDirections.com Goes "Live" 

MapInfo announced that miDirections.com, an online site for point-to-point driving directions, was now 'live' at http://www.midirections.com. The new service offers driving directions as well as maps to any address within the USA.

MapInfo hopes this service will be popular with business users. And, though you can visit and key in two addresses in the USA and get directions, the real goal here is to provide applications to run "click and mortar" homepages. Using an ASP model, MapInfo hopes to rent this functionality to companies that need customers to "find the nearest" and then "find the way there." Both MapInfo and MapQuest.com claim, 90% of consumers visiting a retailers' Web sites expect to find a store locator or map.

A quick "test drive" turned up some glitches. A staff member in California did a quick comparison between Mapquest, arguably the market leader, and miDirections by requested directions between home and work. "Both services had me driving continually on a road that is discontinuous," he reported. "Mapquest did better than miDirections since it took a more direct route. MiDirections actually had me making an inexplicable circle before going in the right direction." I tracked my commute around Boston. MapInfo had my home geocoded at the wrong end of my street. Then I was taken on a circuitous route including two state highways. I was also dismayed that the main roads of travel were not marked on the map. MapQuest had my home correctly located and provided a more direct route. 

MapInfo's service provides access to GDT Dynamap 2000 transportation data, quarterly data updates of customer sites, quarterly updates of routing network and street display data, and bi-monthly updates of MapInfo MapMarker Plus geocoding data.

Pricing, according to a brochure dated in March, looks like this:

miSites (find the nearest) -$1,500 set-up -$4,995 12 month subscription including up to 300,000 map draws/year -$1,000 for 100,000 additional draws; available in advance, or as needed

miDirections (point to point directions) -Requires subscription to miSites -$4,995 for a 12 month -subscription including up to 100,000 routes -$3,000 for 100,000 additional routes; available in advance, or as needed

Mapquest and other providers make pricing information available on a case-by-case basis, and do not have a "price list." The Mapquest rep did note their prices range up to $300,000. 

MapInfo points out that most users purchase both the find the nearest part (MiSites) and the directions (MiDirections)  totaling $10,000/year annual subscription. This statement must be based on those who bought the service before it was packaged as miSites and miDirections. It's interesting to note that MapQuest, MapBlast, and others, while offering this type of solution, also have a freebie way to put maps on your site and/or allow links to their sites for directions. There are no such freebies from miDirections at this time.

The real question here is, can MapInfo provide a significantly different solution than MapQuest and others? For now, they all tout the same benefits (no updates for the user, supported 24/7 by the hosting company on their server, seamless integration with the existing site, etc.) Data may make a difference: seeing the Navigation Technology logo on my Mapquest map may explain why my house was correctly located. MapQuest can boast a host of big users (American Express, Kinko's, Yahoo, Sears) while MapInfo, as yet, does not do so. Further, MapInfo to date, only provides US service while MapQuest supports areas outside the US, important for global companies.

To add to the fray, there is another path to interactive maps such as these: the retailer can install and host an application on their own site. Out of the box solutions for the US, such as RouteMapIMS from ESRI, start at $3,000. It will be some time before we know which model, "renting from" an ASP or self-hosting wins. And, as more players enter both markets, the winner in each arena is yet to be determined.

August 9 MapInfo Goes Mobile with Oracle 8i

MapInfo unveiled MapInfo MapinHand, a business-to-business solution built on Oracle8i(TM) that enables organizations to supply field staff real-time access to critical, location-based data using handheld devices.

This is MapInfo's answer to Autodesk's OnSite and ESRI's ArcPad. The former uses Oracle 8i Lite on the handheld device to read Oracle data, while the latter uses GIS formats (shape files, JPEGs etc.) for storage. MapInfo supports its own Tab format as well as Oracle format.

Field use of GIS has always been a challenge: bright sunlight makes displays hard to see, "toughened" hardware can be expensive and IS managers continually worry about data security. Now, in the wireless era we add bandwidth concerns and the tiny screens of PDAs and phones. That said, many companies are jumping into the market. Autodesk shared many Palms at GITA to show their application. And, utilities in particular, are quick to explore these technologies. MapInfo's traditional strength in wireless and wireless planning may help bring MapinHand to that arena. Still, other companies including ESRI, Intergraph, Bentley and Autodesk have more infrastructure data in their native formats to manage. The extensive use of ArcView, ArcInfo, MicroStation and AutoCAD mean more pipes, wires, streets and other information are stored in shape files, coverages, DGN files and DWG files.


A Proliferation Of Discussion

I was very pleased to see Directions Magazine's great Discussion Area where the posts to numerous GIS mailing lists are available to read and search. 

On August 3, Directions, along with Intergraph, introduced a new mailing list for Intergraph GIS products called GeoMedia-L. The list, which is also mirrored on Directions site, aims to cover MGE and GeoMedia. The list saw 14 messages in its first week, a respectable number.

Intergraph users already have some communities. Intergraph's USENET group, comp.sys.intergraph, has been mostly about hardware in the last few years. To be fair, there was the odd question about GeoMedia or SmartSketch, but far more discussion of Intense3D, TDs and other hardware and drivers. The Intergraph hosted "Techie Talk" is more active and more focused on technical info. 

Apparently, Directions and Intergraph thought another was worthwhile. And, so did the folks at SpatialNews. This past week they too were starting an Intergraph GIS mailing list, this one referencing the mapping and GIS users at IGUG. SpatialNews has already set up an on-line archive.

So, I'll ask: Does the GIS community NEED 4 places to discuss Intergraph GIS? We'll see. Certainly ESRI seems to have enough traffic to support ESRI hosted forums (for each product), ESRI-L, their newslist for all products except ArcView, ArcView-L (two of them - one from ESRI and one from Bill Huber) and a USENET group comp.infosystems.gis.esri. 

Just to put things in perspective, MapInfo-L is consistently the most active mailing list. This past week it sports 165 messages, with ArcView-L (ESRI) a distant second at 130. 


More on Mailing Lists

Another organization started a GIS mailing list this past week. If you are a member of GITA you received an email announcing their GEOXchange, a mailing list for members to discuss geospatial information technology. There were some glitches with technology at the outset causing unintended mail to bounce to all users. URISA had hosted a discussion at Egroups.com had a "breakdown" of sorts a few months ago and has since restarted at topica.com. These types of glitches are inevitable, but it does raise some questions about mailing lists vs. web-based discussions. 

One further point, with so many FREE ways to keep an archive on-line, and even password protect them for members only, I'll suggest it's disrespectful for organizations not to provide this option. The best freebie hosting options (such as egroups.com), offer three options for participation: mail out by message, mail out digest (grouping a days messages in one email) and read online. Each participant can decide how to get access to the material.

From the Feb 10, 2005 issue:

Today's issue of GIS Monitor will be the last that I edit. I'll be retuning to my consulting business and joining the team at Directions MagazineGIS Monitor will continue with a new editor, Matteo Luccio, an MIT graduate, and former managing editor of GPS World Magazine.

It's been a wild ride since this publication debuted August 18, 2000. I've covered acquisitions, new technologies, lawsuits, exciting (and not so exciting) conferences, profiled interesting people, and generally spoken my mind on the technology and business worlds that relate to geography. When I started GIS Monitor, GIS was the term of choice, today this arena is popularly described as geospatial and includes location-based services, remote sensing, earth observation, GPS, fleet tracking, indoor locating, LiDAR, and a host of specialty geospatial technologies and business opportunities. 

From a personal standpoint, the most rewarding part of writing and sharing the content of GIS Monitor was how it impacted, you the readers. Your often immediate reply e-mails that indicated something had "caught your eye" or "pushed your buttons" or "ticked you off" were gratifying and confirmed I was addressing things that mattered. And, I've been humbled by the number of corrections of fact, spelling and grammar you have shared over the years. They've made me a better journalist and writer.

Two special "thank yous" are in order as I depart. I need to once again acknowledge the contributions of Ralph Grabowki, whose model I shamelessly stole for this publication. His UpFront.Ezine continues to thrive after five full years, and I continue to read it every week. The other thank you goes to Roopinder Tara, co-founder of this publication and CEO of TenLinks. Or, said another way, he was willing to pay me to start this publication in the early days of the Internet economy. TenLinks, now focusing exclusively on CAD, is a must read for that world.

I wish all the readers and advertisers of GIS Monitor the best in their geospatial endeavors.