Benefits of Creating Web Applications with Closed Source Tools

So, I’ve created a lot of maps with Open Source tools. In fact, I put together my first online map with MapServer and a not-yet-released OpenLayers about a year ago this month. (Before that, I’d never actually done anything with geospatial tools.)

I usually stick to my local Open Source world — reading Planet OSGeo, rather than PlanetGS — but every now and then, I wander across the line to see what the rest of the world is using.

What I find is a hell of a lot of Arc* names, and no real understanding of what benefit they provide. Although I understand that Analysis is difficult with existing open source tools — not that it’s necessarily better in proprietary tools —  it seems that much of what people want to do with software like ArcGIS is just make a map.

So, what’s the benefit to using these tools? What doesn’t open source do… and how do we make them do them?

7 Responses to “Benefits of Creating Web Applications with Closed Source Tools”

  1. Gary Says:

    I would argue that GRASS can provide 90%+ of the analytic capability a typical GIS user could ever want. The tools are there but there is also a bit of learning curve involved. People tend to take the path of least resistance and if you can point and click your way through something, that’s the route that gets taken.

    One of the weak points in the OS GIS offerings is the ability to easily compose a good looking map, complete with all the trappings that map makers adore. As that capability matures, more heads will turn towards OS.

  2. Bill Thorp Says:

    I’ll offer my generally uninformated opinion (yey!).

    Open Source tools often fail to provide a compelling pathway from using ESRI tools to using them. Some projects (ZigGIS comes to mind) are addressing this need, but other seem to ignore the user-base numbers. Perhaps OS GIS needs a single-install ArcGIS plug-in bundle for subverting the ESRI community.

  3. Brian Timoney Says:

    Whatever the emotional satisfaction anti-ESRI animus seems to provide to many, I don’t think the appropriate mindset for the open source community is a rigid focus on replicating the Arc* offerings.

    ESRI has done a great job of capturing the traditional GIS market that communicated with the rest of the world largely through a paper map. Advanced cartographic functionality is quite difficult, and the ability to create beautiful maps is one I tip my cap to.

    However in 2007, it’s clear that the web is/will shortly be the dominant communications medium for geospatial information, and I think it’s no coincidence that the momentum for open source has coincided with the explosion in web mapping. Suddenly, powerful server-side software e.g. MapServer, PostGIS can be harnessed to web front ends as not merely providers of raster and vector content but, with a little scripting, analytics as well (that used to be the sole domain of the desktop). Bringing geoanalytics to a wider audience in easy-to-use bite-sized chunks is a degrees-of-magnitude greater opportunity for OS than implementing a complex feature label algorithm in order to keep up with ArcMap.

    Finally, it bears remembering that the most valuable commodity in the world today is time. Why do I use MapServer? Because it takes 25 minutes to set up and serve content. Why OpenLayers? Because I can roll out a web map with multiple layers from multiple sources in 10 minutes with a layer-toggling and overhead map. Etc., etc. And GRASS? I’d love to feed a server module a bunch of points and attribute values and get back a simple IDW grid on the fly that I could throw on to a web interface–any takers?

    In short, keeping the focus on the web, usability, and helping the not-overly-technical use these tools is where the big growth is.

    Brian Timoney

  4. Dylan Says:


    poke around on the GRASS and GMT mailing lists a bit for an idea of what people who are new to FOSS/GIS are complaining about. I think that you have identified one of the major points: hard-copy map production, but this can be a bit misleading. People producing small-scale maps (scale is a fraction, i.e. 1:1,000,000 scale maps are small scale) have been using open source tools for a long time now: nearly all of the figures in any publication of AGU ( look as if they were produced with GMT ( It is mostly the people wanting to make large-scale maps that are having a tough time. there should be some solutions in the near future, as much discussion on the GRASS-DEV mailing list has covered postscript output from the display drivers, along with better integration with GMT.


  5. Chris Andrews Says:

    After lots of poking around, it’s still my impression that for back-end geospatial data creation and editing, the Autodesks and ESRI’s of the world have a lot more ‘functional inertia’ than any open source package that I’ve played with. Just looking at the capabilities of AutoCAD Map 3D, built on top of a traditional CAD platform, or ArcGIS, with its extensive editing and geoprocessing toolkit (often designed to emulate CAD tools), it’s hard for me to believe that an OS package will top those any time soon.

    That said, I do believe that there is untapped potential in the spatially-enabled relational databases on the market that could provide the power behind a fairly lightweight Web-based data editing frontend. Similarly, spatial databases have a huge potential to provide analytical capabilities that are currently locked up in heavy middle- or client-tier applications.

    Regarding the connectivity between Arc* datasources and Open Source geospatial tools…. I believe that FDO, used in MapGuide Open Source (and others?), can provide direct connectivity to SDE.

  6. Jerry Says:

    I think the attractive thing for some companies of closed source web apping apps would be
    1) Perceived to be a safe from a proven company
    2) Perceived to have a large user base
    3) No Messing with data

    I guess points 1 & 2 are common through out the Open Source world. I think that people traditionally have their GI data in .shp,.tab or RDBMS formats. There are a few steps that have to taken to feed this data out via an open source solution and this is perceived as a problem

    Just my two cents:)

  7. CSW + GPL = Help! « MapWrecker Says:

    […] To the point, I’m hoping some OS-GIS people out there will help me do a very bad thing.  I’m hoping GeoNetwork’s CSW client can swim to more pleasant LGPL waters {minus some GPL’ed dependencies}.  I’ve previously made ESRI-kool-aid inspired comments that OS-GIS needs more ArcGIS plug-ins to subvert ESRI users.  I’m not sure GPL’ed clients are going to get us there. […]