Map Wars


A good lesson in how the free market works is the current map wars being waged largely between Google and Apple that has forced another heavy hitter to enter the free mapping API market — ESRI, who produces ARC GIS.  What I find particularly interesting in this case is that ESRI has a monopoly on geographic information systems (GIS) mapping programs with all levels of government, and a huge part of the private sector market, as well.  We have used ESRI GIS products since the early 1990’s. In 2004 when I began exploring GIS and mapping services on the Internet, the fledgling ESRI web mapping applications required purchasing the applications that we would run on our servers at a cost of $50,000 to $100,000. We developed our own web-based GIS instead using open source map servers, but map servers turned out to be very high maintenance and were always behind the server OS updates.

With more important work that needed to be done, our web-based GIS was out of service by 2006.  We were still relying heavily on standard GIS mapping and employed ARC GIS techs in order to provide GIS and mapping services. In the meantime, Google had gotten into the mapping business in a big way  — first with Google Maps and then Google Earth. As we began using those tools for more of our mapping needs, we quit relying as much on traditional GIS, especially ESRIs products. By the end of 2010 our last GIS tech left and we didn’t replace her, because there wasn’t enough demand for a GIS tech’s services anymore. We had other GIS programs, but most of our staff would simply use Google Maps and Google Earth for their base maps, and I started using Google’s application programming interface (API) to build custom maps on the Internet using our databases.

Here’s where it gets really interesting. When it came time to renew our annual service contract for our ARC GIS licenses last year, I opted not to renew them since we didn’t have a GIS tech anymore. ESRI really worked on me not to drop the service contracts, and wanted to know why I was not renewing them. I explained to the service rep that 1) we no longer employed GIS techs, and 2) we were moving our mapping to the web and using the free mapping API offered by Google.  In a meeting yesterday, I was told that ESRI is offering mapping services similar to Google and Yahoo. When I had a free moment this afternoon, I went to ESRI’s website, and sure enough, they are now offering their web mapping API for free. I studied the API, got some of their sample code, and soon had a couple of applications on our server, and customized one to display some of the data from one of our databases — the New Mexico Facilities map below.

Eight years ago, ESRI wanted $50,000+ for me  to create web maps using ARC GIS for the web. Back then those expensive apps could not produce maps   as sophisticated as the one I created in a couple of hours this afternoon for free. What’s more surprising is that I had to set up a developer’s account with Google and OpenStreetMap in order to get access to their APIs and maps. So far I’ve adapted two web-apps using ESRI’s API and and maps, and haven’t had to set up an account or register the apps.

The free market has a powerful effect on prices and services, and while ESRI has a monopoly on traditional GIS, I believe they saw they were getting left behind in the web-mapping market and was forced to offer their API for free like Google, Yahoo and OpenStreetMap. Do you suppose other companies are not renewing their service contracts with ESRI?