Is 2005 the start of something big for GIS?

Five years from now we may look back on 2005 and realize that this was a watershed year in the growth and development of GIS and spatial analysis software in general. From Google maps and all of its press to Hurricanes a plenty in the Gulf region, the world has gained new recognition for the information that maps can provide. However, to make sure that this truly is the year of the map, the GIS industry needs to strike while the iron is hot and to diversify the product line to bring in more people. More after the jump.

At the start of the year if you were to have told me that one of the biggest news stories of the year would be a free online mapping service that you can locate addresses with, I would have said you were crazy. Services such as this have been around for years, useful but not groundbreaking. However, leave it to Google to shake up the industry with new applications. The wave of enthusiasm for mapping only grew as the year turned toward fall and Hurricane Katrina leveled the Gulf Coast. In the aftermath every news program, newspaper, magazine and internet site provided orthophoto and satellite views of the before and after of the Gulf Coast region. With knowledge of and fascination with the power of maps to convey information at a possible all time high the GIS industry has found itself with the opportunity to go beyond "mindshare" and grow considerable markets. Specifically, the GIS industry now sits at a point where it can reach new ground in terms of use and software ownership. However, in order to move to new heights the GIS industry is going to have to diversify its product line in order to bring more people with more needs and more interests into the fold. In particular the GIS industry will need to move into three separate product lines of different price points, uses, and markets.

Web Mapping

The first of these market segments is a web mapping application in the same vein of Google Maps, Yahoo Maps and the vast array of other web mapping applications. There will always be a market for these services for conducting geocoding, finding directions, geocoding locations and performing simple "eyeball" analysis. These services require no real training for most uses and the output can be easily understood by almost everyone with a vague familiarity with map reading. While these services will probably evolve to include better base maps (satellite and orthophotos will become commonplace) the analysis functions will probably not increase dramatically due to the need to fit the most basic of users. Technological limitations will prevent these programs from becoming too advanced in terms of analysis capabilities as long as they remain completely web based. However, if they make the leap to small desktop applications, as with Google Earth and the upcoming ESRI ArcGIS Explorer, the capabilities will grow. Importantly, this segment will probably be the market leader in terms of users, but will possibly be a loss leader due to the tendency of these services to be free.

Professional GIS

The second of the market segments is for the traditional professional GIS software system. This system will continue to evolve to include more modeling functionality. spatial statistics capability, improved cartography, and integration with remote sensing. The professional GIS market will always exist despite the growth of web mapping applications due to the need to create maps, perform analysis, and do the business of GIS. While many are predicting growth in this market segment, how much growth is a guess best left up to those more knowledgeable in business forecasting. Due to the advanced training required to use, and in some cases interpret GIS output, this market will always be a smaller but more lucrative market than the other two.

GIS Light

The final market segment is the only real new market and the one in which the need to strike while the iron is hot is potentially greatest. The new market segment is a "tweener" segment that fits between web mapping and professional GIS. The best way to describe this market segment is to call it GIS Light, providing some of the advanced features of professional GIS but with the ease and simplicity to use of web mapping services. This market is geared more toward people who want to have fun and explore with GIS and its analysis capabilities, without having to spend lots of time and money on software and training. In particular, this market is geared toward hobbyists (geocahers, runners, hikers, bikers, etc..), students, researchers, and small businesses wanting to perform basic analysis. This is a market for people who enjoy web mapping but find it too limited in its capabilities, yet have no desire to spend the time or money on professional GIS. In order to catch this market the price and functions have to hit the mark so that people will consider it a value for the money ($50-100). GIS Light must have real analysis features such as, abilities to create projects and edit files, perform queries, distance analysis, as well as allow end user customization through standards based programming languages. Because of its price, power and customization, this segment has the potential to be an incubator for new GIS uses and markets much as the internet has spawned a wealth of new industries. In addition, this segment also has the potential to drive users on to professional GIS as users interests and needs evolve. Importantly, it also has the ability to cannibalize some users who will find all the functionality they need but with a much lower cost and much less of a learning curve.

Conclusion

Overall, this segment is most crucial for bringing in the mass of interested users out there who have been drawn to mapping/GIS by the issues that have arisen this year. As of now I have seen no signs of development of a GIS light product from any of the major GIS vendors. Of course, as with everything timing is everything and if GIS developers do not act soon the time will slip past and the industry may miss out on a golden opportunity.