Open Source and Proprietary #GIS software – the eternal debate

Recently I posted on Twitter that there should not be a divide between software types, you should use the best for the job…to my surprise this started a rather interesting debate on not only business models but also how people thought of open source. So, what I’ll try and do is to clarify to those who are addicted to proprietary software why this is true and also help those addicted to free open source solutions (FOSS) why it is hard to get out of the “ESRI” mindset.

For the FOSS addicts (understand the why)

When I started out in GIS I didn’t get an option over software, it was ESRI or nothing, QGIS was in its infancy and the only options were clunky systems like the early Tatuk or the early GRASS. Installation as an open source noob was nothing more than mind bending with many being Linux based – you have to keep in mind that most geospatial specialists spend time understanding 3D geometry, not writing code…therefore just the simple concept of “compiling you software” was impossible.

Times have changed but I still believe that there is a little bit of a gap there…You are a geodetic guru and you want to set up your own business….what software do you choose? The one where the manufacturers will come to your door and install the software for you and answer the phone to any questions 24/7 or an open source solution which is heavily supported by a community of GIS geniuses?

Unfortunately in this day and age, this is the decision us GIS Consultants and developers are still facing today, we can sell and push for open source but business is not always about saving money, it is often about reducing financial RISK.

For the proprietary addicts (understand the why)

Over the last few years my job role has changed, not because I have become any more of a genius (definitely not!), it is due to the market changing. It used to be the case that clients wanted some nice map which showed the issues with their project and this map could be emailed around, everyone was happy. Now clients want web maps and the ability to interact with the data, to make live changes so that whole teams of users can be aware of the ongoing project issues – If you are using proprietary software you are looking at this and thinking “That’s going to cost you”…..and this why I believe FOSS is starting to become more common place.

Over the last couple of years open source software has done a ninja attack, the quality of the FOSS GIS software now is nothing more that remarkable. There is very little that proprietary software can do that FOSS can’t, including server systems. Yes, I said server systems, there are free solutions like QGIS Server and OpenGeo which are just brilliant! Even for a Geomatics type like me, I can easily set up a server system and (dependent on buying hosting) be putting web-maps up all over the place in under an hour.#

In this day and age the argument has diminished. Before, if I went to the board of a company and said that I was going to build an open source web mapping system, I would have to convince them for several months that the risk was worth it – but faced with the cost of the other proprietary server systems out there being above £75,000 most companies would agree that a demonstration of the open source would be worth a go……and the open source options are fantastic, once the demo is running, they are hooked!

FOSS or Proprietary?

Well here we are, the million dollar question and I am sure my answer will throw me out of many circles that I am currently involved in. My job here though is to be the voice of the USER, not a FOSS user nor a proprietary user, a geospatial analyst/consultant/science/nerd trying to get the end user the correct answer.

The answer? – BOTH

If I have an issue with the geoid I am working with and have a deadline which is getting closer, I need to know that I can phone someone and get the right answer there and then. I have had issues with datum transformations and trilateration and every time I have had an answer from the person on the other end of the phone within a few hours and the project has been saved.

In this instance proprietary software is the answer. Of course FOSS like QGIS has commercial support but having had first hand experience, I have never had the turn around which I have received with the ESRI guys.

For proprietary software, the issues lie with the GUI and cost…..these guys have been the only option for a long time and they haven’t really moved with the times, the software has become clunky and sluggish in comparison to the FOSS, not only this, how can they justify the thousands of ponds they charge for software which is that slow and clunky? Extra costs for add-ons which provide necessary functionality which is all free and provided in QGIS? FOSS has a great community too, if I find that I DO have an issue (with the base system, not the plug-ins), there is usually an answer within 48hrs and furthermore the software is flexible and open, you can customize it in a million different ways to cater it to different needs.

In this instance FOSS wins purely down to its flexibility, speed and potential for expanding.

My conclusion is that to provide the correct answers and represent the results well, you need BOTH software at this time, though I do have a message to both parties:

FOSS – Not everyone is coders, when we come to you with a problem, please understand that most of us are the mathematicians, scientists and geographers who design the theory and don’t have the time or capability to learn new languages.

Proprietary Software – Be more open and don’t be so greedy! ESRI, your finest moment was ArcGIS 3.x, everyone in the GIS world still talks about it, there are still MANY users on this platform, why? Because it was flexible allowed for customisation. The current software is turning the average consultant to open source because it is no longer financially viable, it is now better to take the risk than to invest in such an expensive system.

The over-arching message to the reader here is – USE THE BEST SOFTWARE FOR THE JOB, make notes as you work and over time you will see trends in what you do…see if you can improve those weaknesses by using another software or by chatting to the current software provider. If you are starting out in GIS completely cold and have time to invest, I recommend QGIS, if you need to be up and running quickly and have risk associated with your output, choose ESRI. Whatever you choose, choose wisely as it will reward you later.

Now that I have ostracized myself from GIS, I hope that it is a help to other out there who are starting out or feeling the same way 🙂

Nick D

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