Apologies for not blogging more during the ESRI User Conference, I required all my mental energy to avoid being completely consumed by the Dark Side of the Force :) !! I held out (for the moment at least), but this picture of me towards the end of my three days there shows some cause for concern! After my earlier post on "The Force", Ed Parsons emailed me with the following quote: "Don't be too proud of this technological terror you've constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force". And I have to say that the Force was indeed very powerful in San Diego.
So anyway, this was my first ESRI User Conference after twenty years in the industry, as I have always worked for ESRI competitors, and therefore been on the uninvited list. Others who are more into the specifics of the ESRI products than me have shared lots of details, so I thought I would just share some more general impressions here (mainly for others who are uninitiated), and I will talk about a few more specific things that interested me in subsequent posts.
As many people had told me beforehand, the plenary sessions which fill the whole first day really are a very impressive show, with 15,000 (ish) attendees in a huge hall with 3 giant screens. Jack presided, talking a lot on his usual theme of all the good things that GIS can do for the world, and his talks were interspersed with many presentations and demos from other ESRI staff and customers, all of which were very well rehearsed and choreographed. There was an excellent talk by Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai. The message that ESRI customers are doing great and important things was repeated a lot. It is easy to see how people get caught up in all this and catch the "ESRI religion" which I have seen throughout my career, from the "other side". The exhibit floor is also huge and very impressive (and a great place for networking if you're trying to work out your next move in the industry!). And there is also a vast "map gallery" exhibition, where customers show off what they have been doing.
So all that was great, but posts like this one from Sebastian Good help remind you that everything that is presented in the choreographed sessions may not correspond to the real world. There was an admission in the general session that there had been significant support issues with ArcGIS 9.2, and a discussion on what they plan to do about it. And based on my conversations with both customers and implementers who have worked with multiple systems, I think that my former companies, Intergraph and Smallworld (GE), continue to have technical advantages over ESRI in some specific areas including scalability (many concurrent users), workflow, network modeling, and robustness. And of course ESRI faces growing competition, as do all the established geospatial vendors, from the rise of Google, Microsoft and open source solutions (not in all aspects of what it does, but in some significant respects).
But having said all this, when you look at the scale and scope of what ESRI is doing, the religious devotion of its customer base, and the huge effort that it is putting into product development, it remains a daunting task for its competitors to make significant inroads into its Microsoft-like dominance of the industry, especially in its core "professional GIS" space. Though in the area of distributing and sharing geospatial data and certain categories of applications, there is an interesting battle shaping up with the "neogeography" systems, and in some specific markets there is greater competition - for example in the utility market, where it remains a close fought battle between the three major contenders (ESRI, Intergraph and GE Smallworld - General Electric not Google Earth!).
So now the big question for me is ... should I consider going over to "the dark side" with my next career move? For a little bit of fun, I have put together a geospatial poll at pollmappr so you can give me your input. Let me know what you think :) !!