Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Hybrid firms and Proprietary Software Licensing

This kind of thing is why I wouldn't want to open my own GIS oriented business with proprietary software.
ESRI have told us that as an educational charity we are no longer allowed to have an educational discount for using their software and, not only that, our license codes will cease to work at the end of this month. So, we have 3 weeks, with the Easter holidays in the middle, to extricate ourselves and our ongoing projects from ArcGIS and into something else or find the many thousands of pounds to buy the full licenses for all of our staff.
This is my general blog, so for those that don't know, ESRI is the "big dog" proprietary GIS software firm. At least in the United States, it is relatively accurate to think of them as the Microsoft of the computer mapping world (though little can really compare with the OS market share Microsoft commands). The problem here is not limited to ESRI. The idea of time-duration licenses for any good that is tempered by special discounts for educational institutions, charities, etc, is one fraught with difficulties. This is especially as you cross cultural/institutional lines (as is the case with the above example). You can see something similar with annual income taxes, the problems inherent there need really no detailed mention. The risk associated with a change in the licensing regime - specifically in discount - will always result in some firms that are blindsided with an outrageous (and possibly unintentional) cost increase. The risk associated with this happening - which includes not merely the higher licensing fee but also the cost to assess whether it is worth paying for - combined with often already high costs resulting from interoperability issues and current fees. Fair warning or not, a switch being forced by a change in fees is going to cost money. Basically: Cost of Being Locked In + Licensing Fees + Risk of Fee Changes You avoid all of that with open source software, though there is the question of maturity. QGIS, the likely contender for the heart of the user otherwise locked into ArcMap, has come a long way but my short experience with it wasn't entirely pleasant in terms of stability. For other situations, open source software is often equal or superior - Microsoft SQL Server has only just caught up with Postgres for spatial querying. It all depends on the given software. The costs of starting a business is already high. My hope is by the time I can start a GIS consulting firm there will be a simple, stable open source GIS platform/viewer. I don't need it to do a lot really, just display data and allow for easy editing. The spatial analysis can be done though some scripting with Python/SQL, and dissemination though the web with the future version of MapServer/OpenLayers. It sounds simple, and would be perfect for what I am doing right now, but who knows what GIS will be in the future. At the end of the day it is all about what the client wants.

1 comment:

Sam said...

I'll show you what the client wants. (Hint: It's in my pants.)