Being Open Doesn’t Guarantee Success

I’ve been reading up on some blogs over the past few weeks and a common theme is that because ESRI is “proprietary” they will fail in the long run and I just don’t see that happening. There is much confusion with how open some products are. For example many people say that because the Google Maps API is out in the open it will push ESRI off the map. I don’t see how Google Maps is any more open than ArcIMS or ArcWeb Services are. All 3 are commercial products and just because Google Maps is “free” (and to a lesser extent ArcWeb), that doesn’t mean that people will abandon paid for server products such as ArcIMS or ArcGIS Server any more than they abandoned Oracle or SQL Server for MySQL. In fact I’d say that Google Maps is more closed than ESRI’s products are because you can’t see what they are doing behind the scenes. Google is probably more secretive than ESRI is about their future plans and unlike ESRI they don’t even seem to listen to their customer (mostly because Google Maps customers aren’t paying a dime for tech support) and users are forced to create their own forums for support. Some would argue that this is a good thing, but I’d say being out on a limb like that could mean that Google could cut you off at any second and go in a different direction. ESRI hasn’t done this because their customers have direct access to the programmers at ESRI and they in turn listen to what people want making sure that the rug isn’t pulled from underneath them (take the continued “support” of ArcView 3.x as a perfect example).

Now what if we look at a true open product like UMN Mapserver? There is more support there for developers than there is for Google Maps. But does Mapserver create pressure on ESRI to conform to OGC standards? You bet it does because ESRI listens to their customers. I would also wager that the growth of Mapserver hasn’t really hit ESRI that hard as the total marketplace has grown so much over the past few years. ESRI is by no stretch of the imagination the first company one might associate with “standards-based open architecture”, but I believe their continued support for open formats shows that they do understand people want to connect to as many data sources as possible.

All the openness in the world won’t make any product successful, but listening to your customers will. The feeling that I’ve gotten from ESRI over the past year is that they have finally begun to realize that their road to continued success is supporting users like us. Don’t confuse the hype surrounding Google Maps/Earth with them being open and listening to their customers. There is no company that likes to hide behind their logo more than Google and they will do whatever it takes to not have to be open. There is a reason people are beginning to realize that Google is the next Microsoft (while Microsoft seems to have become the next IBM). Believe me, ESRI has a LONG WAY TO GO before they are as open as we’d all like them to be, but they do listen to their customers and that is a start.

You don’t feel like ESRI listens to you? Let me know in the comments.