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November 30, 2006 / Steven Pousty

In which I discuss some issues

I have been brewing on this one for some while and some recent posts have really got me thinking and ready to write. Before we get started, for full disclosure, for those who don’t know I worked at ESRI from December of 2004 until June of 2005. I was a product engineer on the Java team so I worked on Engine and Server, and I was on the EDN team to help with community building. There are a lot of great people I worked with who care about the product they build and about how their software performs for the user. This discussion is NOT about those people, so I am not saying this about everyone at ESRI. I am going to be talking about ESRI as a company and not the individual people, though sometimes I may call out indiviual people as examples of doing the right thing.

[Update – I was unhappy with some of the stuff I said so I need to work on it some more and I may repost]

[New update – after seeing fantom post a comment I now realize I have to put some of it back. When I cut it I lost most of my links. If you see me on the street let me know I should click save on posts like that so I can read it the next day before I publish. I am conflicted about this post for the reasons I stated above. I really like and respect a good number of the people at ESRI. I just think there are some bad decisions happening and would like to see them change. So while this may read like a rant (and I guess part of it is) it also can be seen as a wish list. I need to get back some of the major links and then I will repost. ]

My thoughts started with the discussion of the new licensing terms for the ADF. When I heard the news I was pissed. I ranted and vented over IM to James and Dave and I talked to my coworkers. I was so upset about it that I had to call James and verbally complain even more. Why was I so upset…

1. This is a slap in the face to all those people who worked so hard on the ADF and put a lot, and I mean A LOT, of cool features and love into that product. This licensing definetly kills some of the motivation to use it. But in addition almost all the points brought up by Dave, James, Brian Flood and others are really valid reasons to not want to host your ADF on the same machine as your ArcGIS server. This new licensing makes it look like ESRI doesn’t understand how enterprise web development works (that is the generous interpretation). I am quite sure there were few if any people on the Server team who thought this was a good idea. They understand all the reasons why asking people to pay yet again to host the client that talks to the server is a bad idea. They know that licensing like this puts a good chunk of thier customers in the uncomfortable position of having to think about site security or relialibility versus cost. What other vendors do this kind of licensing for the ADF that talks to their own Server product? I can see asking people to license the ADF if they don’t buy ArcIMS or ArcGIS Server, but even there I think the argument is weak. Acrobat didn’t become the defacto standard for ebooks by charging for their reader. If ESRI wants to win market share give the frickin ADF away for free! Every time someone opens that code or downloads it they have to think of ESRI. OK, don’t give it away for free but then don’t license the heck out of it.

2. There was not one official word from ESRI anywhere clarifying this new stance on licensing. There was a heated thread going on and we all know that the ESRI folks read blog threads. We never see them officially answer anything there but from my logs and discussions with others, I know they read those kind of threads. Even if they don’t respond on the thread there should be somewhere they can address this issue in a formal manner. There was enough heat there to deserve a little bit of light.

3. In the end this comes down to what I see as a sad state of evolution in the ESRI interactions with customers. There was a feeling when Brian and Art were pushing the blogging and EDN added comments in the API doc that perhaps ESRI was going to start engaging in discussion directly with their users in a more open fashion. I know that the people who get to attend the UC or developer summit can talk to some of the people that matter, but that is twice a year and only a select few who can make the conferences. As numerous people have pointed out, the rise of the internet, blogging, forums, and other community building areas has enabled companies to engage in more direct and open communications with their customers. For example:

  1. Sun, MS, AutoDesk, and IBM allow their employees to blog. And not just corporate marketing blogs but real open and interesting blogs
  2. Jetbrains opens their entire bug database to users and they allow users to submit public feature requests and then allows voting on those features
  3. Infragistics has discussion forums where the developers and support staff actually contribute to the discussion

ESRI was moving in these directions.  Of course there were voices of caution and ESRI is, in general, a cautious company, but there was movement.

What is getting me down is that the voices of fear seem to be winning out over the voices of openess. Being an open company is not without it’s risks – I mean you could get Dmitri as one of the people blogging. To make it work you actually have to tell people it is important to engage in that conversation throughout the year and then actually reward them if they chose to do it. There can be great gains that come out of the risk.

And this ties into the thread James, Dave, fantom, and others have going around about Open Source. ESRI charges quite a bit of money for their products. There software has some quality issues. With those two things going for it ESRI needs to start showing some love to the average everyday users. It is not enough that big pocketed or strategic clients get to call Jack and demand new features or bug fixes. Without a fault, every person I talk to in small to mid-size firms complains about having to use ESRI software. When I taught using ArcGIS software my students would greet me in tears because they had left a job running overnight only to be greeted with an application error. I gave a presentation the other day and ArcMap seg faulted. Thank goodness they were all ESRI users and so we all shared a laugh.

We like doing GIS work but we don’t like the way we are being treated. Brian T. says that AGX is to GE as the Zune is to the iPOD. I would go one step farther and say that ESRI is very similar to Microsoft in the way they approach products.

You might be saying what do these two threads have to do with each other. Well here it is – if ESRI was more open with their users I think there would be less animosity and less of a need to look elsewhere. I am sure people would still be looking to open source for various other reasons, but ESRI would take away one of the big reasons I think quite a few people are looking. You see, if you are open and we are in dialogue and discussion then I am going to give back. Rather than it being a relationship of producer – consumer it becomes one closer to a partnership. And this is one of the big wins for open source and it is definetly one of the reasons I am looking at MapGuide over ArcIMS. MapGuide is a community now and we are partners. There is an IRC channel, there are user groups where the developers participate, there is an open bug database, there is a wiki for documentation, and I can suggest a feature and have people vote on it.

You don’t have to open source ESRI software to leverage some of the ways they have learned to have a better relationship with their users.

Let me try to wrap up since this is long enough already. I know there are some customers who are happy with ESRI and most of them have big pockets or are strategically important. And that might be a viable strategy for ESRI but it doesn’t seem to be making the people I meet happy. In the best of all worlds you have a  rock solid product with sexy appeal and you make users feel like they are part of the team and that you care about them. In the next step down you better get at least one part of that equation working. I bet if you do the latter you will get to the former.

One other observation, to all of ESRI’s competitors and to Open Source projects trying to gain traction – if ESRI pitched them to you any slower it would have to be T-Ball.

In the end I am hoping ESRI proves me wrong and things go swimmingly. Like I said in the beginning I like and respect my former colleagues at ESRI. I know they build good products and they want to do the right thing ™.

This time I promise to keep the post up…

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12 Comments

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  1. GeoMullah / Nov 30 2006 3:50 am

    “When I taught using ArcGIS software my students would greet me in tears because they had left a job running overnight only to be greeted with an application error. I gave a presentation the other day and ArcMap seg faulted. Thank goodness they were all ESRI users and so we all shared a laugh.”

    Yeah, how sad is it that users joke about the deficiencies of their software?
    Anyway, just to let you know, the big companies from time to time get fed up with ESRI. I think that the geoblogging community has opened up up access for small and medium companies to note their thoughts about improvements to ESRI code, but the larger companies need to listen to the community and bring those comments to ESRI. Especially, since larger companies hire people from or sub-contract to those other companies. It doesn’t do anyone any good if we don’t listen and look out for each other.
    An ESRI employee asked me one day, “What would happen if we open sourced ArcView or ArcMap?” Answer: “Less complaints, you would get some of the best minds you couldn’t afford working on it from all over the world. You would just have a better product.”
    Now I could be wrong to say if ESRI turned into a communist state of a company, but at lease get into what Steve said with Community interaction. Find the really smart developers and customers outside your company to get started. And if they don’t participate in some sort of open source process, then pass them up. (My own frustration with some big-wig devs I know who have taken open source apps and really turned them into kick-ass tools, but won’t give the code back b/c of “it’s now the property of the company they worked for.” Go figure?)
    So, ESRI and you other users too: hook up, talk more, blog more, virtualize the community in collaborative space.

  2. Sean Gillies / Nov 30 2006 8:34 am

    Just this morning there’s email on the OpenLayers list regarding the development of an connector for ArcGIS server. No ADF for that guy.

    Thanks for the link to Joe Duck’s post. I feel the same way about corporate blogs.

  3. Andrew Hallam / Nov 30 2006 3:57 pm

    “This new licensing makes it look like ESRI doesn’t understand how enterprise web development works”

    Two thoughts come to mind:

    1. Perhaps ESRI are too busy chanting “SOA, SOA, ESB, SOA” to consider deployment issues for publicly accessed applications. Their (marketing) focus has been on geospatially enabling the enterprise, which is mostly inside the firewall.

    2. Aren’t the ArcWeb team deploying ArcGIS Server? Surely they have been eating some of their own dog food.

    “If ESRI wants to win market share give the frickin ADF away for free!”

    I was under the impression that ESRI didn’t really have a market share issue, which may be part of the problem. Installed base waiting for version 3 of the product, etc.

    My main problem with the ADF licensing is that there is no simple alternative on offer. If I create applications that use a significant chunk of the new wizz bang ADF features then perhaps its worth the rumoured licence cost. If I’m just deploying simple-ish websites and web services then the value for money seems, well, questionable.

  4. 9.2 Licensing: Dazed and Confused / Dec 1 2006 12:01 am

    Steve-
    You have done a great job summing up exactly how I feel. I have spent hours this week trying to get one single answer on the licensing options for Server at 9.2 and it has been an extremely frustrating experience. Keep in mind that it is December and folks (like myself) are preparing budgets for hardware and software for ’07. After my experience I question whether Server will ever make it out of the EDN capacity for ’07. Also dare not think about having a production ArcIMS and ArcGIS server environment. That would break the bank!!! And no ESRI, I am not going to install both ArcGIS Server and ArcIMS on the same machine as mentioned in the small footnote sent out to all ArcIMS and ArcSDE maintenance customers…

    “There is no additional cost involved with using the software you will receive at version 9.2 as part of your maintenance as long as ArcGIS Server is installed on the same server where ArcIMS and/or ArcSDE is installed.”

    …I do not know many IT shops that would feel comfortable doing this.

    What would be helpful to me would be to see each of Dave Peter’s ArcGIS Server configurations combined with the licensing and hardware costs.

  5. thesteve0 / Dec 1 2006 8:43 am

    Geomullah – I don’t even want to open that can of worms – suggesting ESRI do anything open source. Baby steps… Like you said at the end, they can borrow at least some of the good parts of open source to help those in the smaller companies without a real voice into ESRI.

  6. thesteve0 / Dec 1 2006 8:45 am

    Sean – yeah, I am trying to help that guy out right now on Dave’s blog. You know, this is the benefit to more open collaboration. People with energy and knowldge will tend to give just to be part of a larger effort. ESRI has not really found a way to harness/foster that in their community. Saying youcreate community by putting up threaded discussion but then never participating isn’t really going to cut it.

  7. thesteve0 / Dec 1 2006 8:51 am

    Andrew:
    The SOA point could be true and could be because most of those SOA people are large enterprises who have the enterprise licenses where each additional CPU is free because they have unlimited seats.

    The same goes for ArcWeb Server – I don’t know for sure, but I would be hard pressed to believe that they pay for their seats of server.

    About market share – as ESRI has said at conferences, they are still trying to get wider scale adoption of server. They obviously see network GIS Services as a big way forward and Server is key to that.

    With regards to licensing for something more simple – if they didn’t charge a seperate license fee for the ADF then this wouldn’t be an issue.

  8. thesteve0 / Dec 1 2006 8:57 am

    9.2 licensing:
    Yeah we ran into the same problem too. We have already submitted our budgets for next year and then this came out. I don’t think there will be server for me next year unless I get an EDN subscription.

    Yeah, like I said – I think those licensing decisions were made with some permutation of
    1. ignore the smaller shops. Just because they don’t has as much money doesn’t mean they don’t follow good IT practices. Hardware is relatively cheap and so it is not much to seperate your different server functions on different machines.
    2. not understanding what it means to role out web based applications.

    I hope you finally get a straight answer on the question of licensing. I would bet it won’t be until next year until they sort this out. They can’t really do the Dave Peter’s config matrix with costs publically. Different customers have different pricing schemes. But, they could use it as a template to produce pricing quotes for people given the pricing they are offering.

  9. Andrew Hallam / Dec 1 2006 4:04 pm

    thesteve0:

    I was being a little facetious in my previous comment about SOA. I would huess that the ratio of public facing deployment of ArcGIS Server applications to intranet only deployments would be quite small.

    The point I was trying to make about ArcWeb was not to do with licence costs. If they are deploying ArcGIS Server in an Internet facing environment then surely they have some experience with the physical architectural issues involved.

  10. thesteve0 / Dec 1 2006 6:27 pm

    Hey Andrew:
    I am sorry about that I really wish they would implement the sarcasm tag. ESRI knows the architecture issues involved, I think they sometimes what forget what it feels like to be someone who has to pay for each seat/socket of the software.

  11. dylan / Dec 4 2006 9:29 pm

    Hey guys, thought I would throw in some thoughts from a slightly different perspective.

    Here at the university we have a special contract with ESRI (your tax dollars at work!) so it only costs about $500/yr for a single license for ArcInfo. While this might not seem like a lot, when you have multiple machines using it, and limited funds it can be a thorn in ones side. Extra functionality like SDE / ArcIMS/ or any of this new fangled ADF stuff would most likely break the bank- yet we have uses for these technologies. Instead of whinning about it, or giving up salary we bitched and complained to our IT people to allow non MS, non-ESRI systems. Granted we have considerable flexibility within our deptartment, some of which can be attributed to our great IT staff. However, we had to work a bit to get past the MS-way or the highway mentality- the number one cited reason I hear for not adopting open source solutions. Is it really true that the IT dept. in al of these agencies is able to rule the computing envrionment with such an iron fist? But I digress…

    Back to the point. Setup a linux box (god forbid) and get on the GRASS/GDAL/Maspserver mailing lists and or IRC channels. It takes some blood and sweat, but in the end you have a set of skills not tied to a license. Granted, it is not always possible to replace every aspect of Arc*** , but I have found that I can get my work done faster, more efficiently, and with less headache using GRASS/GDAL/Mapserver/PostGIS/R.

    Just some thoughts that come to mind when reading about ESRI-related woes.

    Good luck steve, and thanks for the thought provoking article.

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