I have participated lately in the ESRI Sweden User Conference, which took place in Stockholm. The conference was exciting and interesting; there were lots of unique talkers, and it was definitely very nice to talk to customers, and to learn more about their experience, concerns, and future prospects. Users from various business sectors obviously have raised various questions: ArcGIS Server map services performance, enterprise-level custom relationship management (CRM) system and GIS integration, and geodata management issues, to mention a few. Among numerous sessions held, I was particularly captivated by the presentation of Ismael Chivite, ESRI ArcGIS Server Product Manager. Ismael discussed the topic of the future of ESRI products, shed light on some trends in web applications interface design, and elaborated on virtualization of the GIS software and services.
As have been stated by many, GIS has become pervasive and ubiquitous. To create a travel map or a drive-time polygon, or to integrate a nice map into your blog or Web site, one does not have to be a sophisticated GIS user anymore. Most definitely, the GIS software market is being changed: GIS mobile applications are being used; geographic data and tools are shared via the Web. This implies that we, GIS professionals, face, basically, the same user needs, yet the methods we use to design our applications user interface and user-system interaction should be different from ones we used to use for a quite a while.
Originally, users of GIS worked with desktop applications, which have been installed on their local machines (this implies that people have been working with highly specific projects). Then multiediting environment and multiuser database model (ArcSDE) was introduced – users were able to work with GIS in a distributed environment, sharing access to datasets, tools, and system resources at the enterprise extent. After that time, the federated level of sharing GIS resources was introduced: users got the ability to work with the same GIS at different cities within a country. Nowadays, the distributed environment has been extended beyond the borders of a certain country. Today GIS are used extensively via the global network – the Web.
Other technologies trends, both GIS and non-GIS, which affect the user-computer interaction, are obvious. Simplification of many devices interface, using high-resolution graphics in applications, and advances in computational capabilities had a huge impact on the GIS sector. All of this led us to having users who want to interact with their GIS applications and maps involving little effort (e.g., iPhone feel and like), who like modern and beautiful maps (e.g., Bing maps), and who expect applications to work very fast (e.g., Google search engine). To watch a video about some implications on web GIS applications user interface design, see here.
Furthermore, more and more users of GIS applications are becoming users of iPhones or Android mobile devices, whose applications they use on a regular basis. When they use GIS applications, one can imply that they would expect working with similar applications – both from perspectives of interface and performance. A very good example of such a Web GIS application can be found at District of North Vancouver GIS Web site. This way, GIS professionals responsible for web applications development should redesign traditional interface in order to address those user expectations. Applications for a wide audience should be so simple that everyone could use them.
Ismael had talked about virtualization in ArcGIS Server as well. In particular, the question of using cloud computing was raised. Very many companies provide software as a service or offer Web access to computing power. Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud is one of the most popular resources in this category. The main idea of computers in the cloud is that one pays a fee for using computer resources (both storage and computing) instead of buying physical machines and software. This can have many implications for the GIS market: a customer can get remote access to a server with a preinstalled operating system and a configured piece of GIS software. Computing resources required to serve map services online can be distributed wisely as well. In the case of increase of concurrent users, more instances can be exploited in the cloud; in the case of access activity decrease, instances can be relieved. I believe that this can be treated as a worthwhile business model, when a client pays for using servers’ power specifically when there is a need for it. Watch a great video by Scott Morehouse, Dirk Gorter, and Brenda Wolfe from the ESRI International User Conference 2009 Web GIS, Taking Advantage of the Cloud.