The GIS blogosphere is a abuzz about a public demonstration in Warsaw earlier this week of what is being billed as ESRI’s response to Google Earth, an apparently free GIS viewer most people seem to be calling ArcGIS Explorer 2.0. James Fee points to Ed Parsons‘ and Jeff Thurston‘s blogs, both of which have eyewitness reports about what they saw and what the product promises to be.
According to Ed Parsons, the client will be a 15MB download; it will get its data from an ESRI server farm, √Ü la Google; it will be able to display a multitude of data formats natively, such as WMS (Web Map Service), shape files and even Google Earth’s KML; it will have a user interface derived from 3D games; and it will have a real expandable API.
According to Jeff Thurston, the viewer will be available in November; it supports both 2D and 3D display; it can get data from multiple databases simultaneously; and, apparently, if I understand Jeff correctly, you can share the geographic data on your system with other users. (Does this mean that each viewer can act as their own mini server, sort of like iTunes shared libraries but for layers? That’d be extremely cool.)
I’m all for competing with Google Earth to be the default next generation browser. It leads to better browsers. There is certainly still time for ArcGIS Explorer to latch itself onto a PC’s desktop, as those early adopters who have taken to Google Earth by now are also the kind who will play with ArcGIS Explorer. (One thing I’m pretty sure about, however: There will never be a version for my Mac.)
There is potential for a repeat of history here (if ESRI’s product is what it is rumored to be). In the mid-90s, a recent startup that had ballooned into the symbol of the Web (1.0), Netscape, had the best browser, and it was lord of the surf. Then Microsoft “got” the internet, realigned itself, released Explorer (!), and after a few years dominated the market while Netscape was swallowed up into AOL. ESRI is the Microsoft of GIS, at least in relative size and influence, and Google is definitely the symbol of the Web 2.0… This could be a fun battle.
There is still too little information to go on for informed commentary, but that’s never stopped this blog from commenting regardless. I think ESRI has a chance if it truly grasps that for “lay” users, a zoomable globe is simply a more intuitive way to access a large portion of the content currently found on the web — the browser becomes a canvas for connecting cyberspace places with real places. And with the web now being all about interactivity and collaboration, any API should facilitate such uses of the viewer. The current version of Google Earth isn’t quite there yet.
Another observation is that Microsoft still doesn’t have a 3D spatial browser, and there is no news I’ve heard of something in the works. If, as I suspect, our default choice for accessing the web five years from now will look more like a split-screen Google Earth than Internet Explorer 6, Microsoft is going to have to muscle its way into this space somehow. As far as I am concerned, it needs ESRI now more than ever (but you knew I thought that:-).