Open source creeps into mapping software

Commoditization of Web mapping tools compels Autodesk to release the source codes of its once-proprietary MapGuide software.
Written by Aaron Tan, Contributor

SINGAPORE--As the commoditization of Web mapping software became increasingly evident, Autodesk made the move to release the source codes of its once-proprietary MapGuide product.

Famed primarily for its AutoCAD product, Autodesk introduced in March this year MapGuide Open Source, its Web mapping software originally called MapServer Enterprise.

The vendor made the tool available publicly as a project under the Open Source Geospatial Foundation (OSGF). Mapping software with geospatial data is typically used by city planners to query property and public infrastructure information presented on a map over the Internet. It can also be used by courier companies to manage their fleet.

Licensed under the GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL), MapGuide Open Source enables organizations to develop and distribute spatial and design data over the Web. The company also offers a commercial version called Autodesk MapGuide Enterprise, which includes additional features such as language localization and connectivity to commercial databases.

Geoff Zeiss, director of technology at Autodesk, likened the commoditization of Web mapping software to the Web server.

"At the beginning of the Internet, a number of folks like IBM developed their own Web servers," he told ZDNet Asia in a phone interview. "But they quickly found that it's hard to differentiate an IBM Web server from other Web servers, because all it does is serve out HTML pages."

According to Zeiss, IBM then approached a group of developers who were working on the early Apache Web server code and requested that the developers form a foundation--now the established Apache Software Foundation--so that IBM could use their technology as the vendor's HTTP server. Today, the Apache Web server has a global market share of more 60 percent.

"We think there is a direct analogy between what's happening in Web mapping [software market], and what happened with Web servers in the beginning," Zeiss said, noting that the trend toward commoditization had convinced Autodesk to contribute MapGuide Open Source to the OSGF.

"This was a strategic way of creating a much bigger market than we could have ever created with a closed-source product," he added.

With an open source product on its cards, Zeiss said Autodesk is also following the footsteps of other open-source software vendors--that is, to charge for premium services and support.

"You can download and use MapGuide Open Source, but we expect a certain percentage of the people who use it--especially from the bigger companies--to have a contractual relationship with Autodesk [in return for value-added services]," he said. The company expects to generate more revenue this way, as opposed to taking the proprietary path, he added.

Although MapGuide Open Source has to date recorded 10,000 downloads, Zeiss could not reveal what proportion of these had converted to MapGuide Enterprise. Still, he noted that large companies in the utilities and telecoms sectors are "probably more interested in what MapGuide can do, than the fact that it is open source".

Zeiss added: "But, governments would expect the open source part of it to be most interesting. Those guys would tend to download and use [MapGuide] for a longer time before they decide to work out an arrangement with Autodesk."

He said there are no plans to release the source codes of other Autodesk products. "Architecture and engineering design are areas where there is a lot of room for differentiation," he said, noting that as such, it would be benefit the company to keep these products proprietary.

"To open-source AutoCAD will be giving away valuable trade secrets to competitors. There's no prospect for doing that at all," he explained.

IDC noted in a June 2006 report that it is too early to assess the long-term impact of Autodesk's open source strategy. "But initial indications are that geospatial users and the open source community are responding positively, perhaps to the point of shifting Web-based geospatial interfaces to a predominantly open source model," the analyst company said.

In 2004, the spatial information management market--which encompasses Web mapping software--reached US$1.99 billion. That represents a growth rate of 5.9 percent, IDC figures indicated.

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