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Perspectives Header

There are many forces at work on all industries at all times that include the overall economy, technology innovation, and the competency of the workforce. The standard line is that without the right mix of talent, technology and timing, businesses either thrive or fail. The fortunes and success of geospatial businesses have ebbed and flowed, with new technologies giving rise to whole new sectors, while other sectors have flamed out due to the commoditization of technology and a loss of value.

There are many forces at work on all industries at all times that include the overall economy, technology innovation, and the competency of the workforce. The standard line is that without the right mix of talent, technology and timing, businesses either thrive or fail. The fortunes and success of geospatial businesses have ebbed and flowed, with new technologies giving rise to whole new sectors, while other sectors have flamed out due to the commoditization of technology and a loss of value.

The current state of geospatial seems to be at an all-time high in terms of awareness, overall value, and opportunity, so the focus here isn’t on some grim decline. It’s interesting to consider the changing nature of the industry, and past and current disruptive forces. There will be slow imperceptible change in some areas, and in others there will be dramatic impact. Tracking some of these disruptions that have led to the current state of the services, position and platform parts of the industry is somewhat telling of the directions to come.

Services

The combination of the ubiquity of online digital mapping sites, and the ability to take moving maps onto the road with navigation devices, has eroded a great many businesses. The skilled services business of making paper maps is but a fraction of what it once was due to these twin forces, and cartographic companies large and small have gone away even while technologies have come along to make paper map making easier and more artistic and realistic.

The rise of digital aerial cameras, and the need for costly hardware upgrades to compete, has helped to consolidate a large number of mom and pop aerial imaging firms. The amount of available imagery from both satellite and aerial platforms has also sped the consolidation of this service, eroding some of the low-end market of local customers wanting a new perspective on their business, while also creating a large commercial market that was best served by larger companies with both regional and national coverage.

As geospatial analysis tools advanced in terms of their capability, and automation, there has a been a good deal of consolidation of specialist spatial analysis firms such as site selection specialists. The ability to build a system that comprises specific business rules, along with the availability of data to feed the systems, has meant that much of this expertise has gone in-house and become part of day-to-day operations with analysis available at the touch of a button. While this trend has eroded a small service sliver, it has also fed the need for more detailed and current data as the quality of the input is equal to the quality of the output that underpins important business decisions.

On the geospatial data side there have been a good many consolidations of localized digital data providers that now stands at just two major global brands. In turn, the global players were snapped up by navigation and mobile telephony giants whose rise was partly fueled by the availability of these data sets to tailor their services. Recent advancement by the upstart wiki-like open data provider OpenStreetMap stands to disrupt this market, but the high-end and lucrative navigation component will be a long time in going away.

Position

When was the last time you used an analog compass? The rise of global positioning systems and the provision of our handheld devices with position and maps has been hugely disruptive on this ancient device. Map reading and orienteering skills seem destined to continue to erode, alongside that portion of our brain, as we’ll continue to have our location fed to us in greater context.

Recent trends in survey-grade position collection have meant a great deal of consolidation for professional tools such as total stations. Large national brands have come together and will slowly integrate, while new lower cost brands from China have spread these professional tools farther with cheaper price points. The mechanical means of position collection is giving way to greater precision in satellite-based measurement tools, with more GNSS satellite constellations set to fly. Satellite-based position seems destined to replace many of the on-the-ground collection methods, making it much easier to collect this data and threatening the greater shrinkage of an ancient industry.

Newer methods of collecting points and 3D realities with LiDAR seems destined to further disrupt the position collection business. Data collection advancements continue to lead the ability of software to deal with this data, but the shift is on. Whole new sectors will be born as our maps become living models.

Platforms

On the professional side of geospatial software, the competition in the ’90s was all about desktop software, and a great many smaller GIS players simply faded away. That trend shifted in the ’00s with a considerable contraction that has seen a shift away from desktop tools to services and tailored solutions as well as integrated enterprise systems.  The carving out of different niches has left only one central GIS player, with a diversified portfolio of software tools and services that morph the platform to a myriad of devices, while also providing an underpinning of geospatial data.

The ’00s also saw the rise of various online mapping platforms that have provided a free means to pin solutions upon maps to create lightweight but informative applications. The advent of Google and peers, has been both as a disruptor and enabler, taking away smaller niche business opportunities, but also providing platforms for wider reaching functionality. Many businesses faded away at the fear of a farther reaching online mapping capability, and the rise of the mashup. Further stability and capability of these online platforms has enabled increasingly capable custom apps, and an overall app mentality has led to a resurgence of opportunity for small players with a good idea.

On the mobile platform side, there have been a number of changes to the location-based services side of things. In the early ’00s there were a number of upstart platform players competing for a market that refused to take off. Lately there have been some interesting platform plays to create communities of mobile users along the lines of social check-in, and coupon serving. The hype is starting to feel justified as location has become a critical component of the mobile experience. A lot of companies died along the way toward this inevitable conclusion, and many more will likely fade in this market in the months that make up Internet time, but there also are increased opportunities for upstarts.

These are just a few of the many disruptions and factors at work that have led to market evolution in a highly disruptive time for technology and business. In the past decade we’ve seen the implosion of newspapers, the music industry, and television. What’s gone away in these media companies is the delivery mechanism, but not the content. In the geospatial industry businesses largely revolve around data creation, and the need for more accurate, more current, and more intuitive content is just heating up.

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