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Esri’s “Open Source” Software Might Not Be

Eddie PickleLast year, Esri released a blog post about going open source with Esri which they recently followed up with a progress report. While we laud Esri for some genuinely open efforts like their GIS Tools for Hadoop, their use of the word “open” can be a bit… misleading. That’s not helpful to a geospatial industry that’s still trying to catch up to the rest of the IT industry in the use of real open source software.

Open source software licensing has been a boon to the IT landscape. It promotes rapid adaptation, superior interoperability, better collaboration amongst developers, a greater universe of software testers, and greater control for enterprises using the software.

Open Like a Venus Flytrap

Open source has been so successful at replacing proprietary alternatives that many closed source companies have been scrambling to buy open source companies — or else releasing “fig leaf” open source projects to increase the market share of their closed source software.

Of course we’re glad to see that Esri has more than 200 projects on GitHub, but how many of them are sample applications or frameworks that only work with their proprietary offerings? It’s nice to see that the Geotrigger SDK for Android is licensed under the Apache 2.0 license, but how can one stand up a Geotrigger service without paying Esri? Is it even an open standard?

Working in the Open

We’re also happy to see Esri adopting modern development practices like distributed version control, but it’s a bit misleading to describe using Github internally as ‘open source’ — for one thing, the very meaning of ‘open source’ is public access to source code, and we don’t see Esri providing much access to the code that powers their APIs. If Esri is truly committed to working in the open, why start a LIDAR format war instead of working within an existing open source community? If Esri is committed to open source, why not save the ArcGIS API for Flex by releasing the source code, as their own customers have asked?

In contrast, all the source code for OpenGeo Suite is accessible on our public GitHub repository. And we don’t just provide the source code, we’re actively involved in the governance of the open source components we depend on and substantively participate in community events like FOSS4G.

A History of Open

While Esri seems eager to market their “open” platform and their many “open” initiatives, the DNA of a company is hard to change. Esri was forged in the proprietary GIS era of the 1980s and 1990s, and it shows in the way they twist the meaning of the very word “open” to lock customers into closed source, proprietary software.

At Boundless, our world is open. We started at a non-profit and continue that legacy by building truly open communities, using open licenses, employing expert core developers, publishing Creative Commons learning materials, and helping communities that build open source software.

“Open” is more than a word and open source software and open data are more than token initiatives. We sympathize that the initial acceleration towards openness can be difficult — especially for a company with Esri’s history — and we’re hopeful that the next year will show some true progress.

Eddie Pickle has worked in the geospatial industry for more than 30 years and has been a senior executive at well-known software and data leaders including IONIC, Claritas, and now Boundless.