Desktop GIS – The Evergreen Topic

It seems that I tend to revisit the state of desktop GIS every so often. With the continued advancement of “web GIS,” as well as the increased power of mobile platforms, proliferation of spatial analysis techniques into non-traditional environments, the ubiquity of spatial databases, and a host of other factors, it’s tempting to speculate on the long-term prospects of traditional desktop GIS software. This seems especially true when the software in question originates in Redlands, California.

I was brought back to this topic by a recent discussion on Twitter, initiated by my friend, Atanas Entchev.

The ensuing discussion grew legs and continued much longer than I would have thought. The core of the discussion centered around confusion in Esri’s messaging or, more accurately, subsequent interpretation of Esri’s messaging with regard to the status of ArcGIS Desktop. Long story short: much ado about nothing. Esri is releasing new versions of ArcGIS Pro and ArcMap. There are primary sources reaffirming their commitment to desktop GIS, so we can all go back to what we were doing. Awesome.

I pretty much watch Esri from a distance these days but, even from my perch, I can’t see any workflow that doesn’t involve desktop software at some point. It’s simply still crucial to the editing and publishing of maps and other geospatial content.

That’s even true outside of the Esri world. My team lives in QGIS. As of this writing, QGIS is at version 3.4.4 and it’s hard for me to make a case that I need to use anything else, aside from convenient proprietary hooks to other systems and workflows. We do have a lone ArcMap instance for the production of MXDs, but we make heavy use of FME so we can produce data in even the most proprietary of formats if needed, without consuming a license of anything additional.

QGIS 3.4.4 on MacOS Mojave

But, for the sake of discussion, let’s explore the notion that Esri would be winding down their desktop GIS tools as we’ve known them for nearly the past two decades. I’ve never laid eyes on ArcGIS Pro, but I am not under any delusion that it’s new. I suspect, and this is pure speculation, that Esri may be slow-rolling the transition away from ArcMap and its ilk because they still hear echos of the screams from the sudden cutover from ArcView.

Twenty years ago, many GIS practitioners were elbow-deep in Avenue. Eighteen years ago, those same practitioners could probably be found with a VBA book in their laps, trying to rebuild their extensions into ArcGIS. The cutover was sudden, and painful for many.

In the ensuing years, many have gotten very comfortable with ArcGIS Desktop, but the reality is that technology changes. While the COM underpinnings of ArcMap et. al have continued to get very long in the tooth, QGIS has been born, gotten mature, surpassed (IMO) ArcMap, and proliferated on other platforms. I have the current version of QGIS running natively on my Macbook, my Linux desktop, and a Windows machine. My home-use license of ArcMap is still confined to Windows, as is, I’m told, ArcGIS Pro. (Virtualization techniques aside, of course.)

I don’t point this out to poke a finger in the eye of Esri. Rather, it illustrates that technology moves rapidly and, at some point, the plug will need to be pulled on ArcMap in order to provide a more modern computing experience to Esri desktop GIS users. I still know a lot of people at Esri. They’re smart, they do good work, and they’re too talented not to build a better product.

As Atanas stated in his original tweet, desktop GIS is the long tail. The ability to do spatial analysis in a number of different environments means that geospatial processing is rightfully diffusing beyond its core desktop roots, and that is an exciting process. But, traditional, GUI desktop GIS, with all of its buttons and overly-complex dialog boxes and wizards is here for the long run.

I seem to get the chance to revisit this topic every three years or so, and I suspect, if this blog still exists by then, I will be able to write a post similar to this one in 2022. Will it still be talking about ArcMap or will that finally ride off into the sunset in favor of ArcGIS Pro? We will have to see. I know what will be on my desktop until then.