Why Consider ArcGIS Alternatives?

Last week I shared my adventures evaluating open source software. Why bother looking at alternatives to ArcGIS? There are significant barriers of entry to ArcGIS. Whenever I give an introductory GIS presentation to anyone, I inevitably have to answer the question of “How can I get access to this software?” Inevitably, the answer is you have to spend a lot of money, or if your institution already has a subscription, you need to go through a lengthy process to get access.

  • Price. A single, stand-alone copy of ArcView costs $1500. Not only is that prohibitively expensive for me, it’s impossible for students. Which means that students who are taking a GIS class have to use the software in a computer lab on campus to complete assignments. This is not always convenient for many students, and is particularly problematic where I work since we are primarily a commuter campus.
  • License limitations. If you’re running Arc through a central license server, PCs have to be connected to the server through a hardwired connection – no wireless. Our library has a laptop checkout program for students which would give students an alternative to using a computer lab. But not being able to install the software on a laptop eliminates this possibility. It also makes it a pain for me to give presentations, as I always have to make sure that the room I’ll be presenting in has the software. My short term solution is to use an eval copy on a laptop. You can purchases USB keys that have the license info on them, but if you work in a large, complex academic or government setting, getting one can be a challenge. And every year we have to go through the process of getting the license renewed.
  • Installation and Bugs. As Arc users know, installation can be time consuming, particularly since you can’t have two versions of Arc installed concurrently – you have to uninstall one before installing the new one. And how many service packs have been issued for version 9.2? Six. IT people love it when they have to install fixes in a dozen labs / classrooms in the middle of a semester, particularly when they have to do it 5 or 6 times a year. In reality, we skip several service packs and live with the bugs.
  • Forced Obsolescence. This is particularly aggravating. Every year or two, we all have to go through the ritual of making an upgrade, which involves time consuming un-installation and installation. And you need to make sure that different branches of your organization that use GIS are on the same page, otherwise you’ll run into incompatibility issues (like when mxd files created in version  9.2 don’t work in 9.1).
  • Cross platform. I run a linux box at home and occasionally would like to take my work with me. There are a number of students and faculty members at my school who are ardent Mac users. But ArcGIS runs only on Windows.

The open source alternatives are free, easy to install (usually), can be installed anywhere without restrictions, the software doesn’t expire, and upgrades are a rather simple affair. The obvious downside is that none of them have the power, scope, or usability that ArcGIS has. At least, not yet.

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