ESRI’s brilliant marketing move and what Open Source GIS can learn from it

ESRI has announcedESRI Maps for Office”, an Excel add-in which will be available in public beta the first half of 2012. So imagine: You have all your Excel data, all the power of Excel for analysis and now, you can also display this data on a map WITHIN Excel to explore and analyze it in a whole new way.Fantastic – no?

It probably is. ESRI hasn’t released any information about pricing or licensing (e.g. would you need to have ArcGIS installed on the desktop to use the add-in?) but this is beside the point. In this post, I would argue that the real story here goes far beyond of having another tool in Excel. It brings “GIS” or at least thematic mapping, to thousands (millions?) of new users who till then probably didn’t have anything to do with maps or “GIS” (btw, the quotes are because we still don’t know what kind of spatial/mapping functionality will be available).

This move by ESRI, penetrates -in a big way- a previously untapped market. And this is a lesson Open Source GIS companies can learn a lot from.

In a recent blog post, Sofia Parafina, argues that the release of TileMill for Windows will be the game changer for the adoption of open source mapping. Why? Because, she says 84% of the computers in the world run some variant of Windows (actually in the link she provides this is higher-85%). And also because till now, there was a lack of good cartographic tools for open source programs running on Windows.

I beg to differ. In her own post she states that:

…it’s rather bare bones in that there is no tool to select a feature and set the line style, color, or fill in a menu. You have to create each style using MSS in a TileMill editor, …

So here we go. Another glorified notepad. Don’t get me wrong. I have played with it, its great and I am sure it will help. You can now create thematic maps more easily. But I very much doubt that will be a game changer and people will suddenly queue to download open source GIS.

BUT, providing a –say- QGIS add-in for Excel might do the trick. Do you want some more stats? According to Microsoft, 500 million people worldwide use Microsoft Office. Although this claim may be rather excessive, even empirically, if 85% of computers run windows, most new computers come with some version of Microsoft office, and even WITHOUT including pirated copies, well… you get the picture.

So to finish the same way I started, imagine: You have all your Excel data, all the power of Excel for analysis and now, you can also display this data on a map WITHIN Excel to explore and analyze it in a whole new way by downloading an add-in for Excel for free! .

Now, this IS a game-changer!

7 thoughts on “ESRI’s brilliant marketing move and what Open Source GIS can learn from it

  1. Just for completeness, remember that at one time MapInfo had an add-on to Excel for mapping. It’s hard to say what that did for MapInfo (now PBS) but it got Microsoft into the mapping game.

    “MapInfo provided the first tools to Microsoft that allowed them to include mapping functionality in their products, specifically the mapping add-on branded as Microsoft Map for Microsoft Excel as part of MS Office 95.[13] The add-on was subsequently included in Microsoft Office 97, and Microsoft Office 2000. This provided the inspiration for the Microsoft MapPoint program, which became a separate product from Microsoft, and since then Microsoft Map was dropped.”

  2. Just to clarify, I don’t think that TileMill will drive the adoption of open source GIS over existing solutions. The game changer part is that there is finally a Windows native set of tools available to 85% (the number changes) of the computer users out there. There are a lot of casual cartographers out there that balk at the $1500 they need to cough up just to make a custom map.

    Here’s the thing, if you need a license for the extension, ESRI is only marketing to their existing user base and not expanding it.

    1. I understand that. I am just not convinced that having these set of tools will be the deciding factor in the adaptation of open source. And yes, I agree, the ‘brilliance’ of it all will heavily depend on the licensing/prerequisites of the add-in.

  3. Interesting post. It reminded me of a session at FOSS4G, during which it was stated that ‘we’ should do marketing. This was not that well received by the audience in the room, in my opinion, and I had a few interesting conversations afterwards. I don’t see a lot of ‘think market’ or ‘think user’ in the OS arena. Often that is even beyond the point of foss.

    Like you, I am curious where this move will take Esri (and GIS for that matter).


    Who remembers Σίσθέμα 9

  4. A QGIS plugin for Excel would be interesting, however I think the .NET thing is what will stop that from ever happening. I have never really found a good way to expose Qt C++ to .NET, all the projects seem to be dead.

    But I understand your point.

    In terms of marketing, I do think the OS area should ‘think’ user. The user is the most important part, without the user the project is dead. However I don’t want to see this kind of cheesy marketing

  5. @Jan @Nathan- IMO depending on the s/w, OS ‘thinks’ user. Some more than others. What it does NOT think – or only some do – is WINDOWS user. Notable exceptions are QGIS and PostGIS (and ofcourse MapGuide but this is windows native so it doesn’t count!🙂 However In some cases it appears that the windows release, is an afterthought or almost a ‘favour’ to the windows users, who rely on the kindness of strangers as it were to get a release.

    Examples from personal experience:

    Example 1: A few months back I decided to try QGIS Server. I hit a problem with gettting WMS data, asked in the forums, got no reply, didn’t bother again. To me, this doesn’t say anything whether the forum is helpful or not. It simply means that either a) no-one is using it on windows, b) there IS a problem with the windows version and no-one is doing anything about it, c) both.

    BTW- link to the forum post is:

    Example 2- PgRouting 1.05 was released in Nov 2010. There are still no Windows binaries for this version. And from what I can see from previous releases the windows versions lagged behind by more than a year.

    Again, my opinion only, but to me the windows user base is something that OS dev community should focus heavily on.

    And, BTW Jan- impressed you remember System 9!🙂

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