5 Takeaways from the 2015 Esri User Conference

After letting the Esri UC Plenary sink in for some time, I thought I'd take some time to right down some takeways. Things are rapidly changing, and the ArcGIS platform is expanding, in some good ways, and in some other ways that will serve to widen the gap between developers and users. I'll preface this-- I'm a huge proponent of Esri's technology, and one really has to dig to find anything that negative with it. The good far outweighs the bad with their offerings. There's no other software organization (to my knowledge) that makes Philanthropy, R&D, and Education their loss leaders to the extent to they do, except for maybe Google. Let's begin:

1. Esri finally has a competitor to Google Earth-- it might be Google Earth?

Maybe it's Google Earth-- on steroids. I haven’t done further digging, but could ArcGIS Earth be the lovechild born out of whatever backroom deal was hatched out of Google and Esri last year when Google decided to exit enterprise maps? That's when Esri announced a plan for Google's customers to come on over to the ArcGIS platform as an alternative. I thought this was funny at first, but it seems as though it certainly had merit, and now one might assume that ArcGIS Earth has its roots in the secret sauce that was Google Earth Pro. I'm interested to see if they killed off any import and export functionality (but keeping KML) in favor of locking folks in to ArcGIS.com-- purely speculative, but we'll see.

2. Things are getting really easy...

The products are improving immensely but there are some fundamental shifts in the learning curve for a GIS user that's utilizing their software. Now you can actually deploy your own app to a myriad of different devices with just a few button clicks. Also with web appbuilder you can literally spin up a javascript web app in minutes as well. No need to write a single line of code. Achieving this is actually quite a feat from the perspective of development. But to literally dumb things down to this level will hurt a folks on a few fronts...

* Esri's Business Partners who create apps might be turned into competitors.

Why would I need to hire a Developer to create a great app if I could easily just do it through Esri? We have to think about the ever growing footprint of activities that Esri is now participating in. With convenience comes dependence on this platform. It's brilliant, but is it doing too much?

* Esri's user base is not getting challenged.

All of these developments are great, but honestly could be making us all soft and limiting career potential. Spinning up a quick app is great for a government, or an emergency response. But I don't think that this should be in the Academic offering in our schools-- for which ArcGIS is now free for K - 12. Showing kids the power of place is good, but the unspoken incentive for Esri is to get these kiddo's drinking the koolaid at a very young age, and when they grow up, they can easily just be good obedient users in this environment. For the folks that I work with every day, we have an index that we keep called FIO. That stands for figure it out. If we teach kids, and users that all they'll ever need to do is "configure" and not solve a problem by taking a deep dive and learning something the hard way, they'll never really feel the reward of having done something challenging on their own. They'll take what they've built up on to the next school or career and say, "oh yeah I can create a web app, or even a smartphone application on any device, all that you have to do is buy this software and I'll configure it for you."

There's no room for the user to develop their own secret sauce, but rather all of the secret sauce is now part of the platform. The end users will benefit, but the person that deployed it has a huge dependence on an outside party. This will not spark curiosity within the lower ranks of organizations or more alarmingly within K-12 Schools or colleges. This will ultimately result in a low FIO and technical literacy across the board. So ultimately there is still a great career path for Esri Developers, just work for Esri or a non-commercial entity that won't compete on any level with Esri.

I just finished the biography of Elon Musk (Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future), and in the book there was a story about how Elon was attempting to get SpaceX off the ground in the early days by trying to purchase a rocket from Russia. This was becoming frustrating, as the Russians were hard to deal with, and it also would make SpaceX extremely depended on an outside entity, something that Lockeed Martin and Northrup Grumman do all of the time. Because the legacy launch business companies where so dependent upon outside entities, and add that Russia wasn't taking SpaceX seriously in their conversations, Musk took it upon himself to begin the process of building something from scratch. Two things happened thereafter that are now instrumental in the success of this company: 1. SpaceX rockets are fully Made in the USA, 2. SpaceX can launch a rocket at a considerable cost savings because they didn't follow the herd when it came to legacy supply chains. What does this have to do with the decline of the GIS user? If people don't seek to build things themselves, they will miss out on future opportunities to do something extraordinary and everything they create with Esri will always have a considerable overhead to go along with it.

3. Esri's Desktop GIS is getting fragmented

There are TONS of Esri products and more coming online all of the time. But the only issue that I'd like to Address here is the fragmentation that will continue to get worse between their desktop analysis software: ArcGIS Desktop, and ArcGIS Pro.
First off, the only technology crash in the plenary happened with ArcGIS Pro, when two Molokai high school students were presenting how they used GIS for their analysis.

They clicked a single button, then it froze on them. I thought to myself, "Finally this has been my experience with this software from the get-go". Given this, these girls recovered gracefully. But what begged more of an explanation was when the girls admitted that they had only learned ArcGIS Pro 48 hours ago, and that they ultimately did all of their analysis in ArcGIS Desktop. That was really uncool to put these girls through that, but it's been an analogous approach to how this product has been heaped on to the whole user base from the get go.

We've been presented with a product that for the most part is a complete redundancy to the legacy product. Not only that, it's cumbersome-- you click on a menu and it should just pop up. That's the experience that we're all used to in ArcGIS Desktop. If this product is to be an improvement, it just can't be as good as the legacy experience, it needs to beat it.

Regarding fragmentation, apparently most of their new tools and development will get done for ArcGIS Pro, and ArcGIS Desktop will not receive the same functions in all cases of new features. This is going to get extremely confusing and has the potential to really frustrate people if they have to open up multiple programs to get their jobs done.

4. Esri is now in the business of drones

Here's a video from the Plenary of their software.

I really like how they framed everything by how long the entire process took. In my quest to develop a successful workflow, I've seen many vendors fall on their face after a successful flight and then it comes time to process the data into something you can use. From the video, this looks promising. Hopefully they'll get a leg up on Autodesk’s Recap and Memento products by inclusion of Ground Control Points, IMU Data, and Camera calibration to truly get about a photogrammetric solution. Only time will tell...

5. Martin O'Malley is awesome

Esri invited presidential candidate Martin O'Malley for the keynote speech. He's an amazing orator, but what's so cool is that he understands the power of maps when it comes to making decisions. He was able to back up how he made decisions as Mayor and Governor with data. My tagline that I learned from Data Science pursuits is "If it can be measured, it can be improved". This seems to be his approach to solving real-world problems like crime, poverty, and climate change.