Java-GIS Going Mainstream

Autodesk Inc., the PC software company, recently asked a cadre of geographic information system (GIS) users-including many from state and local government shops-to spend an imaginary $100 on new capabilities they would like to see in a World Wide Web-based mapping package. Many put their money on Java, the Internet programming language that increasingly is being viewed as the standard for integrating GIS and Internet applications.

Launched in 1995, Java is an object-oriented programming language, but unlike traditional application development environments, it relies on modular applets that reside on a server. A user can download the applets whenever he needs them, regardless of what operating system he runs locally.

Earlier this year, Autodesk began shipping MapGuide 4.0, the Java edition of its Web-based mapping software. The package will compete head-to-head with Autodesk rival MapInfo Corp.'s MapXtreme, another Web-based mapping product with Java enhancements. The release of the two products indicates that Java has arrived as a mainstream GIS technology.

"In the GIS world, what is significant about these products is that they light the way," said David Sonnen, a senior consultant for International Data Corp. "[They] are a good indication of where a significant group of GIS users are headed as they develop applications across the Net."

MapGuide and MapXtreme are among a new crop of GIS products that bridge GIS databases with Internet applications. Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc., Redlands, Calif., with its MapObjects and Internet Map Server products, also is breaking into that mix. "Clearly ESRI wants to have a presence in the Internet world, but so far Map-Xtreme and MapGuide have the advantage of having more development time, and they have been out there longer," Sonnen said.

The leading GIS vendors have a significant presence in state and local government shops. For example, Oakland, Calif., has used Autodesk's MapGuide to create a "dynamic city map" that allows users to check the ownership of a piece of property, print reports on selected parcels and determine a property's zoning category, lot size and proximity to fire stations and hospitals. Using the application, citizens also can view high-resolution aerial photos of any part of the city at any scale.

Meanwhile, New York state's Office of Mental Health (OMH) is using MapInfo's MapXtreme to create a master plan for situating 1,300 psychiatric facilities across the state.

So far, neither OMH nor Oakland has incorporated Java because the upgraded editions are brand-new, but MapInfo and Autodesk argue that the ability to harness Java to generate mapping applications will appeal to many state and local GIS users.

"Java offers some very unique functionality in terms of write-once and run-anywhere," said John McCarthy, public-sector account manager for Troy, N.Y.-based MapInfo.

Indeed, the broad mix of operating systems among state and local government shops is a key reason why Java products are expected to take off in the government market. "There is a lot of [Windows] NT out there and a lot of Unix out there in terms of high-end servers in both the federal and state and local markets," McCarthy said. "Very often there is a real combination among agencies."

IDC's Sonnen agreed. "In the state and local space, these packages allow collaboration between the planning departments and the zoning people and perhaps the fire department. They can all look at the information across the Net, although in many cases it tends to be intranets," he said.

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