MapInfo tweaks product for better maps

MapInfo Corp. this month will unveil the latest version of its hallmark electronic mapping software, which company officials said will have more "sizzle" and offer federal users better database connectivity.The company will begin shipping the new software, MapInfo Professional 5.5, early next month and will give users a sneak peek at the product at a users' conference in Florida later this month.

Like other electronic mapping products, Professional enables users to create detailed electronic maps for showing everything from the demographics of congressional districts to the effects of pollution on a region's flora and fauna.

Andrew Dressel, company co-founder and director of the Professional product line, said the new product will have new functions that should make it easier for users to create maps and to make those maps more detailed and dynamic.

Moreover, Professional 5.5 will be able to connect directly to geographic data stored with Oracle Corp.'s 8i database server product. The current version of Professional is compatible with an older version of the Oracle product but requires a third-party software product.

That connectivity should make sharing data easier and more standard within an organization, Dressel said. "For mission-critical applications, it enables the data to be handled with all the industrial-strength capability of an Oracle server," he said. "All the clients can be sharing the same data; you don't have to distribute to different machines."

In addition, MapInfo has cleaned up minor problems with the product—problems that Dressel called "a little bigger than a bug." For example, Professional users now can save their printer settings for documents they have created. With previous versions of the software, users had to redo their printer settings each time they reopened the program.

Features that may be especially useful to federal users include new "hill shading" and "gridding" features, said Joe Kelly, program manager for MapInfo's public-sector market. Hill shading transforms a map's contour lines—the lines that denote terrain elevation—into shaded images, creating a 3-D effect that should enable users to easily gauge the height of a feature on a map.

Gridding enables users to assign or interpolate a value for each pixel, or each square, on a grid. With gridding, a user can create a color map to show, for example, temperature ranges for every point in the country, rather than for just a few cities, Kelly said.

The new release also comes with a data-compression application by LizardTech Inc. The tool compresses and saves images in the Multiresolution Seamless Image Database (MrSID) format, giving users high-quality compressed images that do not take up too much disk space, Dressel said. "Now we're embedding a lot of technology right in the box," Kelly said.

But there may be room for more embedding of technology.

Maj. John Ferrari, deputy director of the Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis at the U.S. Military Academy, said he uses a database product by SAS Institute Inc. with MapInfo Professional as part of an effort to measure the impact of Army personnel in regions of the country. But the two products do not work seamlessly. "The interaction between SAS [and MapInfo] is not very good," Ferrari said. "We sort of have to take the data, pull it back and crunch it out."

Robert Kugel, an analyst who follows MapInfo for First Albany Corp., said the company's approach to merge software applications with products—or to eliminate the need for additional software products such as middleware for databases—typifies a continuing goal in which the company is trying to make electronic mapping easy and more accessible—taking "mapping past being simply a desktop thing to being an enterprise solution."

Kugel said it has taken the company a couple of years to make its products more comprehensive, integrating several functions or software applications that bolster the core mapping software. And he said the company should benefit from the approach. "Their business ought to be accelerating over the next couple of years," he said.

MapInfo will sell its new product through the General Services Administration schedule for about $1,300 per copy.

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