Why Isn’t ArcGIS Explorer Open Source?

I was tinkering with AGX today, mainly trying to get comfortable with the API. As I was playing with it, this thought crept into my head: Why isn’t this thing open source? Okay, aside from the fact that it was released by ESRI…

There are two main reasons that I ponder this: First, it’s already free. ESRI isn’t charging for it so it’s essentially a cost sink for them. ESRI still incurs all of the costs associated with lifecycle maintenance with no direct recovery of those costs. Yes, I know that they are diffused across the revenue streams of the rest of the product line but bear with me. One could make a strong case that by making AGX open-source, ESRI’s overall costs would go down. Right now, they shoulder 100% of the cost. By opening up the product to a community of developers, that cost would go down. Basically, I don’t think that a free, closed-source AGX is going give ESRI much traction anywhere so you could call this the “what-have-they-got-to-lose” argument.

Secondly, there’s Google Earth. I will say right now that GE is a superior product to AGX. I won’t even try to debate otherwise. That said, AGX is pretty good. I know that ESRI has said that AGX is not intended to compete with GE. It’s targeted at the enterprise environment where it would be the “spinny globe” client to their server software. This is precisely the environment where GE starts to cost a good bit of money. By taking AGX open-source, ESRI could accelerate the advancement of the product while reducing costs and have it remain competitive. I think AGX will go over just fine in shops that are already using ESRI’s software but I don’t think it’s compelling enough to expand their market on its own. But, with its ability to consume KML, WMS, ArcIMS and ArcGIS Server as well as with its API; AGX has got a little game. Taking it open-source could potentially open up a whole new community of advocates who would have a little pride of ownership.

There are other smaller reasons to do it as well. ESRI has started dabbling in the open-source world with the 52 North initiative. Opening the source to AGX would certainly demonstrate commitment there. Also, this particular market segment is crowded: GE, AGX, World Wind, Virtual Earth 3D. AGX, as it stands now, adds little to the picture. An open-source AGX would at least add something to the community.

The main downside would be the difficulty in synchronizing the activity of an open-source project with the release schedule of ArcGIS. In addition, ESRI could risk losing control of the product altogether but there are enough models of open-source projects with corporate backing, such as Eclipse, to work from.

So, maybe it makes sense and maybe not. I could probably argue it either way for quite a while. AGX plugs a gap in the ESRI product line that’s existed for a long time and maybe that’s good enough for them. It’s most likely a complete non-starter. But again, it’s a free product. So, if it’s free, maybe it should be set free.

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