Do Geotechnologies constantly lag behind the mainstream by about ten years?

While working on a text about HCI and GIS, I started to notice a general pattern of ten years or so delay between the dates a new functionality starts to become ‘mainstream’ in general computer use and when it becomes common in GIS.

Here are some examples: the early use of computers in the business environment was in the mid to late 1950s, but we had to wait until the late 1960s to get the first full-scale GIS (and even that was fairly primitive). Personal computers and microcomputers appeared in the late 1970s with machines such as the Apple II, which started to be used by many small offices for word processing and accounting, but the first PC GIS application, Mapinfo, appeared only in the second half of the 1980s. Human-Computer Interaction emerged as a field of research in the early 1980s, but only in the early 1990s was it recognised by GIS researchers. Graphical User Interfaces were first implemented in mainstream computing in the very early 1980s, and didn’t arrive to GIS until the 1990s. Finally, notice how e-commerce, e-mail and other Web applications were very successful in the early 1990s, but only in the mid 2000s did the GeoWeb emerge, with the success of Google Maps.

Several other examples of this gap exist – for example, the use of SQL databases. Even if you search for the earliest research paper or documentation for a major GIS functionality with a parallel in the mainstream, this lag appears. Some very early research appears around 5 years after the mainstream use (see the first HCI and GIS paper as an example) but it will take at least another 5 years to see it in real products that are used outside research labs.

This observation explains, to me, two puzzles: first, why is it that, for the two decades that I’ve been working with GIS, it keeps being referred to as an ‘emerging technology’? The answer is that it is always catching up so, for the journalist, who is familiar with other areas of computing, it feels like something that is emerging; second, why are companies that are getting into geotechnologies early either failing (examples aplenty in the Location-based services area in the 1990s) or needing about 10 years of survival to become successful? The reason here is that they are too optimistic about the technical challenges that they are facing.

I think that the lag is due to the complexities of dealing with geographical information, and the need for hardware and software to get to the stage when geographical applications are possible. Another reason is the relative lack of investment in the development of geotechnologies, which were considered for a long time niche applications.

What is your explanation for the gap?

Published by

mukih

Professor of GIScience, University College London

2 thoughts on “Do Geotechnologies constantly lag behind the mainstream by about ten years?”

  1. Hi Muki

    I have been thinking about this too….
    What strikes me is that the things you can do with GIS (operations) basically have not changed much since the 70’s…….
    on the other hand, the geospatial community was in the forefront of the metadata movement which has become so much more important now that we have all the escience and sdi push.

    Not sure it’s because of the complexity. I think it has a lot to do with the dominance of the commercial space by one big player. Interesting to see where the neogeographers will take it if anywhere.

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