Rethinking the GIS GUI

While working on a project late the other night, I was thinking about how basically all GIS software is the same:

I mean everything is bad. ArcGIS, MapInfo, QGIS, TileMill, Intergraph, Manifold and any other you wish to list are all a complete disaster. We are able to use them because we are familiar with their workflows, but at what cost to productivity? It is a sad state of affairs when I’m excited to use shp2pgsql. I’ve noticed that I’m using GDAL/OGR much more lately and I think it is because it makes me much more productive. Says Bill Dollins:

Bill Dollins TweetBill Dollins Tweet

Now I remember something Scott Morehouse once said,

[ArcGIS] is scientific software

I don’t recall the exact context of the statement, just that it has stuck with me all these years. The more I think about it, the more I think he’s right. GIS is complicated and all over the place. Workflows are if anything, unique to each user. That’s what I think makes the command line so perfect, I have to create my workflow from scratch.

But that’s a cop-out. Scientific software doesn’t have to be hard. I’m not a math wiz by any means, but software such as Mathematica and MATLAT are easy enough for me use without reading a manual or take a class. Try that with ArcGIS or QGIS!

I was just about to write about how the GUI is bad because Esri got here first and screwed it up, but that’s too simple. Part of it is that the GIS software space is mature and stable. What I mean by this is that you don’t see new competitors releasing products and being disruptive. And since the software isn’t retail, there is no worry about the PC World review. Basically you create a wall around your software product and make it hard to move to another platform. Every GIS program falls into this trap.


If North Korea can launch a satellite, why can’t we have a good UI for GIS software?

So for me, I’m sticking to command line tools, proprietary or open source, to get my job done. You better understand how tools work when you use them one on one rather than some wizard. I don’t really know if GIS software can be fixed at this point. My suggestion is they keep allowing us to script with Python and stay out of our way. That’s a win/win in my book.


December 17, 2012