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LASER-SCAN USER AND PARTNER CONFERENCE
Laser-Scan held its 14th conference in its hometown of Cambridge, UK last week. The High Sheriff of Cambridgeshire officially opened the conference and explained the role of a High Sheriff. I'm pleased to report that those who live in the UK listened as intently as those of us from overseas.
After welcoming attendees, Mike Sanderson, Laser-Scan's Managing Director (MD), took the stage to the strains of "Eye of the Tiger" from one of the Rocky movies. He first reminded the audience of what he said last year, in particular, about the three themes the company would focus on: developing a winning team, developing a strategy for interoperability, and hitting targets. He did, however, note that one word summed up what would make the company successful: interoperability, or "interop" for short. That term, along with some other more business focused topics, wove in and out of nearly every session.
Who Owns Laser-Scan?
Sanderson's most important early morning task was to answer the question on everyone's mind: What would happen to the company, which recently announced that its owner Yeoman Group placed the company in administration, basically putting it up for sale?
He wasted little time in explaining how Laser-Scan management and staff now own the company outright. "External shareholders are gone," Sanderson reported, "We are in control of our own destiny." This is the first time in 22 years that the 34-year-old company has been independent. (That makes Laser-Scan exactly as old as ESRI and Intergraph, if you are keeping track.)
There were two other key announcements: one noting that Korean Cadastral Survey had selected the company's Gothic to deliver its cadastre in digital form and a second echoing the announcement from Intergraph's GeoSpatial World that Intergraph would resell the company's Radius Topology technology.
While clearly pleased at how the past six weeks have played out since the announcement of administration, Sanderson pointed out some of the disadvantages on the path to "going private." There were some staff losses, he explained, and the company would have to seek opportunities to grow. On the positive side, he noted the company had added some external board members (that is, ones that do not work for Laser-Scan) and confirmed that Peter Woodsford, a longtime Laser-Scan employee, would stay on as a member of the board.
A Keynote and a Look at Laser-Scan Strategy
I spoke next, highlighting the "Elusive Nature of Geospatial Interoperability." I outlined the flavors of interoperability from the simple "snapshot" type provided by PDF format and GIF files to the complexities of semantic or "language" interoperability. I then shared some anecdotal data to explore the demand for interoperability and examined what appeared to be limited demand. I illustrated how geospatial standards organizations appear to relate to/interact with/compete against information technology ones. Finally, I made some predictions about the growth of geospatial interoperability.
Duncan Guthrie, Sales and Marketing Director, who joined the company from Earth Resource Mapping within the last year, outlined Laser-Scan's commercial strategy. The general theme: the company would change from a focus on specialized solutions, to a focus on mainstream IT offerings. That would require developing partnerships, growing and learning from relationships with customers, enhancing product offerings, and implementing a focused marketing plan.
Guthrie was very open in sharing statistics illustrating the state of the company over the last few years. Losses halved, then turned to a profit in the first five months of this calendar year. Revenues dipped as the economy slumped and headcount dropped from 100 to its current 49.
Partnerships were clearly the most important topic for Guthrie. He asked everyone who considered himself a Laser-Scan partner to stand. About 15 or 20 people did, about two-thirds of the audience. He compared that to about two people who would have felt the same way last year, he pointd out. Laser-Scan was moving from a direct to an indirect distribution model, he explained, asking "Why compete, when you can cooperate?" He offered that partnerships create new opportunities for interoperability and the delivery of best-of-breed solutions. He listed several partners in different stages of partnership who were in attendance: Intergraph, Autodesk, Oracle, MapInfo (with whom working while part of Yeoman Group was a challenge, since Yeoman, like MapInfo, was involved in LBS) and Cadcorp. The plan is to double the existing ten solution providers in the next six months. The goal was not to "blanket" the earth with partners, but rather to choose "strategic partners." Steven Ramage, Business Development Director, now has this responsibility.
Guthrie continued by highlighting the key role long-time and new customers play in moving the company forward, then laid out details for expected future revenue. The plan, in short, is to increase revenue from new technology, that is the Radius technology, so that in three years it accounts for some 48% of total revenue. Radius currently refers to just a single product, Radius Topology, one of the many slices currently being "ported" from the company's proprietary Gothic system to an Oracle/Java implementation. In time, more Radius products will be available, including Radius Studio [object behaviors], Clarity [generalization], ClearText [text placement], and Lifecycle [active, not passive, objects]. (More on these below.) In terms of marketing Guthrie highlighted the important role the company's website played, and will play in the future, and the plan to exploit the Internet to educate the marketplace.
Two Ways of Looking at Interoperability
Guenther Pichler, MD for Open GIS Consortium (Europe), explained the role of that group as a "project organization" focusing on the outreach and community adoption part of the OGC mission. (I consult for OGC and was pleased to meet my "colleague" for the first time.)
After lunch I missed several sessions (I was sending out GIS Monitor at the time!) but I was able to see a "replay" of what was referred to as the "interoperability demo." The demonstration showed the loading of Ordnance Survey's OS MasterMap data into Oracle9i via partner Snowflake Software's Go Loader and access by clients from MapInfo (MapInfo Pro), Autodesk (Map), Intergraph (GeoMedia), Cadcorp (SIS), and Laser-Scan (LAMPS2). The demonstration was both remarkable and non-remarkable at the same time. It was remarkable because all of the clients could edit and post changes, and others could immediately see those changes. It was non-remarkable because what made it possible was simply that the client software products had an existing connection to Oracle that allowed it to "just work." Woven into this, of course, was Radius Topology, Laser-Scan's topology creation tool for Oracle. Since Radius Topology adds extra tables to Oracle (to store topology) and extra operators (such as LSL_TOPO_RELATE which can be used in place of traditional Oracle Spatial SDO_RELATE), it also "just works" with these clients.
David Sonnen on the Structure of SIM Market and Geospatial ROI
David Sonnen of IDC gave the second keynote. He spoke about a strategy to tease out the return on investment from geospatial data and technology. This was not a "step by step" recipe, but rather a generic framework that each organization would need to tweak to its specific processes. While I found the strategy interesting, (it sounded like it would work), I was far more intrigued by his introduction, which shared a draft of his current understanding of the state of the Spatial Information Management (SIM) marketplace.
Sonnen's current model has four parts: GIS (where location is the most important thing), enterprise location services software (ELSS, basically business apps that call on location, but where location is not the most important aspect), personal location services software (PLSS, how individuals get data-think MapQuest), and geopositioning services ("finding out where things are"). Sonnen offered that ELSS is where the most growth is happening, PLSS is looking for a revenue model, and geopositioning services is just coming on the scene and may include apparently unrelated technologies like RFID tags, indoor GPS, and more.
I'd never heard Sonnen speak before this conference, though I've read some of his articles. Should you get the chance to hear him, I recommend that you do.
Case Studies, Data and the Future (and past) of Laser-Scan Technology
The morning continued with a presentation from the Ordnance Survey's Director of Sales and Market Development and a case study describing how the Borough of Enfield, London cut the clean-up time for its data (which is currently stored in MapInfo TAB files) from an estimated five years of production to about five weeks using Radius Topology. Most of the five weeks was spent tracking down errors that couldn't be handled automatically. The stats: the automated process found and corrected 94% of errors, leaving just 6% for manual clean-up. So, what's so special here? This is server-side topology creation and clean-up. It's done in Oracle with Radius Topology on a nice big server, not on the desktop where most GIS users have done this work in the past. (And, while this may be "new" to many readers, Laser-Scan has been doing this in Gothic for ten years!)
To wrap up the morning we heard the technology plan from Laser-Scan's Director of Software Development and Programs, Gareth Patterson. For me, this was like coming in halfway through a movie. Laser-Scan has been on a technology path for about two years and I missed what happened in the 32 previous years! Luckily, I got some background from Peter Woodsford, who has been there practically from the beginning, so I can share the story, which is pretty interesting.
Laser-Scan's core product, Gothic is object-oriented. It was written before Oracle was as powerful as it was, and before there were any well-structured object-oriented programming languages. Laser-Scan therefore created its own proprietary data structure and a language called Laser-Scan User Language, or LULL. (This is not so different from what Cambridge-bred neighbor Smallworld did at about the same time with its own proprietary database and language, Magik.)
Laser-Scan someday planned to move from the proprietary world to the more standard information technology world, but the thought of porting the entire Gothic product was overwhelming. When Sanderson came to the company in 2001 he approached the problem differently: "What part of Gothic could you port to Oracle and make available via Java?" he asked the development team. After some thinking, the team replied that it could port the topology part of Gothic. That became Radius Topology, first released last year. The plan now is to peel off more layers of Gothic and to add more of them, one by one to the new environment.
At the conference the "next" layer was announced, an automated generalization product called Clarity that has just been launched. Clarity will ultimately be available in the Oracle environment. A Linux port of Gothic is already complete and some Gothic-based "flowline" development is underway. There's also been some architectural "clean-up" of the code.
The future includes more layers including Radius Studio, which will port the ability to manage an object's behaviors (or rules) to Oracle. This is the basis for Clarity and ClearText, expected around year-end. Patterson noted that Laser-Scan is good at tackling the "hard things" and it will likely continue to do that. One "hard thing" floated for possible attention: conflation.
This discussion and one later in the day reinforced for me the idea that this company is focusing 100% of its energy on the server side of geospatial technology. There was little mention of Laser-Scan clients; most of the energy was spent on partners' clients. I can think of another company with this type of focus: Oracle. On the other hand, I can't really think of another GIS company that focuses exclusively on the server. That certainly gives Laser-Scan a niche.
After lunch, partners had their chance to share company vision and how they planned to leverage opportunities with Radius Topology. The Autodesk representative explained how Radius Topology allowed Autodesk Map to scale from small, file-based data sets that could be cleaned on the desktop with the built in topology engine, to larger implementations which could use Radius Topology to complete that work on the server. He noted that Map, Envision, and MapGuide could all tap into Oracle, and thus the data in Oracle Spatial, and thus use Radius Topology tools. (AutoCAD cannot participate because it does not have a connector to Oracle.)
The Intergraph representative noted that GIS is trapped in an outdated package and that the trick now is to move it toward IT. To do that, it was necessary to follow IT standards. MapInfo appears to be the only partner that already has an interface built to take advantage of Radius Topology. It's a prototype, but provides menu access to Radius Topology queries, and tools to manually explore and fix errors identified by Radius Topology. For those who haven't heard: MapInfo 7.5 is expected to ship in September and will act as a client to the OpenGIS Web Map Service specification. Support for Web Feature Server will have to wait for the first .NET implementation, expected after 7.5. A final partner presenter, SciSys, highlighted the geospatial challenges the firm address from large customers like Thames Water (also an Autodesk client) and where backend solutions like Radius Topology may help.
The final session of the conference was a Q& A with management. I asked how Laser-Scan hoped to make these partner relationships "real," noting how many partnerings in our industry simply don't "take." Guthrie noted that these are not "technology swapping" or "loose strategic alliances" but rather partnerships that will yield solutions for customers.
Another attendee asked about possible future support for .NET. Patterson noted that trying to support both .NET and Java would distract from the task at hand. Sanderson candidly stated that Laser-Scan is still exploring what .NET "is."
The final question was how Laser-Scan might actively put Radius Topology on Oracle's radar. Oracle of course has many partners in general IT, in addition to a whole list in the spatial arena. Sanderson didn't make a specific promise, but noted slyly "as you've seen over the last two days, we have a phenomenal amount of energy."