To be or not to be open, that is not the question

“When is a door not a door? – When it is a jar.” Geddit? Eight-year olds find this hilarious. A door can be open, closed, or ajar. Or a jar filled with jam.

The same goes for geospatial software. Today a blog post from Boundless, a growing and innovative open source geospatial company, made the rounds on Twitter, asking whether Esri’s  use of the word “open” isn’t a bit misleading.

Well yes, of course it is.

Creating “open” add-ons for closed-source software isn’t truly open. No quantity of Github projects or fluffy bunnies hopping around open communities can hide that fact. If code can’t run without the use of a closed, proprietary application, it’s a bit disingenuous to call it open source.

But of course, it’s not totally closed either. Open add-ons developed by open communities can still save you lots of time or bring other benefits. And anyone who’s ever been to San Diego knows that Esri has always had a strong community spirit. So it’s not surprising that they share an affinity with other groups, including open source. Who knows, Esri might even release more of their stuff as open source as time goes on. I guess anything that sustains and grows their billion-dollar revenue is fine with them.

Open, but please close the door: Photo by Leo Reynolds (Flickr CC)

Open, but please close the door: Photo by Leo Reynolds (Flickr CC)


There are advantages to open source software, and there are some disadvantages. It’s the same with proprietary stuff. I’ve no desire to go into the pros and cons here. The point is, why should it be a choice of either/or? Can’t we use both?

Whether you’re an individual or an organisation, picking the right tool for a job is a very personal thing. It’s a bit like choosing a tie or a handbag. There are many factors at play that will inform your decision – from old habits to future requirements, from costs to desires, from objective to more human and irrational considerations.

Geospatial tools still have a lot of catching up to do with other worlds such as Design or Data Science. But open or closed, I don’t see why one side should win over the other. At the end of the day, technology is just a tool: what matters is what you do with it. Unless your instincts are inherently tribal or dogmatic, your interests are probably best served by taking a pragmatic approach that uses whatever works best for you: open, closed – or ajar.


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