September 6, 2005 -- (OGC Copyright 2005) -- We now hear "paradigm shift" used in the same breath with recent mapping deployments by Google, Microsoft and Yahoo. Do these events signal a paradigm shift happening in the geospatial industry? After all, the "new" capabilities provided by Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo, offer no more functionality than many Web-based applications that have been around since the late 1990’s. What these companies do provide is easy access to content, easy to use "open" APIs, and "cool" interfaces - all wrapped into an advertising business model.
So, what is a paradigm shift? A paradigm is a model or exemplar. The paradigm case is the typical or archetypal case. A paradigm shift is the movement from one paradigm to another.
T.S. Kuhn, in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), used the term “paradigm” to refer to the conceptual frameworks or worldviews of various scientific communities. Kuhn believed that during periods of "normal science," scientists work within the same paradigm. Scientific communication and work proceed relatively smoothly until anomalies occur or a new theory or model is proposed. Scientists are faced with understanding traditional scientific concepts in new ways and rejecting old assumptions and replacing them with new ones.
Kuhn argued that the progress of science is not gradual, but a kind of punctuated equilibrium, with moments of epochal change. A truly profound scientific breakthrough, Kuhn notes, "is seldom or never just an increment to what is already known. Its assimilation requires the reconstruction of prior theory and the re-evaluation of prior fact, an intrinsically revolutionary process that is seldom completed by a single man and never overnight."
Kuhn referred to these revolutionary processes in science as "paradigm shifts," a term that has now entered the language to describe any profound change in our frame of reference.
Paradigm shifts occur from time to time in business as well as in science. And as with scientific revolutions, paradigm shifts are often hard fought and the ideas underlying them not widely accepted until long after they were first introduced. What’s more, moving to a new paradigm often has implications that go far beyond the insight of their creators, especially in today’s business climate.
Digital GIS and related geospatial technologies have been around since the mid 1960’s. Since then, we have seen changes that have had major impacts on the use of geospatial technology: main frame to minis, minis to PCs, PCs to mobile devices, batch to interactive, command line to GUI, proprietary databases to commercial databases, and most recently the impacts of standards, the Internet and Open Source. Each of these underlying technology shifts and/or deployment platforms have decreased the cost of using geospatial technology, increased the number of users, and brought what we do more and more into the mainstream. Yet, much of the underlying theory and models have remained the same. The underlying science and models related to geodesy, photogrammetry, topology, polygon overlay, routing, and so forth have not changed much since the 1960’s. What have changed are the algorithms and technologies used to implement these capabilities.
However, there is a convergence of forces that is rapidly reshaping our industry - some would say that we are "inside the tornado": standards, service oriented architectures, web services, open source, more easily available content, and internet based consumer applications. If one ignores the current media focus on Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo, and if one asks the question "What is the foundation technology that glues together or enables all of these other forces impacting our industry?, the answer is, "Standards!" Standards promote innovation and competition. Their application is voluntary and therefore does not block or restrict technological progress. On the contrary, they create leeway for innovation. Experience clearly shows that new technical standards often give a foothold to new technologies. Standardization also helps make knowledge about technologies transparent and generally available.
As a result, standardization ultimately determines an organization’s competitive position in an industry. Everyone has the means of participating in an industry and those who use standards at an early stage are often better able to assert their interests and technologies. Standards, therefore, have the ability to reshape both the technology and business competitive landscapes.
For Kuhn, scientific revolutions occur during those periods where at least two paradigms co-exist, one traditional and at least one new. The two paradigms are incommensurable, as are the concepts used to understand and explain basic facts and beliefs for each paradigm. The two paradigm groups operate in different worlds. The movement from the old to a new paradigm he called a paradigm shift.
So, again, the question is whether we are in the midst of a technology paradigm shift? NO! The key is that the traditional GIS community and the new "virtual internet mapping community" are not incommensurable nor do the two groups live in different worlds. What we are seeing is the next evolutionary step in our discipline.
However, we may be in the midst of a business model paradigm shift. The key is whether the traditional business model for geospatial technology development and deployment (long engineering cycle, significant sales and marketing effort) is incommensurable with the open source, "open" (but non-standard) API hacker community, advertising based business model in which new (and free) applications appear on a daily basis. I cannot predict how this will play out. I can say that how the "traditional" business of GIS is done will have to change.
I can also emphatically state that if both communities embrace standards based platforms, architectures, and API’s then the global society will benefit and both communities will be winners. And the paradigm shift will be about the societal impacts and benefits of geospatial technology and not about who wins. To this end, I call on the OGC community -- OGC members and non-members -- to collaborate to leverage, for the benefit of everyone, the energy that is now pervading not just our community but also the much larger consumer community.