Open source devs in uproar over Esri LAS lock-in plans

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Open source devs in uproar over Esri LAS lock-in plans

Geospatial community in new battle with mapping giant.

Mapping software giant Esri has once again drawn the ire of the geospatial open source community after introducing vendor lock-in to an optimised version of the public LAS format.

Last January, Esri announced it had developed technology to optimise the LAS format - the industry-standard, public file format for the storage of LiDAR data, in use since 2003.

LiDAR (light detection and ranging) uses laser light to sample the surface of the earth and produce measurements.

Esri said its 'Optimised LAS' boasted faster access and smaller file sizes - similar performance and functionality to the open source LASzip format. 

It said the product would be offered free of charge and independently of the company's market-leading ArcGIS geographic information system (GIS) platform.

Esri also promised to provide an open application programming interface for external software developers to access Optimised LAS.

But the announcement was met with outrage from the open source geospatial community, which claims by creating a proprietary variant of the LAS format instead of improving on the available open formats, Esri was negatively affecting software interoperability and creating format fragmentation and vendor dependance.

The community says after more than 12 months of attempting to work with Esri on a mutually beneficial solution, it is now going public with its concerns.

In an open letter to Esri, open source geospatial developers argued the company was abusing its market position to compromise established open spatial standards.

"The Optimised LAS format is neither published, nor available under any open license, which provides both technical as well as legal barriers for other applications reading and/or writing to this proprietary format," the letter stated.

"This is of grave concern given that fragmentation of the LAS format will reduce interoperability between applications and organisations, and introduce vendor lock-in."

The developers argued many years of standardisation work to date would be compromised - and much-needed improvements to the LAS format left to the wayside - by Esri's efforts to create a competing proprietary format.

LASzip creator Martin Isenburg said Esri had failed to meet its own promise to be a good open standards citizen.

"Esri has talked a lot about collaboration and being open, while in parallel creating a competing proprietary format," he said.

"If Esri was seriously committed to open LiDAR standards, Esri would publish Optimised LAS under an open license, and/or take Optimised LAS through a standards development process such as provided by [international voluntary standards body] the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC)."

Australian software developer Cameron Shorter, the local chair of the not-for-profit OSGeo Foundation, similarly argued Esri should have built upon the LASzip format rather than "redeveloping equivalent functionality". 

The open LASzip format and Esri's proprietary Optimised LAS both offered much-needed - and similar - improvements to the LAS format, Shorter said, but one needed to be incorporate into a future - open - LAS standard.

LASzip could be that standard, he said, but a sponsor to take the format through the standardisation process - providing both time and money to the cause - would be needed.

"Taking a technology through a standardisation process is non-trivial, requiring a significant amount of collaborative effort - from a number of different organisations, and then for all these organisations to vote to agree on the standard being used as a baseline," he told iTnews.

The open letter to Esri calls on the mapping software maker to support the Open Geospatial Consortium in formalising an open standard for the storage of LiDAR data as a priority.

It also requested that the term "LAS" not be used in the name of a proprietary format, as it has the potential to be confused as an approved associate of LAS.

Esri responded to the community's concerns in an email list, arguing it has "long understood the importance of interoperability between systems and users of geographic information and services".

"Esri will continue to support and use the LAS standard; the Optimised LAS is not intended to replace LAS but to enhance access to remotely stored LiDAR information for our users," Esri software developer Keith Ryden wrote.

The company told iTnews the LAS specification does not address areas of compression, indexing, random access and storage of statistics that are required for direct use in applications.  

"Existing open source LAS based formats also do not address all these concerns," Esri product manager Peter Becker said.

"The Optimised LAS format that Esri has developed addresses many of these operational issues and is provided as a runtime library under an Apache2 license enabling this capability to be added to any application."

It's the second time in as many years Esri has earned the wrath of open source spatial developers over perceived efforts to put its own commercial interests above that of the wider community.

In mid-2013, Esri failed to get its GeoServices REST API  for its ArcGis platform approved as an open standard after outraged developers forced it to withdraw its application.

Esri's ArcGIS geographic information systems platform has more than one million users and 350,000 customers, and easily boasts market majority.

It initially had the support of a number within the OGC for the proposal, but after backlash from vocal opponents within the geospatial community who argued it served Esri's interest more than any other party, was forced to back out.

The OGC community backlash later lead to a reformation of OGC processes to ensure a similar situation would not occur again.

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