ESRI DevSummit 2011: Daz(zl)ed and Confused

Sat, Mar 12, 2011 6-minute read

As I am flying back to Charlotte from another ESRI DevSummit, my head is awash in a storm of possibility, hope, and worry.  This conference is head-and-shoulders above any other conference on my radar in relevance and utility to my career.  Every year I leave amazed at how far ESRI has come with it’s product suite, particularly on the server-side, and every year I feel overwhelmed at what I don’t know and what I am not doing.  The ESRI developer community has exploded from a collection of people that couldn’t install Tomcat to a sophisticated, intelligent set of technical ninjas.  Watching this change from my perspective has been interesting and extremely humbling, as sometimes I feel like I am a part of something great, and sometimes I feel like I am falling behind.  All things considered, though, it is a great time to be a GIS and ESRI developer.

Reviewing the content of the conference, as i am prone to do each year, I would have to say the overarching theme was mobile, mobile, and more mobile.  Of course, I live on the server, so I didn’t give and desktop sessions a second glance.  I focused mostly on the Flex and Javascript APIs, as I simply don’t have room in my arsenal for another web API (sorry Silverlight.  I will say that the demo of the week was probably the Kinect map demo given by @SharpGIS.)  The Flex sessions are always great, especially if Mansour Raad is presenting.  His energy and knowledge truly make him unique among presenters.  He showed off Flex “Burrito”, which is the code name for the preview release of the next Flex IDE.  Burrito allows a developer to target Blackberry, Android, and (wait for it…) iPhone devices with Flex.  Mansour showed off a few apps running on Android and iOS, which is crazy if you think where Flash on the iPhone was only a year ago.  The maturation of the REST API lead to demonstrations of more sophisticated editing scenarios on the web, making me wonder if the future of ArcMap isn’t the Flex Viewer (or other API “viewers”)  The javascript team showed similar demos, focusing on iOS (both iPad and iPhone) with HTML 5 goodness.  I really though the drag-and-drop demonstration, which showed a CSV of points being dropped on a web page and added to the map, as well as dropping a map service URL onto the map to add it to the map content, was particularly impressive.  There is a part of me that really thinks HTML 5 is the end game for the web, even if Flex can still do some things that HTML cannot.

One of the items that Mansour and the Flex team showed was a pre-release version of the Flex Viewer Application Builder.  The Builder allows a user to, basically, point and click their way to a Flex Viewer, choosing basemaps, operational layers, and tools/widgets.  The goal is to allow them to avoid having to edit XML and all the pain that comes with doing that.  Being honest, I am not all that excited about such a tool.  Also, I am not sure that showing a “no-need-for-a-developer” tool at a developers summit is really playing well to the demographic.  My guess is that Silverlight and javascript will follow suit, and we’ll have many clients feeling they can cut out development shops and live with what ESRI has created.  Expanding on this theme a bit, the very existence of a supported viewer from the vendor could be problematic as well.  In my opinion, this can potentially kill innovation around the web APIs.  Why, as a client trying to save money, would I choose to create  a custom web mapping application, when the vendor has a viewer that is supported?  The answer is, in most cases, I wouldn’t.  So, as ESRI developers, we will be mostly relegated to viewer configuration or, if we are lucky, custom widget creation.  Plus, the client base of the APIs becomes 99% ESRI supported viewer and 1% demos that no one would really use.  I talked to a few developers about this and opinions varied from what I expressed above to “nah, it’ll be OK, there will always be enough GIS development work”  I am not sure what the answer is, as I understand why ESRI created the viewers.  They are doing what they feel is best for their clients.  I can’t really fault them for that.  However, I think every year ESRI eats a little bit more into the realm of their business partners, and the effect of that will be seen with ESRI partners having to move to other business or failing outright.

There, enough with the gloom-and-doom.  The mood around the conference was overwhelmingly positive, if not sycophantic.  Coming back, my fellow devs and I are discussing how we are going to get more mobile, more cloudy, and more better.  Despite my aforementioned worries, I am recharged as in previous years.  If you didn’t attend the conference, you should watch some of the sessions.  Almost all the ones I attended were excellent.  This includes the user presentations, which I’ll review now.

Starting at the bottom of the user presentation barrel, my talk on using jQuery to create a legend for the ArcGIS Server javascript API was OK.  I made some pretty bad slide choices (code on a black background is not the way to go) and I had a couple of clumsy holy-crap-he-just-hit-the-microphone-and-blew-out-my-eardrums moments.  On the positive side, a couple of folks came up afterwards and talked to me about using what I’d done, which is always reassuring.  On the super-fantastic-presentation end of the users, you had the usual suspects for the most part.  The DTS Agile crew (@dbouwman and @bnoyle) gave near perfect presentations on HTML 5, the cloud, and Flex pixel bending.  Kirk van Gork (@kvangork) may have stole the show with his presentation on making apps that “Don’t Suck”, which I did not attend but will be watching this week, for sure.  Another really great presentation was on using MongoDB to create a Feature Cache.  This presentation was done by a (for gawd’s sake) 21-yr old Brazilian developer who informed us he had never presented before.  I was thoroughly impressed with this poised and intelligent young man, and you should definitely give that presentation a look.

Well, the plane has started the initial descent into Charlotte.  I am ready to be home and thankful for another wonderful DevSummit.  If you have any questions about sessions or the like, feel free to hit me on Twitter or comment on this post.  Go forth and spread the Word of the GeoNerd.