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I recently had a conversation with my son (who works in transportation planning) about a GIS company lost in the dim mists, which he thought had gone out of business. I think it was Smallworld -- as this stub article notes, a UK GIS software company founded in the late 80s to accomplish large-scale database integration with GIS through the then-new concept of "object oriented" software design. Smallworld did not fail, but it picked an exremely challenging set of problems for the time:
A Bit of GIS History - the Smallworld Technical Papers

Posted by Charlie on Tuesday, August 08, 2006

For those interested in the history of GIS, in the late 1980's and early 1990's, the founders of Smallworld laid out their vision for the future of GIS in a series of technical papers. I recently noticed the papers are no longer online, so I fished them out of the Internet Archive WayBack Machine and have posted them on my site.

Fifteen years later, its interesting to reread the papers, and see how these ideas changed the industry. The best known of the articles is Ten Difficult Problems in Building a GIS, by Richard Newell. The key points are:

  • Spatial data should be stored in seamless databases, not tiled systems
  • Spatial databases should support huge amounts of data
  • Spatial databases should be versioned to enable long transactions
  • Topology should be supported
  • Vector and raster data should be supported
  • Interaction with spatial data should be done via a dynamic, object-oriented language (in the same way Ruby and ActiveRecord work in Ruby on Rails)

These ideas were so far ahead of their time that they propelled Smallworld into a hundred million dollar a year company and an IPO on Nasdaq a mere six years after its founding in 1990. They also created an extraordinarily loyal user base. Once you used it, you never wanted to go back. Just like Mac users knew their machines were vastly superior to Wintel boxes, Smallworld users knew their software was light years ahead of anything ESRI, or anyone else, offered.

It has a great reputation among its users and ESRI has not really made a dent in its user community. Smallworld became dominant in facilities management and asset management (FM/AM) applications with strong spatial information value and was the leader in utilities and telecom and other infrastructure industries. It was always more closely tied to CAD than to GIS for that reason. GE bought it in 2000 - - and it's remained dominant in those industries.

GE Energy - Smallworld Core Spatial Technology

These papers should really be linked to this Wikipedia article:

Alex Brown <Alexander_Brown at uml dot edu>