Product Focus: Desktop GIS

Find out what to expect from the latest and greatest in desktop geographic information systems, and what you need for your own application.

by / June 30, 1997
Until recently, the term "desktop GIS" meant a system with limited functions running on a personal computer. High-end GIS was found only on workstations. Now these distinctions are beginning to blur. Market forces, advances in software technology and the growing use of modular architecture to expand desktop GIS capabilities are accelerating the migration of workstation functionalities to the PC.

GIS is becoming more widely accepted as an information-processing tool. Versatile servers and network solutions now automate many tasks that formerly required a specialist. Users can access multiple data sources across an enterprise without third-party translation; merge geographic and relational data, producing a separate geographic database; and publish geographic databases and mapping applications in Internet/intranet environments. Concurrently, modular extensions are redefining the concept of desktop GIS by expanding functionalities well beyond basic core features.

The following the growth of the Internet has given rise to map servers for publishing geographic databases and mapping applications in Internet/intranet environments. All of these capabilities are showing up in leading desktop GIS.

Here is a look at new products reflecting these developments. Core features and extensions discussed in detail in the July 1996 issue of Government Technology are available at .

AutoCAD Map Release 2.0

Several new features have been incorporated into this latest release. Like its predecessor, 2.0 is an automated mapping tool for creating, maintaining and communicating mapping and GIS information in a CAD environment. Release 2.0 is the first industry-specific product from Autodesk built on AutoCAD R14. It includes map digitizing and editing tools; thematic mapping and GIS topology creation and editing; and querying and analysis, including buffer, overlay and network tracing. Users can integrate vector, raster and attribute information. AutoCAD Map 2.0 is fully compatible with AutoCAD Map 1.0, AutoCAD 13 and AutoCAD LT for Windows products, via OLE 2.0 automation. The system supports Windows 95 and Windows NT.

According to the company, Map 2.0 has faster operations and greater file-size capacity, in part by enabling objects to be filled with solid color instead of crosshatching. Changes have also produced improved and expanded data import/export and integrated raster capabilities. A new work session feature allows users to edit and query multiple maps simultaneously while working with large data sets.

Autodesk World

For those who are not familiar with the CAD environment, but need the ability to query large data sets and analyze information quickly, Autodesk World may be the solution.

Designed for integrating geographic-related data from a variety of sources, the system is built on an open-standards architecture. It uses a Microsoft Office interface for accessing and integrating different data types, including geographic, CAD, DBMS, raster, spreadsheet, bitmap and objects. It also uses Autodesk DWG as a native file format, providing immediate access to all maps created in AutoCAD. In addition to traditional desktop GIS capabilities, World also has tools for OLE automation, standard interface conventions, and COM-based development environments.

Users can open CAD and GIS files simultaneously and perform analysis between the two data types. They can also access, analyze, edit and save data in a variety of formats -- ArcInfo Coverage, ArcView SHP, MapInfo MIF/MID, Atlas BNA, and MicroStation DGN -- without conversion or loss of data accuracy. Visual Basic and full OLE automation API (Application Programming Interface) capabilities make World an open platform for third-party application developers.

111 McInnis Parkway
San Rafael, CA 94903

P586/Pentium-based PC, 90MHz or faster.
Windows 95, Windows NT 3.51 or NT 4.0.
Minimum, 32MB RAM (64MB recommended).
Minimum free hard disk space 60MB -- 100MB for typical installation.
Permanent swap file, 96MB minimum.
VGA, 640x80 minimum, 1,024x768 recommended.
CD ROM, for initial installation only.


Now shipping.

AutoCAD Map 2.0, $4,250
Autodesk World suggested retail: $1,995
(may vary according to region)
Upgrade, $495 - $995

MicroStation GeoGraphics

Designed for engineers with planning and mapping needs, MicroStation GeoGraphics fully integrates CAD and GIS technologies. The system extends MicroStation 95 to provide computer-aided design with a full-featured GIS. It can function on a stand-alone PC or as part of a workgroup. Microstation GeoGraphics is built on open GIS standards -- users can extend system capabilities and create customized applications on different platforms and operating systems.

Features include an integrated Web browser, URL support, and 2D/3D Web publishing tools for accessing Web-based geoengineering data and establishing links between map features and Web pages. A new suite of GIS translators enables users to read and write other industry-standard GIS formats from within MicroStation GeoGraphics.

Users can input, manage, and output vector- and raster-based data, and access individual maps by point-and-click. They can also correct geometric problems using a suite of clean-up and validation tools. An "undo" command allows any clean-up operation to be rolled back when tolerance settings produce undesirable results.

An interactive query builder helps users create database queries and locate associated map features across map databases. Feature-association tools allow application of feature definitions to all elements in a file in one pass. With on-demand topology tools, users can create virtual topology layers containing point, line and polygon data, and use spatial analysis to determine spatial relationships between data layers. MicroStation GeoGraphics can also import and export a wide range of imagery -- airborne, satellite, scanned maps and drawings. Maps can be created using data-driven thematic tools.

MicroStation GeoGraphics supports most commercial databases -- Oracle, Informix, Microsoft Access, Microsoft SQL Server and Intergraph RIS -- and is available on all platforms supported by MicroStation 95.

Bentley Systems Inc.
690 Pennsylvania Drive
Exton, PA 19341-1136

Pentium, 16MB RAM (32MB recommended)
8MB free space, not including MS
Operates on most platforms: DOS, Windows 95, Windows NT for Intel-based and DEC Alpha AXP computers; Sun SPARC, HP RISC, SGI, Intergraph, Clipper, IBM RS series machines; Macintosh and Power Macintosh.

Support and purchasing program by Bentley SELECT provides free, automatic updates, upgrades and platform swaps.

Now shipping

$5,325 (includes all MicroStation 95 functionality, new GIS capabilities, and MDL libraries)

ArcView GIS 3.0

ArcView 3.0 core features include an intuitive, Windows-based graphical user interface that is easy to use -- many libraries and city halls have installed ArcView for public use. Geocoding and address-matching features let users create maps of any relational data with geographic components to profile and visualize relationships. They can also directly access all types of geographic data for display, spatial analysis and map production. ArcView can be used alone or in network applications. It works particularly well as a client to ESRI's spatial database engine -- a universal, geodata server that can be customized for use by non-technical types. A key feature is ArcView's extensible architecture, which provides a foundation for third-party applications, building extensions that expand GIS functionalities to provide solutions to more complex applications.

Since our last review, ESRI has developed eight new extensions:

ArcView Internet Map Server

Designed for publishing geographic databases and mapping applications in a standard Internet/intranet environment, Map Server works with all data types supported by ArcView, including raster, vector and geographic databases, and tabular data sets. End users can explore maps using any HTML browser that supports Java. No additional software is required to view or download maps. Web site developers can use Map Server to add intuitive and visual dimensions to live maps at Web sites. End users
can pan, zoom, determine attributes and locations of map features, and hyperlink to related information on the server or the Net. No knowledge of HTML is required. Software includes a Java mapping applet with an out-of-the-box browser solution. Installation and configuration wizards reduce setups to a point-and-click operation. For a live example of Internet Map Server, check out "Live Maps on the Internet" at .

ArcView Street Map

An intelligent data source with every street centerline in the United States, taken from a nominal 1:100,000 scale map. Included are landmark data and business geographics -- over 4GB compressed onto a single CD. Enter any U.S. address, and the geocoder automatically zooms in to the location. (Price: $500)

ArcView Military Direct Data Readers

Eliminates the need for complex translation between ArcView and an external format. Data Readers enable ArcView to recognize additional data sets as standard feature data sources and apply ArcView functionality to the data in native format. They recognize VPF, CADRG, NITF, CIB, ASRP, and USRP formats.

ArcView Image Analyst

Allows users to read multiple image formats, classify them into land uses and analyze them in ArcView. The software supports image processing; filtering to sharpen or smooth images; stretching the contrast ratio to improve visual appearance; and some integration of raster image data with traditional vector data. Image Analyst will be of particular value to the forestry and land-use planning communities.

ArcView Dialog Designer

Although a separate extension designed to work with Avenue, Designer is also part of the ArcView core technology. Users can create specific menus with multiple widgets and user-interface tools and can develop highly-customized ArcView application solutions.

ArcPress for ArcView

A tool for generating high-quality raster and vector data outputs for map production. Allows users to take data sources from multiple types and rasterize them into a format used by plotters. Essentially, a cost-effective method of producing high-end cartography and large data files.

ArcView 3D Analyst

Provides realtime display and manipulation of 3D data models, and "fly-thru" capability. It has applications in many fields, including landscape architecture, city planning and redevelopment, utilities, civil and environmental engineering, science, and military strategy.

ArcView Release 3.1, expected late this summer, will have improved cartographics and extended support for different data types, including 3D.

380 New York Street
Redlands, CA 92373-8100

Runs on Windows 3.x, Windows 95, Windows NT, Macintosh, and several workstations.

Now shipping

Comprehensive technical support available through ESRI and distributors worldwide.

Available from ESRI or its distributors.


This is the first in a series of products designed around Intergraph's Jupiter technology, an open-standard environment developed to create Windows-native applications that function without a CAD core.

GeoMedia is a stand-alone mapping product which enables users who are not GIS software experts to access multiple data sources simultaneously across an enterprise; and tap into data warehouses and perform analysis with various geographic data types and formats in a Windows environment without translation.

GeoMedia has some of the capabilities one would expect to find in a desktop mapping system -- simple database query, spatial analysis, thematic mapping, buffer-zone generation and legend creation. Users can associate objects with a feature; select objects attached to a feature; perform simple feature definition, placement and editing; and integrate imagery and multimedia with GIS. They can copy graphics and text from GeoMedia and paste it into Microsoft Word, Excel, Access and other documents.

GeoMedia integrates with most desktop and office automation applications. Users experienced with off-the-shelf Windows development tools can customize GeoMedia, creating their own language and graphic
interface to access various data types and formats.

Intergraph Corp.
Huntsville, AL 35894-0001
U.S. 800/345-4856
U.S. Federal 800/747-2232

486-66 or Pentium processor (recommended)
Windows 95, Windows NT 3.51, or Windows NT 4.0
32MB RAM, 35MB hard disk space
VGA video card or better, 256-color monitor
CD-ROM drive

First quarter, 1997

Software can be purchased directly from Intergraph or through any Intergraph business partner.


MapInfo Professional 4.1

Budget shoppers looking for an economy GIS with a wide range of data analysis and visualization capabilities should check out MapInfo Professional 4.1. The system reads and writes to most database formats -- Oracle, Sybase, Informix, Microsoft Access and Excel, SQL Base, and Lotus 1-2-3. New core features include Microsoft OLE automation programming tools, Autometrics-SQS and enabling software to store and retrieve spatial data on relational database systems. Professional is compatible with Windows 3.1, Windows 95 and Windows NT.

The latest software components available for MapInfo Professional are: SpatialWare, a suite of advanced, server-technology tools for storing, managing, and analyzing complex spatial data in an Oracle 7.x database; ProServer, a server-based intranet application that provides enterprise-wide access to mapping solutions; and MapX, an object linking and embedding (OLE) control for integrating map objects into any business application.


Will be of particular interest to government and private-sector entities with large investments in relational database management systems. A server extension combines geographic and relational data in a single Oracle database, adding a spatial component to the database. Geographic data is merged with Oracle data by adding two columns to relational tables containing, for example, engineering, customer service, marketing, or sales records. The merged data is prepared for analysis and mapping with MapMarker tool, which geocodes relational data with spatial components. Records are geocoded to street, ZIP Code, ZIP+2 and ZIP+4 levels. An SQL spatial-language upgrade, fully integrated with Oracle SQL, is used to access and manipulate mapping information using a common programming language.

With SpatialWare, organizations can provide server-based mapping tools to departments across an enterprise as well as improve their return on investments in mapping and relational data. The extension runs on both Windows and UNIX platforms, and is available for Sun Solaris and SCO UNIX operating environments. Prices range from $25,000 for a workgroup configuration, to $200,000 for an enterprise server implementation.


Used with MapInfo Professional to distribute maps and geographic analysis applications on Web-based and corporate networks. In the U.K., British Telecom uses ProServer in touchpad kiosks around London to show locations of government offices, medical facilities, theaters, etc. Dispatchers can use ProServer to direct vehicles. Companies can use it to make demographic studies for franchise outlets.


Allows users to integrate objects into business applications using standard visual programming tools, including C ++, Delphi, PowerBuilder or Visual Basic. Designed primarily for sales and marketing, MapX translates queries to all popular ODBC database systems, and integrates satellite and aerial imagery and scanned-in TIFF images as map layers and boundaries. MapX runs on Windows 95 and Windows NT.

Minimum purchase price is $4,960, which includes a $1,000 developer's license and 40 runtime seats. Additional runtime seats are available at $99 each.

MapInfo Corp.
One Global View
Troy, NY 12180-8399

386 PC (Pentium recommended
4MB of RAM (8MB recommended)
Minimum installation, 1MB;
full installation, 6MB
VGA, 256 color
FTP and network capability

Now shipping

Free for 90 days, with extended and upgraded support programs available.

(MapInfo Professional) $1,295
Upgrade (From 4.0) $295

Released in March, SPANS (SPatial ANalysis System) 6.0 is a modular spatial analysis system from Tydac. Core functionalities are provided by the base module, SPANS Explorer. The optional modules -- SPANS Prospector, SPANS Pioneer, and SPANS Topographer -- extend core functionalities for a wide range of applications. The system is compatible with Windows 95, Windows NT, OS/2 and multiple UNIX workstations.

Data management tools allow users to establish working links to Microsoft Access; import and export major vector formats; use raster data in its source format without translation; and identify and correct geometric problems.

Users can query up to 20 maps simultaneously for quick comparison; do polygonal searches to interactively highlight entities on screen and in the data layer; and build complex attribute queries using relational and logical operators.

SPANS Prospector

Contains analytical functions for creating continuous surface maps from point data, and provides tools for gravity modeling, point aggregation, density mapping, random point generation and contouring.

SPANS Pioneer

Users can conduct modeling operations for a wide range of applications, including topological modeling and aggregation. Other capabilities include change detection -- comparing two maps to produce a third, showing area changes over time.

SPANS Topographer

A suite of spatial analysis functions that include "Isolines to Points" -- converting digitized contour lines to a point data layer that can be used in creating a digital elevation model. Provides capabilities for contouring and generating perspective models from surface data. Users can conduct visibility analysis and generate maps displaying the visible and non-visible portions of a surface. Topographer can also be used for neighborhood analysis, providing a set of local operations that can be performed on a map to create new maps.

SPANS Cartographer

A suite of cartographic production tools that offers a complete project preparation environment, including data translators and direct-data access utilities. Users can index, annotate and customize cartographic products. The Cartographer module provides a WYSIWYG environment that allows users to preview changes as they are made.

TYDAC Research
2 Gurdwara Road, Suite 210
Nepean, Ontario, Canada K2E 1A2

(minimum) 486 with 8MB RAM, VGA, 10MB free space
(recommended) Pentium with 16MB RAM, Super VGA, CD-ROM

Windows 95, Windows NT, OS/2, UNIX (Sun, HP, IBM, Silicon Graphics)

Now shipping
SPANS 6 is shipped on CD ROM with four sample data sets, 10 training data sets and two tutorial data sets.

Annual maintenance $1,495, includes all upgrades within 12-month period and an 800 customer support line for North America.

SPANS 6 Explorer $2,995
Upgrade $695

Bill McGarigle is a freelance writer specializing in communication and information technology. E-mail: .


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