On permanence in IT and cartography


Many on my readers probably have heard about the company Mapzen closing down. In that context the Mapzen CEO Randy Meech has published (or more precisely: re-published) a piece on volatileness and permanence in tech business which reminded me of a subject i had intended to write about here for some time.

When i started publishing 3d geovisualizations more than ten years ago these were unique both technically and design wise. By my standards today these early works were severely limited in various ways – both due to my lack of knowledge and experience on the matter and due to the limits in quality of available data and the severe limitations of computer hardware at that time. But at the same time they were in many ways miles ahead of what everyone else was producing in this field (and in some ways still are).

An early 2006 3d Earth visualization from me

Today, more that ten years after these early works, a lot has changed in both the quality of the results and in the underlying technology. But there are also elements that stayed almost the same, in particular the use of POV-Ray as the rendering engine.

A more recent view produced in 2015

Randy in his text contemplated about the oldest companies of the world and if you’d assemble a list of the oldest end user computer programs still in use POV-Ray would be pretty far up with its roots going back to 1987. Not as old as TeX but still quite remarkable.

What makes programs like TeX or POV-Ray prevail in a world where in both cases there has been – in parallel or subsequently – a multi-billion dollar industry established in a very different direction but in a way competing for the same tasks (typesetting text and producing 3d renderings respectively)?

The answer is that they are based on ideas that are timeless and radical in some way and they are none the less specifically developed for production use.

In case of POV-Ray the timeless, radical idea was backwards raytracing in purity. There were dozens of projects following that idea mostly in the 1990s in the field of computer science research but none of them was actually seriously developed for production use. There were also dozens of both open source and proprietary rendering engines being developed for production use making use of backwards rendering techniques but all of them diluted the pure backwards rendering idea because of the attractiveness of scanline rendering centered hardware accelerated 3d as it during that time dominated the commercially important gaming and movie industries.

Because POV-Ray was the only pure backwards renderer it was also the only renderer that could do direct rendering of implicit surfaces. Ryoichi Suzuki, who implemented this by the way indicated back in 2001 that this was based on an idea originally implemented 15 years ago which makes this over 30 years old now. The POV-Ray isosurface implementation is the basis of all my 3d Earth visualizations.

In the grand scheme of overall cultural and technological development ten years or 30 years are nothing of course. Eventually POV-Ray and my 3d map design work are almost certainly destined for oblivion. And maybe also the underlying timeless, radical ideas are not as timeless as i indicated. But what you can say with certainty is that the short term commercial success is no indicator for long term viability and significance of an idea for the advancement of society.

Going more specifically into cartography and map design technology – which most of my readers are probably more familiar with – companies like Mapbox/Google/Here/Esri etc. are focused on short term solutions for their momentanous business needs – just like most businesses looking into 3d rendering in the 1990s found in scanline rendering techniques and its implementation in specialized hardware a convenient and profitable way to do the low quality 3d we all know from this era’s computer games and movies.

Hardly anyone, at least no one in a position of power, at a company like Google or Mapbox has the long term vision of a Donald Knuth or an Eduard Imhof. This is not only because they cannot attract such people to work for them but primarily because that would be extremely dangerous for the short term business success.

Mapzen has always presented itself as if it was less oriented for short term business goals than other companies and maybe it was and this contributed to its demise. But at the same time they did not have the timeless and radical ideas and the energy and vision to pursue them to create something like TeX or POV-Ray that could define them and give them a long term advantage over the big players like Google or Mapbox. What they produced were overwhelmingly products following the same short term trends as the other players do in a lemming-like fashion. Not without specific innovative ideas for sure but nothing radical that would actually make it stand out.

Mapzen published a lot of their work as open source software and this way tries to make sure it lives on after the company closes. This is no guarantee however. There are tons on open source programs dozing away in the expanses of the net no one looks at or uses any more.

While open sourcing development work is commendable and important for innovation and progress – TeX and POV-Ray as individual programs would have never lasted this long if they had not been open source – it is important to notice that the deciding factor ultimately is if there is actually

  • a substantially innovative idea being put forward,
  • this idea being consequently developed to its real potential,
  • this idea being implemented and demonstrated in practical use,
  • the idea being shared and communicated publicly and
  • the idea brings substantial cultural or technological advancement over pre-existing and near future alternatives – which unfortunately can, if at all, usually only be determined in retrospect.

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.

By submitting your comment you agree to the privacy policy and agree to the information you provide (except for the email address) to be published on this blog.