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Little Sister:
Pre-Release Review Of Atlas GIS 4.0

ESRI has Atlas GIS poised to regain its prominent place on the desktop. Here's why Atlas GIS 4.0 is clearly "better late than never".

"Little sister, don't you do what your big sister done."

-- Elvis Presley, 1956 (Pomus & Shuman)

The utility of any software package can be plotted as a curve, with ease-of-use on one axis and functionality on the other. As functionality increases, usability generally declines, and vice-versa. The historic complaint about Atlas is that it trades off function for ease-of-use. The historic complaint about ArcView is that it trades off usability for function, resulting in another curve -- a long learning curve.

With the release of Atlas 4.0 and ArcView 3.1, each platform has closed much ground in terms of adding in the missing ingredients. Atlas is now truly 32 bit, although there is also a 16 bit version which will be increasingly important since ESRI is phasing out ArcView for Windows 3.x. Atlas GIS 4.0 is also OLE-server compliant, has a dramatically expanded vertices limit, the ability to import and export multiple geoformats including SHP and MIF, an integrated report writer (Crystal) and other compelling features. ArcView now takes advantage of now-familiar Windows "wizards" automating the steps involved in a particular task such as buffering, and has vastly improved legend layout and label edit capabilities. Perhaps best of all, ArcView users can now stop those frustrating, time-wasting screen redraws.

Yet, even as the two sister products edge closer together, and even overlap into suite applications making use of both in combination with other classes of software like image processing and desktop publishing, they remain two distinctly different packages, targeted largely at different applications and different users. Let's focus for now on what's new in Atlas GIS 4.0, and how ESRI has developed this version around the inherent strength of the product -- ease-of-use for business users, and easy-yet-robust desktop cartography and simple display-and-query for all users. While ESRI calls Atlas GIS 4.0 a maintenance release, let's explore why it fully deserves the major upgrade designation connoted by "4.0", and is probably one of the best software values around for both the existing and new user.

Map Creation & Modification

Upside: Increased vertices limit; OLE-compliant server; more robust split capabilities; more projections; easy, intuitive and centralized control of Legends and Frames and Layers & Themes.

Downside: Still lacks transform, multiple views in a project, and other Atlas GIS For DOS functionality; no support for raster layers in 32 bit version.

A key difference between Atlas and ArcView (and MapInfo) has always been that the map and the GIS are one and the same in Atlas -- there is no separate "layout" area. Further, it's easy to click on page elements in Atlas -- Legends and Frames -- and modify their contents, appearance and size. This "clickable" page metaphor adds considerably to intuitive use, inviting the user to jump right in.

The centralized control of Layers & Themes also remains a key feature. ESRI has swapped out the old radio button controls for the more contemporary card-index metaphor, but otherwise little has changed. Most notably, the ESRI team returned in the prerelease to measuring text and symbols in user-friendly font sizes rather than in map units, as in the earlier betas and in ArcView.

The vertices limit has been increased to 32,759 points per polygon, comparable with other desktop systems. This is a particularly major enhancement for Atlas users tiring of those pesky "Object Too Large" errors when merging files. It also allows Atlas to support polygons with a lot of detail, where in the past the user was forced to generalize the polygons to remove vertices, introducing inaccuracies and making it difficult or impossible to line up concurrent layers.

OLE server compliance is a major new feature. Atlas GIS For Windows has always featured the ability to copy the entire page or page elements from Atlas, and paste into other applications as scalable Windows metafiles. Atlas 4.0 marks the first time that these elements can be pasted as OLE objects, which will update when the data behind them changes. For general business, finance and social science users -- and anyone that includes maps in standard reporting -- this is a great productivity boost. Create a map once, and it will automatically update when the data behind it changes.

Atlas GIS 4.0 also now supports over 1,000 coordinate systems that were previously unavailable in Atlas GIS. This feature allows users to choose a coordinate system that is most appropriate to the region represented by their geographic data. To ensure compatibility with previous versions of Atlas, the coordinate systems are clearly marked as to which are backwards-compatible.

In light of the upside, the downsides -- that you still can't do transforms, have multiple views in a project or add raster layers -- seem inconsequential at this time. However, legacy Atlas users still miss the power of the DOS version. As both an Atlas DOS and ArcView user, I really miss the capability of storing multiple views in a single project. In Atlas GIS For Windows, users still need to create one project per view, and it can take quite a while for all of the files associated with a project to load -- especially on a slower machine. The overhead in time associated with multiple views for a single project is a real hassle, and hopefully this will be considered as a possible maintenance release feature. Further, and perhaps most critically, incorporating raster layers will become increasingly important in the near future. New, accurate and cost-effective remote sensing product will hit the marketplace over the next couple of years, and the average user will have access to a hardware platform (e.g. Pentium II with AGP graphics for $1,000 or less) that will accommodate such applications.

While you can't include raster images as layers, you can attach raster images, vector images, video clips, or any other launchable file to fields in tables in Atlas 4.0. You can also attach a raster image to a map point as a custom symbol.

Data Access, Display, Querying & Reporting

Upside: Crystal Reports embedded as report writer; can open MIF, SHP and BNA geoformats; wizard opens spreadsheet formats and converts to DBF automatically; opens Access (MDB) and Paradox (DB) tables; better database connectivity via SQL Connect and ODBC; easy-to-use yet robust Query builder; can easily assign data to records by location; easy to aggregate data; statistics windows offer "flash" summary results; good tools for defining columns and creating calculated columns.

Downside: Flat-file database structure; can't read TIGER format; linkage to Crystal needs to improve, and many current Atlas users are not now Crystal users and face a learning curve.

With the integrated ability to easily import and export ArcView and MapInfo formats, as well as BNA, Atlas has now become the "Swiss army knife" of desktop GIS. Add OLE-server compliance, so that maps update when the data behind them does, and Atlas 4.0 becomes an invaluable tool not only on its own merit, but in software suite approaches demanding a faster and more efficient approach to map creation and recurrent reporting.

The inclusion of Crystal, while providing much needed report and graphing muscle to Atlas, is a double-edged sword. While Crystal is embedded and called via Atlas Reports, and can report on selected features, it is not very closely integrated at this time. Perhaps the bigger sticking point is that the majority of Atlas users may not be Crystal users, and thus are going to need help focusing on the portions of Crystal they need to know. The new wizards in Crystal help, but perhaps not enough.

The ability to directly open Excel and Lotus spreadsheets simply from the File-Open menu is a major feature for business users who may not be comfortable with databases, let alone SQL. When demonstrating Atlas 4.0 for a client the other day, the ability for the SVP to make a simple list of ZIP codes and associated activity, and to have an administrative assistant open that in Atlas and easily tie it to the map -- on the spot -- proved extremely compelling.

Similarly, the ability to open Microsoft Access tables via File-Open is emerging as a major feature, as the friendliness of Access (and Microsoft marketing) makes it a major business platform.

The easy assignment of data by location is one of the most powerful Atlas GIS features. Assign Data By Location allows even the novice user to append data to records based upon location with just a few mouse clicks. This feature makes it easy for businesses to add value to their customer records by assigning data (demographics, purchase behavior) to them based upon their location -- and does so much faster and more inexpensively than service bureaus or other GIS platforms, right out of the box. Data aggregation has also been demystified for the non-expert.

The Query Builder, statistics window, and the ability to define and calculate columns are also easy ways for non-technical users to perform database operations without even knowing that is indeed what is happening.

The simplicity of the database structure in Atlas cuts both ways. While flat file database structures are convenient and simple for elemental usage, the flat file nature of the database in Atlas can be quite a limitation in an enterprise environment. While a relational database structure would allow data from multiple tables to be linked to a layer in real time as needed, the flat file forces the user to create one table to link that contains all of the needed data. For example, customer data is very dynamic, but external demographics are not. Atlas users wishing to conduct market penetration and potential analysis on a regular basis, in which the two datasets are compared, must create a new table or modify a table every time such analysis is conducted.

Finally, the ability to read and translate raw TIGER on the fly is going to be very important in the future, and we hope to see this built into a maintenance release later on as well.

Scripting, Development Tools & Expandability

Upside: Industry standard customization tools built around VB and C, instead of proprietary scripting languages like Avenue and MapBasic; Atlas 4 project files backwards-compatible, providing projection is supported and vertices limit not exceeded.

Downside: Few Atlas developers are left; no 32 bit scripting tools available until later this year; 32 bit version can't call Atlas Apps written for previous versions; no GPS hook; no Web tools.

One of the very best features of Atlas from a developer's standpoint has always been the industry-standard nature of the development tools. This is especially true of Atlas Script VB, which finally realized some of its promise in the last SMI version. There is no need to learn a vendor's proprietary scripting language as there is with ArcView and MapInfo (though there are certainly Atlas-specific conventions to learn). Now, with the new Atlas 4 features (especially the vertices expansion and OLE-server), the platform and tools may prove to be a powerful alternative to those dissatisfied with some of the limitations of Map Objects. The more GIS-centric and the less IS-centric, the more attractive Atlas 4 is -- which is to say, if the map is the star of the show rather than embedded functionality, and robust print output is desired, the Atlas development platform may prove popular. It will really help if the ESRI team uses VBA, as Autodesk did.

However, the lack of a development community really hurts the product, and is a Catch 22. It will take Atlas developers a long, long time to rebuild the kind of rich community and communications enjoyed by Avenue and MapBasic developers.

The backward-compatibility of project files is a very important consideration, especially in an enterprise environment where there may be a proliferation of various Windows operating systems. Further, Atlas Apps created for the prior version are 16 bit and will not work in the 32 bit version of Atlas 4. We have at least one major client who will either not upgrade or stick with 16 bit Atlas 4 because they have a mission-critical Atlas App. There are also some features of Atlas 3.03 and 3.04, like address standardization in the geocoder (and to a lesser extent, Raster Underlay), that won't be supported in Atlas 4 but are still important applications. It is our understanding that both address standardization and Raster Underlay are licensing issues that may be resolved in the near future -- though I would not expect to see the clunky, two-registration point Raster Underlay upgraded. If it is, please give us triangulation when tying raster images to vector GIS!

Just a short time ago, lacking a GPS hook was no big deal. That is decidedly not so today, as the market is poised to explode. Perhaps this can also be addressed in maintenance -- after all, even the Atlas "wanna-be" Maptitude has this feature.

Web development tools are another story, and the Atlas community is going to need to come up to speed on Map Objects Internet Map Server, ArcView IMS, or both. Building an Atlas server really feels like reinventing the wheel.

Geocoding

Upside: Fast performance; selective relaxation; geocoding database separate from street files; works with traditional or decimal notation.

Downside: Address standardization has been disabled; pre-release does not support ZIP+4 coding from existing Atlas Geocoder CDs.

Geocoding has long been an Atlas strength -- indeed, the folks behind the original geocoding engine in Atlas have become very successful as Qualitative Marketing Software (QMS), marketing geocoders and geocoding libraries.

The new geocoding CD from ESRI was not available for the pre-release. However, Atlas 4.0 works with all of the prior Atlas geocoding CDs (both StreetBase and ZIP+4) that we have dating back to 1994, with two major exceptions. The geocoder no longer supports address standardization (the feature is still in the interface but has been disabled), long a differentiating factor and a big help in producing matches; and there appears to be a bug in the geocoding logic that prevents ZIP+4 matches off the older CDs. We have reported the bug, and hope it disappears from the release version. The lack of address standardization is a licensing issue that can be resolved in the near future. Users of prior Atlas versions are certainly going to miss it.

Atlas geocoding works with either traditional (degrees, minutes, seconds) or decimal notation. It allows the user to selectively relax any of five criteria in various logical combinations -- direction designations on streets, street type, street name, house number, and ZIP code. This increases the match rate in batch process, without introducing unacceptable inaccuracies, and while avoiding time-consuming interactive coding or reserving that capability for a limited number of records for which it is really necessary.

Perhaps best of all, since the geocoding information has been separated from the actual street files, performance is much faster than competitors and all geocode information for the U.S. has historically fit on a single CD-ROM disc. The 32 bit version absolutely screams in terms of performance with the prior geocoding CDs, easily the best solution out there besides QMS.

Support, Training & Documentation

Upside: ESRI commitment to GIS as a transforming technology; great telephone support including 90 days free, training classes, new Virtual campus, good online help.

Downside: No updated documentation for Atlas 4; very little awareness of Atlas in traditional ESRI channels; no Atlas content on Virtual Campus.

Unfortunately, there is no updated documentation for Atlas 4 features, because producing it would have delayed the release further. Hopefully, ESRI will put this up on their website in PDF or other suitable format, or make some other accommodation, because users are really going to miss it and the delivery of documentation is presently a controversial area in the software business and a real sore point for users. However, the pre-existing docs include an excellent tutorial, as well as documentation of legacy features. There is also a very good online help system, and new context sensitive help available with a right mouse button click on many interface elements.

As most readers know, ESRI is a world leader in GIS education, and there remains a hard-core of Atlas VARs and developers to assist users with applications, implementation and training. However, the lack of product knowledge, attention and emphasis given Atlas in traditional ESRI channels -- inside and outside sales, dealers, resellers, international distributors -- impedes ESRI's ability to serve Atlas users and those interested in the product, or those stuck with older Windows platforms and machines. While this is beginning to change, there is a long way to go and a lot of miscommunication about Atlas to overcome.

We believe that ESRI will overcome the rocky start, and end up being the best friend Atlas users have ever had. At Spring Internet World 1998, which is a consumer show with little sales opportunity, ESRI was the only GIS vendor exhibiting and had a very prominent space that was perhaps 20 times the size of their booth last year. This underscores the commitment on the part of ESRI to show the general public how important GIS technology is in everyday life, and to raise the profile of the technology. In stark contrast stands MapInfo, apparently more interested in equipping skiers with GPS to document their routes and speed (Information Week, March 16, 1998). Sure, that's cool and sexy, and in their own way they are publicizing GIS, too. But in the final analysis, ESRI's dedication remains to its users, its employees and the public at large -- and not to stockholders, investors and venture capitalists. The Atlas community is now part of a tremendous initiative on the part of ESRI to make GIS a mainstream technology, and Atlas may eventually occupy critical space in the ESRI constellation in that regard.

Pricing

At $295, the upgrade to Atlas 4.0 for existing users is truly one of the most compelling upgrade offers we've ever seen. Current Atlas users not only are freed from past limitations and get a more contemporary feature set and a true 32 bit application, but get Crystal Reports; the geocoder; and the ESRI Maps & Data CD. For new users, it's still a great deal at $795, which puts Atlas at the top range of the mass shrink-wrap market but no more than that. Multi-user pricing and LAN packs are also available. We would love to see ESRI offer ArcView users a discount on Atlas, as Atlas users have long been offered a discount on ArcView. Together, this is one heck of a sister act.


For Atlas GIS For Windows resources, click here.
For Atlas GIS For DOS resources, click here.
For sample files and datasets, click here.
For more Atlas resources, click here.


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