Vector GIS Product Categories

Marco Morais


Have you ever heard of the old saying that a carpenter who only knows how to use a hammer approaches the solution to every problem using the same hammer? Like the tools used by a carpenter, GIS products have highly specialized applications.

For example, you would not want to rely on an Internet mapping product for desktop mapping because the features of one are not well suited for all of the tasks of another.

In order to bring some order to all of this complexity, this article summarizes some of the available GIS software products according to their intended application area.

Four categories of software are identified: desktop mapping; data viewers; components, and Internet mapping.

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First, the general characteristics and application area of each product is briefly described. Second, a table with an alphabetical list of vendors and products listed according to each application area is presented.

Use the URLs in this table to obtain more specific information on the products available from a particular vendor.

Finally, the list presented at the conclusion of the article is restricted to those products with significant vector data processing capabilities. In some cases, the products also provide raster data processing, but this article focuses on vector GIS application areas.

Desktop Mapping

Desktop mapping is the traditional software application that is thought of when a product is labeled a GIS. A full featured GIS includes built-in ability to:

  • display and query spatial data and nonspatial attribute data
  • perform spatial topological operators such as clip, union, and join
  • alter the coordinate system or projection of spatial data
  • create high-quality cartographic output
  • convert between spatial data formats available from federal and commercial sources
  • framework for implementing customizations either through a proprietary or third generation programming language

Data Viewer

Data viewers are a more recent development among the increasingly specialized products offered by vendors. Strictly speaking, a data viewer application allows you to browse spatial data without the ability to perform spatial topological operations.

Typically, these programs support a limited number of data formats and require that all data to be displayed is in a uniform coordinate system or projection. Functionality relating to map cartography may be present in such applications, but is generally limited in comparison to a GIS.


Like data viewers, deployment of GIS component software is also a relatively recent trend in the field. Developments in software engineering during the last 10 years, such as object-oriented programming languages and the availability of dynamically=linked libraries, have enabled the increased reuse and improved modularity of code written for commercial software.

Customer demand for increasingly specialized applications coupled with the establishment of several software component specifications has enabled vendors to re-sell some of the technology used to rebuild their own software as component technology.

Components are particularly well suited for building standalone applications which require GIS functionality, but will not be operated by GIS personnel.

Internet Mapping

The ubiquitous presence of the Internet browser has enabled vendors to substitute desktop-bound applications with more versatile lightweight Internet applications.

Internet mapping relies upon the interface infrastructure present in HTML and dynamic client-side technologies such as JavaScript for the support of data display and server-side technologies such as ASP (Active Server Pages), JSP (Java Server Pages), servlets, EJB (Enterprise Java Beans), and ActiveX for the deployment of business logic.

Although the functionality present in Internet products is generally diminished in comparison to an equivalent desktop application, issues of product portability and efficiency are more important.

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Marco Morais