Why ArcView 3.x is Still in Use

Caitlin Dempsey


Despite the introduction of the ArcGIS platform at the 2000 ESRI International User Conference, some GIS shops either partially or exclusively still use ArcView 3.x as a means by which to do GIS. 

When was ArcView created?

The original ArcView was introduced in the early 1990s as a graphical interface to view geographic data.  ArcInfo, at the time, was a predominately command line driven application that was not user friendly, especially for the casual user of GIS. 

ArcView, over time and through the add functionality of extensions, developed into a program that was capable of more complex spatial analysis and mapping. 

The ease of use, the cheaper price, and (at least initially) the availability of the software on Windows instead of UNIX (as was the case until the mid-1990s for ArcInfo) made ArcView a popular choice for entry into the GIS world. 

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Sunsetting of ArcView 3.x

Even though the last version of ArcView (3.3) was released over six years ago, (ArcView 3.x is now in mature support by ESRI with no retirement date released) ArcView 3.x (as it’s known to distinguish it from ArcGIS ArcView) still remains a popular program among some GIS users. 

The continued use of ArcView 3.x can be distilled down into four reasons.

ArcView costs less

The first is cost.  With a lower entry cost of purchase and no annual maintenance fee, some shops prefer to stick with ArcView 3. 

Diane Besser works with the Community Geography Project at Portland State University in Oregon and says, “Schools and non-profits cannot afford ArcGIS – often ArcView can be obtained at minimum to no cost – and, additionally, most do not have the technical infrastructure anyway to support ArcGIS.

ArcView 3.x is a legacy software program

The second reason is legacy.  Many GIS shops have been around for a while and still have legacy ArcView project (.apr) files containing customized Avenue scripting or labeling. 

Mike Jenkins, a GIS Analyst with the City of Lakewood in California reports, “We still use ArcView 3.3 for legacy projects that we haven’t converted yet (typically ones with A LOT of hand-laid graphics/annotation).” 

The need to convert extensive customization in ArcView 3.x to ArcGIS can be delayed due to a lack of time or resources.   

Todd Zagurksi adds, “the wide complement of scripts developed over the years, 3.x offers the ability to perform (a narrowing gap of) tasks that have yet to be written/developed in 9.x.

The conversion to ArcMap often isn’t worth the effort to convert a map from ArcView that isn’t used very often.  Some GIS shops have literally hundreds or thousands of project files that may be accessed only once in a while. 

Diana McCarthy, GIS Specialist with the City of Fullerton in California says, “We’ve got a lot of older maps that we don’t use very often.  Seems you lose a lot of graphics (text, etc.) when converting layouts, and since we don’t use the maps that often it just doesn’t seem worth the time to convert them to AG and then have to spruce them all up again so I just fire up AV when we need an ‘old’ map.

Functionality of ArcView 3.x

The third reason provided by ArcView 3.x users is functionality. 

Some GIS users believe that ArcView 3.x can perform some GIS tasks better than its ArcGIS ArcView counterpart. 

While Jenkins reports that his GIS group does about 95% of their work in ArcGIS, “the ability to select/sort/promote records makes it [ArcView 3.x] a better choice for many editing tasks.

Todd Zagurski from Los Angeles County’s Regional Planning also found that ArcView 3.x “is still a lot quicker than 9.x when performing these types of tasks especially on large data sets.

Jennie Gough with the City of Torrance also uses ArcView 3.x when she has shapefiles that won’t open in ArcGIS “since sometimes I can force them open in ArcView 3.x.

Nicholas Lindenberg, the manager of the GIS lab at the University of Cape Town in South Africa reports that his students find using ArcView 3.x much easier that ArcGIS.

This ease of use is due in part to the smaller installation footprint and freedom from accessing a network license in order to run the software, but also in part due to the change in logic when performing similar tasks in ArcGIS versus ArcView 3.x:

ArcGIS lacks a lot of simple, daily-use  operations (like calculate ID’s, areas, add xy’s etc) off the main  menu system ArcGIS’s query and Visual Basic style calculation tools annoy non-programmers – e.g. to calculate an area in ArcGIS requires  VB precoding, in ArcView 3 it was [Shape].ReturnArea – easy enough to  remember ArcGIS tries to force the use of geodatabases and corporate  GIS approaches, which work poorly with ad-hoc GIS project work. The workflow changes that ESRI chose with ArcGIS are at odds with the  use to which most students and staff tend to put their GIS software –  small scale digitising, simple overlays and spatial joins, and basic  map/layout creation.

Longtime GIS users simply know ArcView 3.x a lot better

The fourth major reason is the “old dog, new tricks” rationale. 

Anna Quinan, GIS Coordinator for the City of Hinesville in Georgia says, “I started my GIS career using ArcView and ArcInfo.  That was about 15 years ago.  I know ArcGIS can do all of the tasks I need but I know exactly what and where to go in ArcView and can do it faster than trying to find the same tool in ArcGIS.” 

Edgardo David, Senior IT Analyst with the City of Santa Clarita echoes this sentiment stating, “Our GIS core group though now primarily uses ArcGIS, there are occasions however where we seek the simplier but functional Arcview 3x for quick data editing, table analysis and even mapping.  Familiarity in the application is also a factor why I myself still use the old, dependable Arcview 3x.

It seems as long as ArcView 3.x can work on Windows Operating systems (it is not supported on Vista), it will be a mainstay in many GIS shops for a little bit longer


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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.