Apple’s iPad and Mobile/Field GIS


It seems that everyone has been waiting for Apple’s latest invention, the iPad, however whilst others chose to speculate on the dimensions, aesthetic and performance (such as the Guardian’s relentless coverage), whilst giving little thought regarding why it might be useful, I thought I’d think about what it offers to the GIS community. We are of course assuming in has a GPS onboard, otherwise you’d need an add-on or hack.

Steve Jobs with an iPad (source:

Essentially what we have is a tablet computer, these are not particularly new, a previous example having been the series of HP Compaq tablets. This technology is also not new to Apple who previously put out the ‘Newton’ platform for PDAs and had their OS X (illegally) modified by company Axiotron to run on a tablet-style computer based on reassembling a MacBook and christened the ‘Modbook‘.

Technologies such as smartphones are really pushing forward what can be done geospatially, the Apple iPhone, for instance, allows apps to connect to GPS and provide ‘location based’ services- a popular term a couple of years ago which has still yet to really take off. However it is the Android platform which really seems to be pushing forward mapping on smartphones, with Garmin and Nokia forging ahead with development. This seems logically connected to the fact that Google, officially an internet giant, is behind the android operating systems and has itself invested heavily in mapping, most recently launching the ‘Streetview’ components of it’s Google Maps resource. However, much of what currently exists on smartphones is navigationally based, using prerendered tiles and allowing little in the way of interaction, editting or analysis. Ostensibly this is because smartphone still lack the computing power to conduct GIS functions. This is where tablets come in, just a netbooks occupy the inter- smartphone/laptop territory, tablets do likewise but with a perspective different to the netbook, rather than simply being a tool for browsing the internet, a tablet computer offers laptop functionality with a more portable and user-friendly set up for people in the field or on the move.

iPad shot showing map and hinting at location and thus GPS capability - crucial for field GIS. (source:

Currently, the most notable mobile-GIS is ESRIs ArcPad. ArcPad is software which complements their flagship ArcGIS Desktop product, which is currently on release 9.3, but look set to introduce 9.4 (now upgraded to ArcGIS 10) sometime soon. ArcPad is fundamentally designed as a GIS tool for experts, in the field. As such it focuses on likely requirements such as editting, digitisation, attribute tagging, and display. Unfortunately ArcPad, as with ArcGIS desktop, only works on Microsoft OSs (either mobile or PC) thus it is unlikely to be much use on the Apple iSlate without either a virtual machine or dual boot (and why would you want to do that to your new, long awaited Apple product?!). Users of ArcPad will note too that the appearance of ArcPad (see this ESRI pdf for some screenshots) is very much connected to Microsoft’s pre-7 lack of design aesthetic and many note instabilities in the software, either as a result of the platform, or due to ESRI software’s legendary instability.

So ArcPad is unlikely to revolutionise field GIS on the new Apple iPad anytime soon then. So what other solutions are there? Well, Fieldworker seems like a potential solution, but I was too bored by their website’s sales rhetoric to really figure out exactly what it is they wanted to sell me. Likewise Starpal’s HGIS (Handheld Geographic Information System) might be a good candidate if I could get over their mid 90s website. Others such as FieldSmart by Mapframe or PocketGIS look more promising. However the thing that would most excite with regard to the potential offered by new tablet PCs and mobile GIS would be a port for Quantum GIS (qGIS). Whilst some functionality is lacking, and perhaps it has been a bit rushed to 1.0 status, the elements that would be most applicable to a mobile GIS are there, such as digitisation and display. Similarly, members of the community seem to think that creating a mobile version of this open source software would not be a huge effort. I suppose with this in mind, it might not be inconceivable to look at openGeoda as something that could also be developed to run as a mobile GIS, although it will likely require more work than qGIS. Nevertheless, I’ve recently been running openGeoda and qGIS on my Macbook and they seem to complement each other well.

So, essentially what I’m suggesting is that Apple’s latest product offers the potential for some new innovations in mobile GIS and I for one would be excited to see them coming from an open source angle.

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