We are concerned about ESRI’s next moves in forcing yet another proprietary format into wide-spread deployment. Forwarded emails, retold conversations, and personal experiences suggest that sneaky tactics are being used to disrupt the harmony in open LiDAR formats that we have enjoyed for many years.
Some time has passed since we broke the news about the proprietary “LAZ clone” by ESRI. We were expecting the ASPRS to eventually comment on the issue. ESRI is promoting their lock-in product by the name of the open LAS specification (for which the ASPRS holds the copyright) calling their closed format “Optimized LAS“. We have been asked (in various forums) about the position of the ASPRS on this issue. ESRI’s use of LAS (*) makes it seem as if their “LAZ clone” was somehow an ASPRS thing (as evidenced by Harold’s comment). Despite ESRI’s media-blah-blah about “open and interoperable” they are – once again – luring the geospatial community to fall for a new proprietary format. So far the ASPRS has not released a statement on ESRI’s closed version of the LAS format.
The LAS Working Group (LWG) is part of the Lidar Division of the ASPRS. It has been maintaining the evolving LAS format from its 1.0 version that was (apparently as early as 1998) created by the LiDAR industry’s pioneers and eventually donated to the ASPRS (more recent LAS history is linked here). The good and early decisions of the LWG have created an incredible successful open data exchange standard for discrete LiDAR points that is nowadays supported by practically every software. “Kudos” to the original members for this achievement.
We did not join the LWG until 2011 to help avoid broken compatibility in LAS 1.4. After weathering the following “laser storm of 2011” the working group has been rather quiet. Its most recent activity was in 2013 for tendering the development of an official ASPRS LAS Validation Suite (LVS) that eventually resulted in ‘lasvalidate‘ – an open source LAS validator.
So who is this LWG? And why are they not commenting on such an important controvery like this “LAZ clone” with the seductive name “Optimized LAS”? The latest document on the Web pages of the LAS Working Group (LWG) lists the following people as members:
This list from 2011 is hopelessly out of date, but it should give you an idea of the composition of the LWG. Most likely rapidlasso is still a member of the LWG but it is hard to tell because there have not been any emails recently and because there are no regular meetings. In the past we had some real bad luck with bringing up issues directly with the LWG, so here we go:
Dear ASPRS and LWG, we are the guardians of the open LiDAR data exchange specification, the LAS format. What is our response to the proprietary format called "Optimized LAS" that is being agressively promoted by ESRI? Dear concerned ASPRS member, how would you like your organization to respond now that a large geospatial company uses its dominance to push a closed format into the market, sabotaging the accomplishments of an open data exchange standard maintained by the ASPRS.
We are worried that ESRI – beyond lobbying agencies to convert their current holdings to the proprietary “LAZ clone” or to tender future deliveries in the closed zLAS format – may also be trying to form strategic alliances with vendors of popular LiDAR processing packages. Many of these vendors are also members of the LAS Working Group and would be in a conflict-of-interest if they were to “sell out” to ESRI’s lock-in ambitions.
You can imagine the red flag that went up a few days ago when we saw a technical comment on a LinkedIn post by Gene Roe that suggested intimate familiarity with the capabilities of the “LAZ clone” by Lewis Graham who has been leading the LAS effort since 1998 and who is the chair of the LAS Working Group. That Lewis’ comment has since been removed did little to calm our worries. As a side note: Gene’s posts being titled “LAS Data Format” further dilutes the difference between open LAS and closed zLAS.
Please inform us (or comment below) about any lobbying you hear about. Given the agressive moves by ESRI – in face of our repeated attempts to reach out – we do not think we can afford to err on the side of caution any longer … (-;
(*) It is fair to note that our products such as LAStools, LASlib, and LASzip also use the name “LAS”. This is for historic reasons. That is what we called the simple package for reading, writing, and processing LAS files we created back in 2005 for our own research before releasing them as open source in 2007. During our postdoc years at UC Berkeley we did not anticipate that these tools would become so or that we would start a company a few years later …
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [data] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of [Openness].”
Why has the ASPRS not taken a position about the proprietary format that ESRI promotes as “Optimized LAS” given its role in maintaining the open LiDAR data exchange format known as “LAS” since 2002?
This blog article has caused a few ripples across the ASPRS, the OGC, the OSGeo, and the community at large. Arguments range from “no need to have a position because we don’t have a position on IMG versus TIF” to “LAS has a well-established brand identity in the market, and ESRI shouldn’t benefit from people mixing up the two technologies. If we were to create a sanctioned compressed LAS specification and call it ArcLAS, we’d sure be hearing from some IP lawyers.” and “We went to a lot of trouble to provide the industry with a uniform, open and widely-adopted specification for point cloud data exchange. ESRI’s “Optimized LAS” threatens some of that work.”
We expect the ASPRS will release a statement eventually.
We also noticed activity within the OSGeo and the OGC who are not happy about these developments either. They are deliberating how their organizations should react to yet another closed geospatial format by ESRI. Although the LAS format is not an OGC standard, ESRI is an OGC member and it seems the OGC does not like to see their members sabotaging existing open formats maintained elsewhere.
The mission of the ASPRS LAS Working Group (LWG) – in our understanding – is to serve the geospatial community by providing them with an well-defined and open data exchange standard for LiDAR points that makes it easy to import and export data from and to any software package and that serves as a vendor-neutral format to archive, host, and distribute LiDAR data.
We feel that the recent actions by ESRI (the youngest LWG member who just joined in 2011) are directly undermining these efforts. It is therefore our opinion that the presence of ESRI in the ASPRS LAS Working Group is neither needed nor welcome at this point. Without much formality (there has not been a precedent to this) we have therefore put forward a motion to exclude ESRI from the ASPRS LAS Working Group …
There is a lot happening: An Open Letter is now being circulated via the OSGeo and the story has been picked up by several news outlets such as the German Heise Group and the Australian IT News as well as bloggers like Oliver Doepner, Adena Schutzberg and Cameron Shorter.
Pingback: The dArc Force Awakens: ESRI escalates LiDAR format war | rapidlasso GmbH