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December 11, 1995

Windows mapping products point to new, lower prices

A price war of sorts has broken out in the Windows mapping market. This can benefit any Windows user who needs to convert a database containing address information into a ready-made map.

The latest entry in this low-cost category is called BusinessMap. This new $99.95 product is designed to read a database containing ZIP code information and automatically convert it into a map showing the location of each business, customer, or other entity in the database.

Other products are available at this price point, but BusinessMap is published by the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), the maker of ArcInfo and other high-end data mapping software. ArcInfo typically runs on minicomputers and other heavy-metal configurations, and sells for thousands of dollars. More than 100,000 users, many of them at local and state government agencies, maintain vast quantities of map information in ArcInfo format, including streets, highways, and much more.

BusinessMap is arguably the least expensive product that can read, display, and print this data, stored in what are known as ESRI shape files.

Users of geographic information systems (GIS), such as governments, ordinarily use much more powerful software than BusinessMap to view and manipulate their mapping data. ESRI itself sells an intermediate product, ArcView, for people who wish to perform serious analysis on GIS files. As a result, ESRI is positioning BusinessMap not as an analysis tool for giant government-maintained databases, but as software that traveling salespeople might pick up in a software store to help them call on customers.

For this purpose, BusinessMap includes maps of several countries, as well as state, county, and ZIP code boundaries within the United States. (A "lite" version of BusinessMap, which omits ZIP codes and many other features, is also sold to U.S. customers for a $9.95 shipping charge as a sort of working demo version.)

A salesperson or marketing manager can read a list of names and addresses from Microsoft Access, Excel, Lotus 1-2-3, or dBase, and BusinessMap will plot the location of each record on a map, based on ZIP codes.

At this point, the limitations of the $99.95 product begin to appear. If you want to show the locations of a few points within the country or within a single state, BusinessMap highlights these easily. If, on the other hand, you want to see the locations of several stops you must make within a city, BusinessMap can place a symbol for each one only as accurately as ZIP-code level.

Each symbol is mapped as though it were located at the center point of its respective ZIP code. Within a large ZIP code that is divided, say, by a major highway, you have no way of knowing whether a given stop is actually east or west of that highway.

Because BusinessMap contains no street information, only major roads, there is no way to pinpoint your destination without referring to a conventional map. And if more than one address shares the same ZIP code, the names that label each symbol are displayed on top of each other. The names appear to be garbage until you manually separate them by dragging them apart. (ESRI says features such as streets and staggered positioning of labels will be included in a future version.)

BusinessMap and BusinessMap Lite may be obtained by calling ESRI at (800) 970-0033 or (909) 793-2853. I'll discuss some more useful Windows mapping solutions next week.

Brian Livingston is the coauthor of the new Windows 95 Secrets and author of three other Windows books (IDG Books). Send tips to or fax: (206) 282-1248.

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