Unix Benefits Digital Mapping

One of the world's leading digital mapping companies
presents at UniForum SIG

The Nov. 12 session of the Software Forum/UniForum Unix Special Interest Group (SIG) featured a "change-of-pace" presentation on geographic information systems (GIS). The presenting company was Etak of Menlo Park, CA, one of the recognized leaders in GIS applications. The session was held at Amdahl Corp.'s headquarters building in Sunnyvale, CA.

There were two presenters from Etak on hand--Howard Koch, the company's corporate VP of marketing, and Chris Green, technical support engineer. Koch's presentation focused on the company and its products. Etak (which means navigation in Polynesian) provides digital roadmaps and support software into three primary markets. The automotive or "in-vehicle navigation" market, which is the dashboard-mounted electronic map most people think of in connection with this technology; the Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) market, which includes realtime traffic systems; and what they call "commercial solutions," a catch-all for all their other business areas. The last classification includes customer location services (the emergency "homing devices" that are available on some automobiles) and vehicle fleet management for truck lines.

"The company is investigating ways to use the Web to update its maps."

He ended his section with a brief discussion of applications that Etak expects to see arise from and through the Internet. Yahoo, the popular Web search service, is using some of their software, and some companies with multiple stores are using Etak's maps to include store-location information on their Web sites. Koch commented that his company is currently investigating ways it can use the Web more interactively in order to update its maps more efficiently.

Evolution Toward Unix
Chris Green's presentation included a sort of "technical history" of the company, explaining its roots (for example, the original start-up funding came from Nolan Bushnell of Atari fame) and its first product (the Etak Navigator, which came out in 1985). Green also related the evolution of their software and hardware; which originally had been designed around a DOS-based, Intel microprocessor architecture. Their actual navigation code is written in C, with some in-line assembly; the digital map database's original build code was written in Pascal; and the digitizing environment was written (in 1985) in VAX C for the VAX environment.

Unix entered Etak in the 1986-89 timeframe in the form of Xenix, which became the new platform for the company's commercial applications. (It was during this period that Etak evolved from a car navigation company to a digital map company.) In 1988, one of the senior engineers brought in the company's first Sun workstations--a 386i--which caused what he termed "a sensation" among the other engineers, who began "clamoring" for their own Suns. By 1993, the entire Etak mapping operation was Sun-based, and the company relies on 250 Sun workstations and a Unix environment.

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