Prior to the ArcGIS suite, Esri had focused its software development on the command line Arc/INFO workstation program and several Graphical User Interface-based products such as the ArcView GIS 3.x desktop program. Other Esri products included MapObjects, a programming library for developers, and ArcSDE as a relational database management system. The various products had branched out into multiple source trees and did not integrate well with one another. In January 1997, Esri decided to revamp its GIS software platform, creating a single integrated software architecture.
In late 1999, Esri released ArcGIS 8.0, which ran on the Microsoft Windows operating system. ArcGIS combined the visual user-interface aspect of ArcView GIS 3.x interface with some of the power from the Arc/INFO version 7.2 workstation. This pairing resulted in a new software suite called ArcGIS, which included the command-line ArcInfo workstation (v8.0) and a new graphical user interface application called ArcMap (v8.0) incorporating some of the functionality of ArcInfo with a more intuitive interface, as well as an ArcGIS file management application called ArcCatalog (v8.0). The release of the ArcGIS suite constituted a major change in Esri's software offerings, aligning all their client and server products under one software architecture known as ArcGIS, developed using Microsoft Windows COM standards.
One major difference is the programming (scripting) languages available to customize or extend the software to suit particular user needs. In the transition to ArcGIS, Esri dropped support of its application-specific scripting languages, Avenue and the ARC Macro Language (AML), in favour of Visual Basic for Applications scripting and open access to ArcGIS components using the Microsoft COM standards. ArcGIS is designed to store data in a proprietary RDBMS format, known as geodatabase. ArcGIS 8.x introduced other new features, including on-the-fly map projections, and annotation in the database.
Updates of ArcView 3.x extensions, including 3D Analyst and Spatial Analyst, came later with release of ArcGIS 8.1, which was unveiled at the Esri International User Conference in 2000. ArcGIS 8.1 was officially released on April 24, 2001. Other new extensions were made available with ArcGIS 8.1, including GeoStatistical Analyst. ArcGIS 8.1 also added the ability to access data online, directly from the Geography Network site or other ArcIMS map services. ArcGIS 8.3 was introduced in 2002, adding topology to geodatabases, which was a feature originally available only with ArcInfo coverages.
ArcGIS 9 was released in May 2004, which included ArcGIS Server and ArcGIS Engine for developers. The ArcGIS 9 release includes a geoprocessing environment that allows execution of traditional GIS processing tools (such as clipping, overlay, and spatial analysis) interactively or from any scripting language that supports COM standards. Although the most popular of these is Python, others have been used, especially Perl and VBScript. ArcGIS 9 includes a visual programming environment, similar to ERDAS IMAGINE's Model Maker (released in 1994, v8.0.2). The Esri version is called ModelBuilder and as does the ERDAS IMAGINE version allows users to graphically link geoprocessing tools into new tools called models. These models can be executed directly or exported to scripting languages which can then execute in batch mode (launched from a command line), or they can undergo further editing to add branching or looping.
At the 2008 Esri Developers Summit, there was little emphasis on ArcIMS, except for one session on transitioning from ArcIMS to ArcGIS Server-based applications, indicating a change in focus for Esri with ArcGIS 9.3 for web-based mapping applications.
In May 2009, Esri released ArcGIS 9.3.1, which improved the performance of dynamic map publishing and introduced better sharing of geographic information.
In 2010 Esri announced that the prospective version 9.4 would become version 10 and would ship in the second quarter of 2010.
In June 2012 Esri released ArcGIS 10.1.
In July 2013 Esri released ArcGIS 10.2.
In December 2014 Esri released ArcGIS 10.3. The release included ArcGIS Pro 1.0, which became available in January 2015.
In February 2016 Esri released ArcGIS 10.4.
In December 2016 Esri released ArcGIS 10.5.
Older Esri products, including ArcView 3.x, worked with data in the shapefile format. ArcInfo Workstation handled coverages, which stored topology information about the spatial data. Coverages, which were introduced in 1981 when ArcInfo was first released, have limitations in how they handle types of features. Some features, such as roads with street intersections or overpasses and underpasses, should be handled differently from other types of features.
ArcGIS is built around a geodatabase, which uses an object-relational database approach for storing spatial data. A geodatabase is a "container" for holding datasets, tying together the spatial features with attributes. The geodatabase can also contain topology information, and can model behavior of features, such as road intersections, with rules on how features relate to one another. When working with geodatabases, it is important to understand feature classes which are a set of features, represented with points, lines, or polygons. With shapefiles, each file can only handle one type of feature. A geodatabase can store multiple feature classes or type of features within one file.
Geodatabases in ArcGIS can be stored in three different ways - as a "file geodatabase", a "personal geodatabase", or an "ArcSDE geodatabase". Introduced at 9.2, the file geodatabase stores information in a folder named with a .gdb extension. The insides look similar to that of a coverage but is not, in fact, a coverage. Similar to the personal geodatabase, the file geodatabase only supports a single editor. However, unlike the personal geodatabase, there is virtually no size limit. By default, any single table cannot exceed 1TB, but this can be changed. Personal geodatabases store data in Microsoft Access files, using a BLOB field to store the geometry data. The OGR library is able to handle this file type, to convert it to other file formats. Database administration tasks for personal geodatabases, such as managing users and creating backups, can be done through ArcCatalog. Personal geodatabases, which are based on Microsoft Access, run only on Microsoft Windows and have a 2 gigabyte size limit. Enterprise (multi-user) level geodatabases are handled using ArcSDE, which interfaces with high-end DBMS such as PostgreSQL, Oracle, Microsoft SQL Server, DB2 and Informix to handle database management aspects, while ArcGIS deals with spatial data management. Enterprise level geodatabases support database replication, versioning and transaction management, and are cross-platform compatible, able to run on Linux, Windows, and Solaris.
Also released at 9.2 is the personal SDE database that operates with SQL Server Express. Personal SDE databases do not support multi-user editing, but do support versioning and disconnected editing. Microsoft limits SQL Server Express databases to 4GB.
ArcGIS consists of Desktop GIS products, as well as GIS products that run on a server, or on a mobile device.
ArcGIS for Desktop is available at different product levels, with increasing functionality.ArcReader (freeware, viewer) is a basic data viewer for maps and GIS data published in the proprietary Esri format using ArcGIS Publisher. The software also provides some basic tools for map viewing, printing and querying of spatial data. ArcReader is included with any of the ArcGIS suite of products, and is also available for free to download. ArcReader only works with preauthored published map files, created with ArcGIS Publisher.
ArcGIS for Desktop Basic, formerly known as ArcView, is the entry level of ArcGIS licensing offered. With ArcView, one is able to view and edit GIS data held in flat files, or view data stored in a relational database management system by accessing it through ArcSDE.
ArcGIS for Desktop Standard, formerly known as ArcEditor, is the midlevel software suite designed for advanced editing of spatial data published in the proprietary Esri format. It provides tools for the creation of map and spatial data used in GIS, including the ability of editing geodatabase files and data, multiuser geodatabase editing, versioning, raster data editing and vectorization, advanced vector data editing, managing coverages, coordinate geometry (COGO), and editing geometric networks. ArcEditor is not intended for advanced spatial analysis.
ArcGIS for Desktop Advanced, formerly known as ArcInfo, allows users the most flexibility and control in "all aspects of data building, modeling, analysis, and map display." ArcInfo includes increased capability in the areas of spatial analysis, geoprocessing, data management, and others.
Other desktop GIS software include ArcGIS Explorer and ArcGIS Engine. ArcGIS Explorer is a GIS viewer which can work as a client for ArcGIS Server, ArcIMS, ArcWeb Services and Web Map Service (WMS).ArcGIS Online is a web application allowing sharing and search of geographic information, as well as content published by Esri, ArcGIS users, and other authoritative data providers. It allows users to create and join groups, and control access to items shared publicly or within groups.
ArcGIS for Desktop consists of several integrated applications, including ArcMap, ArcCatalog, ArcToolbox, ArcScene, ArcGlobe, and ArcGIS Pro. ArcCatalog is the data management application, used to browse datasets and files on one's computer, database, or other sources. In addition to showing what data is available, ArcCatalog also allows users to preview the data on a map. ArcCatalog also provides the ability to view and manage metadata for spatial datasets. ArcMap is the application used to view, edit and query geospatial data, and create maps. The ArcMap interface has two main sections, including a table of contents on the left and the data frame(s) which display the map. Items in the table of contents correspond with layers on the map. ArcToolbox contains geoprocessing, data conversion, and analysis tools, along with much of the functionality in ArcInfo. It is also possible to use batch processing with ArcToolbox, for frequently repeated tasks. The ArcGIS Pro application was added to ArcGIS for Desktop in 2015. It had the combined capabilities of the other integrated applications and was built as a fully 64-bit software application.
There are a number of software extensions that can be added to ArcGIS for Desktop that provide added functionality, including 3D Analyst, Spatial Analyst, Network Analyst, Survey Analyst, Tracking Analyst, and Geostatistical Analyst. Advanced map labeling is available with the Maplex extension, as an add-on to ArcView and ArcEditor and is bundled with ArcInfo. Numerous extensions have also been developed by third parties, such as the MapSpeller spell-checker, ST-Links PgMap XTools and MAP2PDF for creating georeferenced pdfs (GeoPDF), ERDAS' Image Analysis and Stereo Analyst for ArcGIS, and ISM's PurVIEW, which converts Arc- desktops into precise stereo-viewing windows to work with geo-referenced stereoscopic image models for accurate geodatabase-direct editing or feature digitizing.
An address locator is a dataset in ArcGIS that stores the address attributes, associated indexes, and rules that define the process for translating nonspatial descriptions of places, such as street addresses, into spatial data that can be displayed as features on a map. An address locator contains a snapshot of the reference data used for geocoding, and parameters for standardizing addresses, searching for match locations, and creating output. Address locator files have a .loc file extension. In ArcGIS 8.3 and previous versions, an address locator was called a geocoding service.
ArcGIS Mobile and ArcPad are products designed for mobile devices. ArcGIS Mobile is a software development kit for developers to use to create applications for mobile devices, such as smartphones or tablet PCs. If connected to the Internet, mobile applications can connect to ArcGIS Server to access or update data. ArcGIS Mobile is only available at the Enterprise level
Server GIS products include ArcIMS (web mapping server), ArcGIS Server and ArcGIS Image Server. As with ArcGIS Desktop, ArcGIS Server is available at different product levels, including Basic, Standard, and Advanced Editions. ArcGIS Server comes with SQL Server Express DBMS embedded and can work with enterprise DBMS such as SQL Server Enterprise and Oracle. The Esri Developer Network (EDN) includes ArcObjects and other tools for building custom software applications, and ArcGIS Engine provides a programming interface for developers.
For non-commercial purposes, Esri offers a home use program with an annual license fee.
The ArcGIS Engine is an ArcGIS software engine, a developer product for creating custom GIS desktop applications.
ArcGIS Engine provides application programming interfaces (APIs) for COM, .NET, Java, and C++ for the Windows, Linux, and Solaris platforms. The APIs include documentation and a series of high-level visual components to ease building ArcGIS applications.
ArcGIS Engine includes the core set of components, ArcObjects, from which ArcGIS Desktop products are built. With ArcGIS Engine one can build stand-alone applications or extend existing applications for both GIS and non-GIS users. The ArcGIS Engine distribution additionally includes utilities, samples, and documentation.
One ArcGIS Engine Runtime or ArcGIS Desktop license per computer is necessary.
ArcGIS Desktop products and ArcPad are available with a single-use license. Most products are also available with concurrent-use license, while development server licenses and other types of software licenses are available for other products. Single-use products can be purchased online from the Esri Store, while all ArcGIS products are available through a sales representative or reseller. Annual software maintenance and support is also available for ArcGIS. While there are alternative products available from other traditional vendors such as MapInfo, Maptitude, and Intergraph, Esri has a dominant share of the GIS software market with approximately a 36 percent share of the GIS software market worldwide as of 2002. The ARC Advisory Group estimated in 2010 that Esri's market share now exceeds 40%.
Esri's transition to the ArcGIS platform, starting with the 1999 release of ArcGIS 8.0, rendered incompatible an extensive range of user-developed and third-party add-on software and scripts. A minority user base resists migrating to ArcGIS because of changes in scripting capability, functionality, operating system (Esri developed ArcGIS Desktop software exclusively for the Microsoft Windows operating system), as well as the significantly larger system resources required by the ArcGIS software. Esri has continued support for these users. ArcView 3.x is still available for purchase, and ArcInfo Workstation is still included in a full ArcGIS ArcInfo licence to provide some editing and file conversion functionality that has not been included to date in ArcGIS. Other issues with ArcGIS include perceived high prices for the products, proprietary formats, and difficulties of porting data between Esri and other GIS software.