Reading through this answer got me thinking: Why hasn't a better format than the shapefile been widely adopted?

Shapefiles have (as I'm sure most of us have noticed) many annoying quirks, shortcomings and restrictions. I won't go through the trouble of finding every complaint that has ever been made about the format, but common complaints I see are:

  • Multiple files are needed for each layer
  • File name limitations
  • Field-length limitations
  • Tables are no longer editable in MS Excel

With these (and other) complaints in mind, what has prevented a "better" format from being widely adopted? Sure there are alternatives such as personal and file geodatabases, but these aren't as portable/shareable as shapefiles.

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    If I was a cynical man I would say ESRI – Dowlers May 26 '16 at 21:11
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    Hopefully the GeoPackage takes its place! – DPSSpatial May 26 '16 at 21:14
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    Lack of UTF-16 support, poor date resolution, and lack of numeric nulls should have made your list. – Vince May 26 '16 at 21:31
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    @Dowlers I don't think you could be more wrong in this regard. Esri has been discouraging shapefile use for a long time. – Vince May 26 '16 at 21:33
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    I think this question would be an excellent one for the GIS Chat Room where opinions are welcome but is a poor fit for focussed Q&A. – PolyGeo May 26 '16 at 21:37

Most simply - because EVERYTHING can read/write a shapefile and by and large they work. Which makes them frustratingly universal when working with multiple software packages (ESRI/QGIS/AutoCad/etc).

They're everywhere, and the name has been genericized from a specific file format to a term reflecting ALL spatial data. (I have definitely asked clients for a shapefile and had them send a KML.)

Think about it - a lot of the time, all you need to do is send a simple shape - the APE for a project, a road alignment, the parcel boundary, a lake, a few streams, the path you walked, etc. It's less frequent that you really need the advanced capability of a GDB.

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    My least favourite is asking for a shapefile and receiving a CAD – socks May 26 '16 at 21:28
  • Or asking for a Shapfile and getting KMZ... that's a shapefile right? It's close to impossible to supplant the 'universal GIS format', look at what ECW did for disposing JP2 as the premier raster format but still I find myself exporting XYZ, ASCII and ERDAS IMG for cross-platform compatibility! I was exporting these in the 90's! Even if something came along that was easy, small (binary), fast and didn't have the field length/name length problems everyone would have to be impressed enough to implement it - and that would probably need an intervention or legislation to happen. – Michael Stimson May 26 '16 at 23:29
  • My pet peeve is continuing to reference tables loaded into databases as "shapefiles". – Vince May 27 '16 at 11:07

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