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.

closed as primarily opinion-based by Vince, PolyGeo May 26 '16 at 21:34

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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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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