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GIS & Geospatial Data Services

Install GIS Software

The Major GIS Applications

There are currently 3 major desktop GIS software applications (ArcMap, ArcGIS Pro, and QGIS) that are widely used in academia, private industry, and the public sector. They are referred to as "desktop" GIS software applications because they are designed for individual users on desktop/laptop computers as opposed to server GIS software applications which function quite differently. While ArcMap has for many years been the most widely utilized GIS application in the United States, it is losing ground to newer GIS software options. ArcMap is a proprietary application that is part of the ArcGIS Desktop suit of software products developed by Esri that was first released in 2000. In 2015 Esri released a new application, ArcGIS Pro, which is envisioned as the future of the ArcGIS software suite and is the company's flagship desktop GIS software product. Compared to ArcMap, ArcGIS Pro has expanded functionality in a number of areas and is tightly integrated with Esri's cloud GIS platform, ArcGIS Online. As a result of its exclusive capabilities, ArcGIS Pro is becoming increasingly popular as users migrate from ArcMap.  Esri has promised to support ArcMap until March 1, 2026, but there will be no new releases of the software beyond the current version, ArcMap 10.8.1, and it is recommended that new GIS users who are interested in learning to work with ArcGIS software start with ArcGIS Pro instead of learning the older ArcMap interface and workflows. The third major GIS software application currently in widespread use is QGIS which, unlike Esri's ArcGIS software options, is free and open source. QGIS has become an increasingly popular alternative to proprietary Esri software products due to its ease of adoption and compatibly with the MacOS operating system, which ArcGIS software lacks. In the United States, it is still not as commonly used by industry professionals as ArcGIS software, but is now widely utilized in Europe and in many other regions of the world. All three of these GIS applications are extremely powerful for managing geospatial data, performing geospatial analysis, and producing maps but they do vary in significant ways as can be seen in the table below which provides a very summarized overview of their differences.

QGIS 3.x ArcGIS Pro 3.x ArcMap 10.x
Licensing GNU General Public License (free and open source) Proprietary software developed by Esri
Expensive for commercial use
Free for UT students, staff, and faculty educational use
Proprietary software developed by Esri
Expensive for commercial use
Free for UT students, staff, and faculty educational use
Developer Support Strong current and future support Strong current and future support No longer being developed, support will end in March 2026
OS Compatibility Windows, MacOS, Linux Windows Windows
3D Visualization Capabilities Good Excellent Limited (3D support provided in separate ArcScene application included in ArcGIS Desktop)
Integrated Python Version 3.x 3.x 2.7
Cloud Integration Limited, allows for integration with 3rd party cloud platforms Excellent, very well integrated with Esri's ArcGIS Online cloud platform Good, well integrated with Esri's ArcGIS Online cloud platform
Community Support & Documentation Excellent Excellent Excellent

For a more detailed comparison of the two dominant modern GIS applications, QGIS and ArcGIS Pro, you can also visit Whether you determine that ArcGIS Pro or QGIS would be the best software for your particular use case, you will be glad to know that faculty, staff, and students here at UT Austin are fortunate to have easy access to all three applications for academic use (see for details about the campus Esri site license). If you are interested in installing GIS software on your personal computer you just need to click on the QGIS, ArcMap, or ArcGIS Pro links here or in the top left hand menu to access application specific installation instructions. If you are on campus and just need GIS software to complete a simple assignment or want to gain familiarity with the basics of GIS, you can stop by the PCL Data Lab in 2.400a where you can use QGIS on any of the lab's 15 Mac computers or you can visit the PCL Computer Lab in 2.200 which has ArcGIS Desktop installed on all of its workstations. There are also other labs on campus with GIS software installed that are managed by individual colleges and departments.

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