The FOSS community came with an alternate spatial index format, the .qix format, originally used by Shapelib, MapServer and GDAL/OGR, and whose use has propagated into other software stacks, such as GeoTools.
But Joel Lawhead, Marc Pfister and another developer, Francisco, have actively started since the end of 2011 the reverse engineering of the .sbn format, and their effort finally came to a conclusion. Many kudos to them for leading this great effort !
There is not yet a formal specification of the .sbn format, but with the help of the blog entries and the debug/testing code that they made available, it was relatively easy to put pieces together. So, as an application of their work and a new step to increase interoperability between FOSS and proprietary software, I've just added support for reading and using .sbn files in the latest revision of the developement version of GDAL/OGR (GDAL 2.0dev). You can refer to ticket 4719 for the details and the code.
As this code is rather new, crowd testing is of course much appreciated. Provided that you use the latest version of GDAL 2.0dev and have python-gdal ready, you can use the testsbn.py script to check if the spatial index is correctly used with your own datasets.
Let's suppose that you have a shapefile "some_shapefile.shp", with an accompaying .sbn file "some_shapefile.sbn", you can try :
python testsbn.py some_shapefile.shp
My initial testing of .sbn vs .qix queries would tend to show that search in .sbn is faster than in .qix (more than twice on large datasets, and with a lot of spatial filter request such as in testsbn.py), while being smaller. An explaination would be that spatial requests against .qix files use floating-point comparisons, whereas equivalent requests against .sbn files only use integer comparisons.
As far as adding write support for .sbn files, I'm a bit ambivalent for now. According to Joel's blog, there are still a few details that have to be solved, in order to understand all the subtelties of the algorithm that dispatches shapes into tree nodes, and ensure full interoperability with the software stack of the vendor at the origin of the .sbn format.