ELNs and the post-PC era

Almost all “Electronic Laboratory Notebook” vendors assume you are deploying onto reasonably-recent Windows PCs, which might be the case if you are focusing on Big Pharma (which most vendors were) but isn’t true when you start working with Academic Labs and Biotechs.

As a general rule Apple MacOS X, Linux are second class citizens in the ELN world and it is all the salesperson can do to stifle a laugh when you mention those “other platforms”. The iPad and Android equivalents don’t even get a look in!

I’ve felt this situation is increasingly unsustainable – not only is Apple’s Macintosh experiencing a resurgence, but we’re quite possibly on the cusp of a tablet-drive revolution.

An interesting blog post from the CTO at the UK’s Department for Work and Pensions wonders if their current Windows desktop refresh might not be their last.

Personally, I think it likely this is the last version of Windows anyone ever widely deploys, though.

The reason? I think they’ll be fewer workloads that actually require a heavy deskop stack. Today, of course, we have all this legacy that’s coupled to the desktop, but in a decade, I really doubt that will be the case. Most stuff will arrive via the browser.

Talking with our larger Enterprise customers, it appears their Windows Desktop infrastructure is increasingly cumbersome and it is very hard to innovate in such a complex environment. In the smaller Biotechs there’s a real push to avoid cumbersome IT generally and there’s ready adoption of web and Cloud technologies, as well as additional platforms such as Macs and iPads.

The article makes a good long term point which ELN project teams should urgently consider:

From a strategic point of view, if you’re designing the future technology estate of a large organisation, that last thing it makes sense to do in this kind of context is build stuff that depends on a desktop stack. Furthermore, decoupling legacy from the desktop stack also has to be on the agenda, because you just can’t count on that stack being relevent in 10 years time.

Most ELN products on the market are tightly linked into the Windows ecosystem, even to the extent that one vendor just trumpeted the re-launch of their ELN which is now completely based on SharePoint!

My feeling is that organisations looking for an ELN which is going to last for more than 2 years should consider a situation where there are more than just Windows Desktop PCs in their IT infrastructure – not an unreasonable consideration, but one that needs thinking about up front rather than purchasing a product that locks you in to a dying ecosystem. The Windows PC isn’t going to be replaced but it won’t be the only way you’ll want to access your ELN, and whatever you select needs to be able to work with whatever you might adopt. That such lightweight “thin” solutions are easier to deploy than a thick client just icing on the cake.

(update: this story has been picked up in The Register)

ELN design – Simplicity is hard

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”—Leonardo Da Vinci

A good Electronic Lab Notebook takes careful design; the foundation of this is what does, and more importantly what it doesn’t do. This is really hard, as evidenced by the complexity that can creep in to products as you add feature after feature. Apple’s success is built upon design and the fact that better-resourced competitors can’t keep up shows just how difficult it is to get design into your corporate DNA.

I’ve always felt that ELNs are particularly susceptible to “Kitchen-sink” tendencies; the term is so badly defined, and the potential use cases so broad that you can easily find yourself needing to add more and more functions until you end up with an unholy mess which then:

  • Requires a lot of consulting to customise the application to fit the needs of any group of scientists
  • Is complex to master, requiring quite extensive training time

In PatentSafe we’ve taken a different approach – less is more. Our aim is to allow our users to use any application as part of the ELN experience, and we’ve come up with a handful of basic concepts which can be mastered in lass than 15 minutes and allow the user to use all their existing applications and work processes unchanged.

I’d to claim this is as a result of an amazing design philosophy but in truth it is a product of where we started. Most ELN companies started either in big Pharma (or were swiftly pointed in that direction by their VCs). Amphora in contrast started out working with Kodak and then into companies such as DuPont, PPG and J&J – doing really very large deployments (100’s to 1,000’s of users). When you’re rolling out that many seats especially into the very diverse research environments of chemical companies, you have to keep things ruthlessly streamlined and build on what’s there, because it is just physically impossible to customise the ELN for each group.

When we started to work with Biotechs this experience really paid off:

  • Biotechs don’t have the resources to pay for a long consulting engagement and lots of software
  • Biotechs will often change their entire business over a period of years; if their ELN was overly customised it would be hard to prevent it becoming a business-threatening impediment to change

It is interesting that Biotechs really have a lot more in common with diverse Chemical companies when looked at this way; most people seem to think Biotech is just little Pharma, but nothing could be further from the case when you are deploying IT.

Less-is-more is also helping us as we move into additional devices such as the iPad. PatentSafe is device-, application-, and discipline-agnostic, so the iPad just fits right in.

When we first started out I was always worried that we would need to add a lot more functionality to the core product to meet market demand. It turns out that resisting this was one of the best decisions we made as a company – we now have a product that can be dropped in almost anywhere and used immediately, which is dramatically different from the alternatives (so much so that people often think we’re lying when we say no consulting and 15 minute training time!).

I can’t help but feel that our market-leading presence is down to what we decide not to do, instead choosing to work with what’s out there. I’d like to think that what we’ve done is technically excellent, and PatentSafe has a number of very powerful features. But it is the features we chose not to implement which make PatentSafe so quick and easy to use, and able to stand the test of time as our customers’ business change.

(this post was inspired by “Simplicity isn’t that Simple” on 52 Weeks of UX blog.

Chemistry ELNs and Open Source

For some scientists, Chemical Structure-based searching is an important part of the toolset they use to plan and write up their experiments. Historically this functionality has been the domain of proprietary software vendors, who have used their monopoly on Cheminformatics technology to lever the adoption of their wider informatics suites (including products positioned as “Electronic Laboratory Notebooks”).

The resulting lack of competition on top of vendor consolidation has led to Chemistry-focused ELNs tending to lag in terms of ease of use, and openness, whilst of course being pretty expensive. As those vendors seek to expand into other scientific disciplines, they bring with them the same costs which are then unnecessarily imposed onto other areas.

One major reason for this is that the Open Source Cheminformatics world has historically been under-developed. My theory is that’s because Cheminformatics started in earnest before Open Source took off as a concept (in comparison to Bioinformatics) but I have no real evidence for this.

Open Source is an important part of todays’ software ecosystem:

  • It provides a set of building blocks, and I would imagine almost every software product (commercial or otherwise) has some Open Source components. By sharing the basic foundations, the cost of entry is reduced and this results in more entrants and lower costs for everyone.
  • Open Source drives innovation by allowing people to re-mix things to “scratch their own itch” and produce new approaches as needed. Even if those solutions remain in-house they still inspire others, and perhaps allow the engineers inside the commercial vendors to successfully propose new approaches.
  • The threat of “free” competition as well as more players in the market generally keeps vendors on their toes. Without a complete lock on particular functionality, vendors must instead compete on value and functionality.

Amphora are not in the Chemistry ELN market (and have no intention of being in that market), but I look at what’s out there and compare with what I see happening in other areas and it is clear there’s a lot that could be done which would benefit the wider ELN world as well. Frankly what’s going on Chemistry is giving the wider ELN community a bad name – especially as marketers keep positioning their products as the only “proper” approach for any kind of science, chemistry or otherwise. You really don’t need to spend thousands of dollars a seat and days/weeks of implementation time to deploy an ELN!

So I’ve waiting for a decent Open Source approach to Chemistry-based searching because if nothing else it will inject some innovation where it has been sorely lacking.

So I was delighted to read this post on how to Enable Exact Structure Search and Substructure Search for Your Chemical Database. I don’t think there’s a great breakthrough here, but it is a straightforward set of instructions on how you can do it which demystifies Cheminformatics a lot.

This could get pretty interesting in the next few years…

  • HTML5 and other web technologies are surely at the stage where we don’t need a “thick client” deployed onto a desktop anymore – can’t we do it all in the browser?
  • What about all the tablets (like the iPad), can we make them full clients?
  • Can we finally have true cross platform chemistry ELNs?
  • Can we easily embed chemistry into a variety of other applications, rather than having to buy a complete implementation of someone else’s idea of an ELN?

Amphora’s focus will remain on our particular slice of the ELN problem, which is providing the secure recordkeeping back end, discipline-neutral collaboration etc. Once you’ve done all that work the lawyers generally want to make sure you get the credit for all that Intellectual Property you’ve created even if they don’t explicitly apply for a Patent – even in Academic environments this is becoming more important as the journals and funding agencies raise their expectations in terms of record keeping etc. Amphora’s job is to help our customers focus on the science, and we’ll look after the Intellectual Property and Records considerations.

Even though we don’t plan to directly participate, I’m really looking forward to this. It is great fun working with our customers’ in-house Bioinformatics solutions, and I’d love to see that level of innovation in Cheminformatics.

“Chairman’s Opening Remarks” from SMI ELN Conference in London

I’m chairing the first day of the SMI ELN Conference in London today. Which truth be told isn’t something I enjoy but hopefully I can add something.

Anyway, you have to give a 10 minute presentation talking about wider industry issues and I thought it was appropriate to draw people’s attention to what’s happening in the consumer space and how it might bring us towards the original vision of an ELN.

I’ll blog more on this tomorrow (after the Apple announcement today!) but for the moment here’s the presentation….