Free ELNs are an accident waiting to happen

Every now and then we see “Free” ELNs pop up, make a bit of a splash on the forums and then quietly disappear from view.

I’ve always wondered what the business plan for these systems is; there seems to be a lot of optimism and little long-term thinking. I think some of it comes from looking at the numerous Internet-based services which are around with “Free” or “Freemium” models. A few people in their spare time use one of the amazing array of tools to quickly build a SaaS ELN, launch it, and see what happens.

Which is really great; we use a lot of those tools ourselves, and we have taken the Free approach when launching other products – but not an ELN.

Some of the reasons why I think free/freemium is not a viable platform for an ELN offering are:

  • Long term viability is important. Google Reader, Delicious and others are reminders of how this story can end, which is nicely summed up in this post on the Pinboard Blog.
  • The market is too niche to generate the user numbers which would allow anything other than direct monetization to work. There wouldn’t be the traffic for advertising etc.
  • Most “free” business models involve selling or re-using the data in some way or another (“If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold”). Which is a huge problem for information which should often be confidential.
  • There’s a lot of boring infrastructure stuff that goes into running an ELN safely which is too easy to “save” on. Paying means the vendor is accountable for backups etc.
  • The cheap way to do infrastructure is generally outsourcing to a “cloud” provider. Not knowing which country your data in is just the first of the problems that this brings.
  • Users need support, both in use but also in the decision making processes. I don’t know what revenue number you need to provide a decent support operation, but it has to be over $500/user/year.

I just don’t see how free ELNs will work out as a viable long term offering. I can see the attraction of Open Source ELNs and created one myself; but if you take a look around, most Open Source ELNs have fallen into inactivity (including mine!).

I’m not saying all ELNs should be charged for; we provide our PatentSafe ELN for free to teachers, and strongly discounted to startups and individuals. But those offerings are our way of getting smaller companies started, or “giving back” to education – underpinned by a strong and profitable business.

There’s a couple of interesting effects as well:

  • When people pay, they increase their expectations and feed them back to the author – who is motivated to make the product better.
  • Asking for money requires the supplier to align themselves with the market and pay attention to what’s really needed rather than what they think – and then to be able communicate the value back to the market. That’s hard, but very important for long term viability.

Broadly, Free ELNs are a disaster waiting to happen, and I’d strongly encourage people to avoid them. If your budget is genuinely too tight to be able to pay for an ELN, I’d suggest using Microsoft Office (or even OpenOffice!), or Evernote, or WordPress, or something. All of those solutions combine useful functionality with a viable business model.

More on DropBox’s Terms of Service – run away…

Interesting post from Dave Winer on Scripting News taking a look at DropBox’s possible business plan, which gives me more worries about using DropBox as the basis for an Electronic Lab Notebook.

That means they have to be looking inside your box to get the data they’re going to aggregate, to get to that astronomical valuation. That’s why they didn’t just go with the enterprise-y user agreements that Microsoft and Amazon use. They don’t want your money. They want the advertisers’ money.

What’s inside your Dropbox says a lot about you. And that, of course, is what Dropbox users (like me) are afraid of.

If that’s the case, you’d have to be very brave to use DropBox for Science that wasn’t already in the public domain… best stick with solutions focused on solving the ELN problem, which have the appropriate technical and business architecture! We’d love to talk to you 🙂

Cloud Applications, ELN & IP

I’ve met a number of groups who are using Commodity “Cloud” services (Google Apps, DropBox etc.) for their Lab Notebook data, and whilst it works well technically (and is always improving!), I’ve always wondered about the IP/Confidentiality issues.

I bumped into an analysis of the Terms of Service of various Cloud service providers on Neowin. It isn’t encouraging reading.

I can empathise with the providers; they are providing a generic service to a large number of users, for free or a very low price. The only way they can execute their business at that scale is to tell people “We get to see your data too, and we can re-use it or give it to other people for whatever reasons we decide”.

Unfortunately, that’s not pretty from an IP perspective. I’m no lawyer but I can’t see how some of these terms and conditions are compatible with securing a company’s IP via Patents or even Trade Secrets (let alone personal privacy).

Caveat emptor!

Interestingly Amphora have found ourselves increasingly providing Cloud-like and SaaS-centric services to our customers. We started providing PatentSafe as SaaS but then we’ve moved into providing offsite backup (using a private CrashPlan service) and other services.

In meeting this customer need, we’ve had to do it with our normal IP-centric Terms of Service – which basically means your data is private to you, and we’re only going to disclose it when you ask us (or, in the extreme, when we get a court order). That’s been hard – it has caused us to shy away from some “Cloudy” infrastructure that I know some ELN vendors have gone for, e.g. the Amazon EC2 and S3 products to name just two. Ultimately that means our costs are higher, but to do otherwise would be irresponsible.

I’d like to say this is a matter of “You get what you pay for” but it isn’t as simple as that – these commodity services are just focused on a different market. So before you get the Cloud bug in the Lab, read the Terms of Service and consider if that’s appropriate for your circumstances. When you’ve done that, check with your provider – do they run the services themselves, or do they use another platform – if they’ve got it all on Google or Amazon infrastructure (excellent technical choices! legally trickier) it is worth taking the time to understand who your contract is with and what is happening to your data.

SAP and the iPad – and ELNs

We think the iPad has the potential to revolutionise Electronic Lab Notebooks, and clearly the ELN market is just one of many which will benefit from the new form factor. SAP are arguably the most “Enterprise” of any software vendor, so I was interested in their view of the iPad and other Tablets.

This interview of SAPs CIO makes interesting reading.

Oliver Bussmann told me that SAP’s chief scientist had done an analysis of computers in business, and where they will be going. In their scientist’s view, the mobile and desktop models are converging. That is, instead of rolling up to a desk every day to power up a machine, and sift through screens of information to arrive at a simple dashboard, users will come to expect a smaller device to focus on the data. This smaller form factor and more task-focused paradigm will allow you to call up information almost instantly, with laser focus on specific processes, rather than one large machine that does a dozen things. It’s an evolution of the species, if you will.

We’re seeing this ourselves, both in our internal use of the iPad and also by our ELN clients. The Tablet form factor and the very task-centric paradigm really does create a compelling additional device from which to interact with your data – and we’re pleased that PatentSafe continues to keep up with the innovations in the tablet space.

A large number of our customers have iPad trials ongoing; there are few who are refusing to entertain the iPad at all on the basis that it is a “toy”. With endorsements like this from SAP I can’t help but think they will be reconsidering!