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!

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.

Tablets in the Laboratory – battery life

There aren’t many Enterprise iPad users blogging publicly, no doubt out of confidentiality concerns. However Fraser Speirs is responsible for IT in a school where they have just deployed iPads throughout the school, and his blog on The iPad Project is well worth a read if you are thinking about large-scale deployment of iPads and the like.

As an example, a recent post on battery life makes some interesting points about the impact of battery life on usability. The short post is well worth a read, and he finishes with the following which I think is equally applicable to the Laboratory:

Simply put: if your device doesn’t last for 10 real-world hours of use, your device is no longer competitive in education. I can’t imagine ever going back to using 4-hour devices like laptops on a regular basis.

I can’t shake the feeling that tablets like the iPad are going to completely change the way we use IT in the labs, because they are just so compelling for the kinds of interaction you need to do in that environment. But I also feel that people haven’t really woken up to the implications… which does make it interesting!

It is small-but-crucial things like this which we are exploring in our loose group of people who are interested in the iPad in the Lab. We’re getting lots of really practical insights as well as the inevitable “How do we do this” discussion.

As an aside, any reading of the iPad developer documentation shows how much effort Apple have put into managing the battery life on their mobile devices, and you can really see the results. But that does have software implications – e.g. people who think they must have Flash to have a viable Tablet probably don’t realise they will get a device which will have a greatly reduced battery life as a result!

ELNs in the Laboratory – iPad Vs Ruggedised Tablet

The Electronic Lab Notebook’s last frontier for the is the laboratory bench, and historically companies have explored a variety of solutions although I don’t think anyone would claim to have the perfect solution yet.

Comparing a recent ruggedised tablet with an iPad shows why the iPad is so interesting for accessing an ELN from the benchtop.

The latest PC Pro magazine has a review of the Motion Computing J3500 which is a ruggedised PC with a touch screen which I guess would be one of the devices you might consider if you wanted a PC in the lab. At £2,253 (ex VAT) it isn’t cheap, battery life is just over 4 hours, and it is going to take a lot of bench space.

Compare that to an iPad which is £365 (ex VAT), a battery that will last most if not all of the day, much more portable, doesn’t take up nearly as much space on the benchtop and can be placed in a protective plastic bag if desired.

The difference in price, form factor and battery life is stark, and I suspect the iPad will be a lot cheaper to manage from an IT perspective. Given the move to web-based systems I can’t see there’s much the iPad is missing in terms of functionality either.

And that is why we’re excited about the iPad…. and it is too small to be used as a tray which is a concern with Tablet PCs!