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Should/Will We Have Openness in Laboratory Informatics Product Formatting Details?

August 25, 2011

In the past week, this blog has sparked a few conversations regarding openness within our laboratory informatics industry. One comparison I make is that when we need programming information regarding our databases, such as Oracle, SQLServer or SQL (Structured Query Language) formats, we can easily go on-line and find something isn’t necessarily provided by the software vendors of the databases but by lots of experts in the world that are sharing their knowledge with the rest of us. Even the tippy-toppest experts in the world get information, this way. In these areas, we don’t remain stuck on a problem for long because of the ease of finding this kind of information. But among our laboratory informatics products, we can’t get this information by doing a general web search. Today, I ponder the questions whether we SHOULD be able to do this and whether we WILL be able to do this.

SHOULD We?
Software vendors sometimes, but not always, have their own areas for people to get information on how to program and configure their systems. In a few cases, those software vendors are willing to let just about anyone have access to this information. My impression is that this is the rare case, though. Also, I do happen to know some software vendors do not offer their information to anyone that isn’t part of their “circle” (i.e., employees, partners, customers who pay their support contracts). Thus, there are multitudes in the world who don’t have access to this information. For example, all the services vendors who are not linked with the software vendor and probably those customers who don’t have or want to spend the money to keep paying their support contracts on the software as it becomes mature, which is more common in the unregulated than the regulated areas.

With the internet and ability to create knowledge bases, there’s no reason these people should be “alone” and that they shouldn’t be able to be part of their own collective and create their own knowledge base to support each other.

WILL We?
Unlikely. Sorry to be so definitely negative about it but I can’t see it happening and being useful. Let me expand on that.

First of all, as you’ve read in this blog and comments in the previous week, our laboratory informatics industry is teeny-tiny compared to something like the database industry. There are quite a lot of companies of a decent size that can create these knowledge bases of database commands for each of the database products and for SQL, in general. We don’t have the vast number of people available to do this. And it’s not only a problem if you don’t have enough people to create and maintain it, but also a problem if you can’t make it pretty complete. If it’s not pretty complete, it’s not that useful and won’t become the “go to” place for information.

Let’s consider that the people most likely to do this would be the largest services vendors. They’d have to have a motivation. If a company didn’t have access to the software vendor’s area, they could setup their own area but they probably wouldn’t have a motivation to share that except possibly with their own customers. On the other hand, by doing this, they could establish themselves as THE experts and draw people to their web-site if they shared it. Or, if they had lots of junior people and wanted to draw-in the senior people in the industry by opening it up to the world, that would be yet another motivation.

Will I Do It?
Nope. Occasionally, people write to me and make suggestions like this, that I should: create a database of LIMS and ELN vendors for our industry; create a database of product information for products I’m an expert in like the LabWare LIMS; build a web-site full of <fill in the blanks>. But, no, I’m not going to do it.

Strangely, even some of the large software vendors have written to me with these types of suggestions. Here’s the bottom line: if I took the time to do something like that I wouldn’t have time to do any chargeable customer work, which is what pays my mortgage and what I enjoy. Also, running a business takes some amount of effort, and it’s more than you might think if you haven’t done it. Some of these larger entities have even suggested they might seed my effort with some money but, once again, that would take me away from the work I excel in which is working directly with customers. I find it odd that the biggest companies would look to the smallest companies such as mine for these things. Yet another issue is that, since I’m an expert in some of these things, I’m not that motivated to create a knowledge base because the experts don’t really need it – it’s the junior people that really need these tools and, thus, are the most motivated to wonder why they don’t exist. Overall, I do try to provide helpful information in my blog but I have to draw the line at the point where it would interfere with my “real” work.

Gloria Metrick
GeoMetrick Enterprises
http://www.GeoMetrick.com/

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. August 29, 2011 4:23 pm

    All the points you make are just fine. As with everything in the world, there is nothing that is black and white. This is one of those topics. However, the marketplace will ultimately tell what is true.

    I think the current state you describe is accurate. However, I do think that this is changing and will continue to change at a very good pace where the LI industry will evolve into the mature market that more generalized IT systems have.

    I see this taking about 10 years from now but it will happen as the LI industry expands its scope into areas that have a much larger market share such as healthcare.

    No one is doomed to become extinct due to these changes, they will be slow and evolutionary and adaptation will be relatively painless for even vendors that are strongly opposed to this (arguable) trend.

    Some disruptive technologies/business practices that will help egg this on are Cloud Computing (outsourced, hosted IT infrastructure), SaaS (on-line software subscriptions), Open Source and Open Access. Open Source and Open Access have been around for ages, however Open Access is taking a bite out of companies like Elsevier because of the open access nature of the internet while Open Source apps are the foundation to many Cloud applications and Cloud is taking a bite out of tradtional licensed software models because of the ability to provide them as a SaaS app. If it were not for Open Source the economics for SaaS may not be viable.

    Again, all of this is not a threat to folks like Labware, because the changes will come slowly to this industry and no doubt they will adapt as will the consultants that support it and other proprietary systems.

    It will be interesting to see how Open Access for LI knowledge grows over the coming years.

    You ask the question: “Will I Do it?”

    Speaking for myself and my company…. absolutely.

  2. August 29, 2011 5:19 pm

    I might have failed to make my point under “Will I do It?” which is that my company is very small compared to companies like yours, for example. Thus, my point was that I cannot spend that kind of time on it without affecting my business and the question was more to myself.

    Another point which I realize I failed to make is this: we can all easily get the Oracle, SQLServer or SQL syntax by doing a simple web search. This isn’t the same as sharing methodologies. We can all easily share methodologies and other process-type tips and make it worthwhile. But for a web-site of product tips to be useful, it must be complete. And in the case of all these third-party sites for these database syntaxes and information, they’re mostly really good.

    So, if you’re talking about providing the syntaxes and such for your own product(s) in an open web-site, that’s your choice, but it’s not a third-party site and that’s where I think the real value comes in, where the third-party sites of experts offer something competitive to any other information we can get — this forces everyone to make this information fairly complete.

    And I suppose the other thing in my mind is this: if you were going to start collecting this information acting as a third-party site, but for other products, you would become the kind of site I’m talking about. Are you saying that you’re starting this kind of site for all the products in our industry, such as the LabWare LIMS, StarLIMS, IDBS ELNs, etc…? And, if you are, I’m still skeptical that you can get the volume of information you need on there from the factions of the industry to truly make it a “go to” site for those products.

  3. August 30, 2011 9:59 am

    You ask the question: Are you saying that you’re starting this kind of site for all the products in our industry, such as the LabWare LIMS, StarLIMS, IDBS ELNs, etc…?

    Absolutely. The sites are open to everyone. It is up to them to take advantage of it. Some will, some won’t but LabLynx will completely and that will give LabLynx an advantage that competitors will not compete with unless they publish their information. So it is my bet that they will given time and I do understand that it is your bet that they will not. So time will tell and the marketplace will also.

  4. August 30, 2011 10:14 am

    By the way, it makes no difference whether or not the vendors use the sites I have made (LIMSuniversity & LIMSwiki) as long as they freely publish their information somewhere open.

    As long as one company publishes all information and they gain customers because of it, then more vendors will feel compelled to make the change and share freely. This will snowball. That is the reason I said it would take about 10 years given the starting point with the release of the LIMSuniversity and LIMSwiki that came out earlier this year.

  5. August 30, 2011 10:20 am

    Once again, I know that I’m not expressing myself well. I didn’t mean that LabWare, StarLIMS, or IDBS would put anything in your database. What I mean is that I wonder if your web-site would become a third-party site for their products with third-parties providing the information. This is what I’m asking.

    For example, I have no idea whether Oracle provides their syntaxes to us but there are many 3rd-party sites that have been created that are excellent and complete. Thus, those of us needing the information probably don’t even care whether or not Oracle provides it because we have the information through a wide variety of third-party sites.

    So, the vendors I mentioned probably all have this information on their own discussion groups. They probably don’t care about creating yet another knowledge base because the informatiuon is available, just not to the public. What I’m saying is that, if anyone out there was motivated to create such a thing, the we would be moving toward the type of information availability we have for products in huge markets (Oracle being just one example).

    But I don’t see the issue as providing a place for people to do this. This is the easy part and there are tons of areas to do something like this without having technical knowledge, these days. The issue is that there’s no-one out there taking it as a task to create a public knowledge base in a 3rd-party manner. What I mean is that no-one is driving the data entry part. So, as with many companies who provide these types of knowledge bases, internally, they find that you can’t take a build-it-and-they-will-come mindset and expect to get any real information in it.

    And, to take this a little further, if third parties created something excellent and complete, we could then wonder if vendors such as LabWare, StarLIMS, and IDBS would then also participate and use these third-party sites, themselves.

  6. August 30, 2011 10:30 am

    Now our answers are a little out-of-sync, but to respond to what you said about it not making any difference whether other software vendors participate in your web-sites, I agree but here’s why:
    Since your group is open to anyone, anyone could build a knowledge base for any product on the market. So, theoretically, it’s true that it doesn’t require a particular software vendor to drive that and, in fact, I don’t see why they would. However, what does matter is that there’s no-one out there driving anyone to do from a third-party perspective. I don’t agree that providing the space is going to lead us to do that. It would take people who work with those other brands of software and are motivated and have a reason to use your tool instead of the software vendors’ private tools. We see a plethora of tools that are provided to people where they ignore them.

    But I did mention some examples in my blog post of things that I think would be the types of drivers if anyone did begin this kind of task, so I won’t reiterate them, here.

  7. August 30, 2011 10:41 am

    Here’s a totally different thought on this point, and I’m just throwing it out there as food for thought on this:

    So, back to Oracle, SQLServer and SQL syntax as the model of great third-party information. Once again, consider that these products (and the SQL standard) have been around a relatively long time as well as their unbelievably massive user bases (compared to the user bases with any laboratory informatics product). Additionally, they have remained as fairly top products/standards in their respective industry.

    On the other hand, you’d pointed-out our own industry is actually quite small and, consider that the top products’ user bases aren’t really that big, relatively-speaking, as you also pointed-out. Here’s my additional point: on top of all that, consider that no products really stay on-top in our industry for all that long a time, relatively-speaking. Maybe the current market shares have stayed as they are longer than the previous changes in our industry, but maybe the top market share products in our industry don’t even stay at the very top of their market share long-enough for third-parties to create anything for them as we’ve seen with the database products. I think that could be the most significant factor in this.

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