When Will “Disruptive Software” Hit Laboratory Informatics?


Last night, I attended a meeting of the Cleveland IEEE. There were four 15-minute talks. One of the presentations had to do with the proliferation of the free tools that are available for use. This leads me to discuss “disruptive technology” and whether I think we’ll be “disrupted” by free tools anytime, soon.

Interesting Tools
In this particular 15-minute block, the presenter showed quite a lot of interesting free tools, most having to do with testing embedded software and designing hardware, but a few that particularly interested me. One
particular free tool called ZunZun (http://zunzun.com//) does curve-fitting and surface-fitting. You just put your data in and it gives you the best matches of the curves. It could be hundreds of them, too. Thus, my early post-college self has been made obsolete. In my early job writing scientific applications, I would take potential equations and write programs to put the data into them to find out whether they were a good match for the research data (i.e., did the scientist have what they thought they had?). I would go into the “library” such as the IMSL (International Math Standards Library) to find various methods to do this, then write programs around it and read the data in. By the way, I mentioned the IMSL, last night, and got a lot of head nods from people that remembered doing just this same thing. Sometimes, it’s fun to play “remember when” a little bit.

With this program, the scientist wouldn’t have needed me and probably could have merely used this tool, directly. Thus, I suppose it’s a good thing I’m off doing other things, although I’ll admit I always did enjoy finding out what user needs were and writing the code to satisfy them. In a one-off situation, it’s a lot of fun. I never had the opportunity to do it in a commercial situation but do regret that I never got an opportunity to try it.

How it Relates to Laboratory Informatics
Another conversation I had, last night, is the way that disruptive technologies change what we’re doing. The conversation from this blog from last week, where we were talking about how all the private proprietary information might one day become public came into the conversation I had, last night.

To give an example from last week’s discussion, let’s compare something like Oracle and SQLServer database syntax information to something like the LabWare LIMS information. If you go into Google, you’ll not only find plenty of information on syntax and system information for Oracle and SQLServer, but it will be pretty complete. On the other hand, many of the tools of our laboratory informatics industry, such as the LabWare LIMS, you won’t find LIMSBasic commands out in Google or other system information. Many tools in our industry have proprietary information held behind some firewall. Those companies and people who “belong” to the organization in some manner will have access, others won’t. Those who don’t won’t be helped by a Google search.

One suggestion was that companies that now closely hold their information so that it’s only available to a closed group of people could provide their information to the public and probably will eventually do so.

Based on my own opinion on this and based on last night’s conversation at IEEE, I doubt this will happen.  Here’s why: as I’ve said before, there’s no motivation to companies that closely hold their information to publicly provide it. There’s no good reason for them to do it. However, if the day comes when a “disruptive technology” comes along, if that “disruptive technology” does happen to also be one that either provides its information publicly OR becomes so very popular that the outside world does it for them, that’s the day when we’ll have set the bar to the point where all systems that want to succeed will have to do this – to provide everything publicly.

We’re Not There
Here’s how we know that we’re not there – a “disruptive technology” would have done just that – it would have “disrupted” us. We’d have changed. Thus, considering proprietary software, once again using the  LabWare software as an easy example, if we’d been disrupted with a new technology, we wouldn’t still be using the same software such as these. We could call the ELNs (Electronic Lab Notebook) the “disruptive software” but for the fact that they’ve not “disrupted” anything as much as merely offering yet one more option to the ever-growing and confusing pool of software that is starting to all look much like one another.

We Might Not Get There
Even if a disruptive technology comes along and disrupts us to jump to the next software product, it still doesn’t mean we’ll be disrupted into the freeware/shareware/open source community. Our community is so very small compared to other communities that we might not get mainstreamed in a manner that would jump is into this.

In the laboratory informatics community, I could name a number of ways in which we’ve remained out of the mainstream. From software development, to the way we manage our software implementation projects (COTS – Commercial Off The Shelf, or otherwise) to testing an validation, to any other number of factors, and we tend to lag behind what one might term as the “mainstream.” Thus, I don’t believe any particular disruption will happen in any particular timeframe.

Occasionally, someone will ask me if I think LabWare can disrupt itself to become the disruptive technology. My opinion is that it won’t. Theoretically, it could happen. So, yes, I think it’s possible but, no, I don’t think it’s going to happen. Here’s why: the disrupters are almost never the entrenched software. Thus, when we look at the huge systems of our industry, they are so huge and so bogged-down by the software they’ve written, it would be difficult for them to do something with that to become the “disruptor” and, keep in mind, they didn’t have that bogging them down when they did the disrupting, themselves.

With that said, these types of systems hold our industry for fairly long periods of time, keeping the disruptors at bay. Consider how long LabWare has held the top spot or, for that matter, in the ERP world, SAP has remained on top for even longer, probably. With the softwae world changing rapidly around us, these systems have kept their lead, holding off all other disruptions for the time being. We can only watch to see what will happen.

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


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