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High-Performance Computing Apple of Researchers Eye, But Is Market Still There For Mac?

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Biologists have always been reluctant to part with their Macs — a key factor that Apple Computer is counting on as it eyes bioinformatics as a critical market for its new dual 1-GHz Power Mac G4 processor and year-old Unix-based Mac OS X operating system.

“We realized that a lot of our core customers in higher education and the sciences are very fond of Unix and made the conscious decision to really expose that technology as part of our system, but not require it,” says Ernest Prabhakar, Apple’s product manager for platform development.

Now, as the operating system just passed its first birthday, Apple is making some noise in the Unix-dependent bioinformatics world. Characteristically, Mac fans haven’t been shy about spreading the word: The “Science and Technology” section of Apple’s website fairly oozes with testimonials from bioinformatics developers sweet on the new Unix core at the heart of their preferred computer.

But while industry observers seem to be rooting for Apple’s success, many are skeptical that the company will be able to secure much market share beyond the academic sector.

“The biggest problem that I see is that most of the pharmaceutical companies abandoned Macs as the desktop platform a few years ago,” says Yury Rozenman, director of life sciences business development at Platform Computing. Platform has made its LSF load management software available for Mac clusters, but Rozenman says demand for such installations remains fairly weak.

Part of the problem is poor timing — OS X may simply have arrived too late for industrial settings. Macs remained on the desktops of biologists far longer than other scientific disciplines largely because vendors such as Applied Biosystems and MDS Sciex only began to shift their data acquisition platforms from Mac to Windows 2000 and NT during the last two years. But pharmaceutical firms and biotech companies with large chemistry groups began migrating to PCs years ago, leaving Apple slim chances of regaining its lost customer base in the commercial environment.

Additionally, software vendor buy-in remains a bit of a catch-22: Users won’t move back to Macs until they can run PC-based applications on OS X, but vendors will be reluctant to devote resources to developing OS X versions of their software until they’re convinced they have a solid user base.

Apple’s Prabhakar admitted the challenges for vendors are substantial. “With open source software, people port it, they post it, they use it. Commercial companies obviously need time to figure out their business base, devote dedicated engineers, go through a qualification cycle, and train the support people.”

Flush with optimism about Apple’s chances for success, Prabhakar quips, “We like to say the life sciences have always had Mac in their genes. Now they can have genes in their Mac.”

— Bernadette Toner

 

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