NEW YORK--When bioinformatics was young and biologists were more familiar with gel slides than gel sequencers, the Macintosh point-and-click platform offered an easy entrée to a new world of analysis. Macintosh quickly dominated the world of genetic research and, as technology evolved, it often did so around Mac platforms.
Bioinformatics is no longer young. Mac is no longer the only point-and-click option, and bioinformatics needs are changing. Even Apple admits its emphasis is elsewhere.
"Our main focus is on design and publishing and consumer and education markets," said Russell Brady, Apple spokesman. "There are other markets that we are exploring, but we don't really know what we will be doing with the scientific and tech markets."
Apple is so unsure of its interest in these markets that the company doesn't even have anyone to respond to queries about them. Does that mean the days of Mac-dominated platforms are over? Not necessarily.
"We are constantly getting calls from people wanting the Mac platforms," said Mike Hennessey, vice-president of operations and business analysis life sciences at Gene Codes in Ann Arbor, Mich. "We are getting good support from Apple and seeing a real resurgence of interest in the platform. People are buying iMacs and G3s like crazy."
Gene Codes, maker of the popular desktop application tool Sequencher, offers its software packages on either a PC or Mac platform, and has a UNIX version on the way. Hennessey sees a continuing strong demand for Mac-based software from university and government labs. He doesn't argue with other industry sources, however, who see a shift to PC platform preference among industry research units.
Matthew Huang, product manager for Oakland, Calif.-based Pangea Systems said he lived through a shift to PCs at DuPont and has observed a similar trend at other pharmaceutical companies. Internal politics and corporate information technology managers often drive the change, with little regard for researcher preferences.
"It's really a religious war," noted Susan Strong, vice-president, sales and marketing, at Genomica in Boulder, Colo. She has observed a conversion taking place among major pharmaceutical companies, as well as among software makers such as her company.
Desire for a homogenous computing environment within a company is understandable, Strong pointed out. "IT wants all the same tools on all the desktops, so everyone can be expected to be able to do the same things," she explained. "It also allows IT to administer everybody's tools the same. They can simply pass everybody the same software, whether it is a version of a word-processing program or a sequence analysis tool."
Genomica, maker of Discovery Manager, has offered only PC and Unix-based systems since one of its vendors stopped supporting Mac. "If we had a customer that wanted to work with Mac, we would do our best to support him," said Strong, who could recall only one major pharmaceutical company dedicated solely to Mac platforms.
Pangea offers both PC and Mac systems for the company's commercial products, including GeneMill and GeneWorld. "As long as there are users and customers for Mac platforms, we will continue to support them," said Huang, who noted that more and more bioinformatics customers carry only PC platforms, with fewer and fewer Macs. Even in-house at Pangea, Huang is encountering increased difficulty supporting Mac and, at the same time, getting support from Mac.
"It's a vicious cycle. As Mac users decline, less and less software is available. That means
less and less support."
"It is a vicious cycle," he explained. "As Mac users decline, less and less software is available. That means less and less support. Perhaps with the new G3s and iMacs, Mac will keep a little of the market," he added.
G3s and iMacs are too little, too late for one long-time Mac platform supporter. With a 90 percent share of the DNA sequence analysis marketplace, Perkin-Elmer's Biosystems division has installed about 10,000 mostly single-user instruments using Mac platforms. But those days are over. Its ABI 323 and 373 analyzers were all Mac-based systems, but the Prism 3700 DNA Analyzer, the company's new flagship product, is PC-based.
"Going forward we will no long ship Mac-based systems," said William Efcavitch, director, synthesis and arrays business units for Perkin-Elmer in Foster, Calif. "People say, We want your analytical technology, but not that platform," Efcavitch said. "In an ideal world, there would be both platforms, but I expect we will eventually phase out of the Mac platform," he remarked.
For Perkin-Elmer, the switch did not occur overnight, Efcavitch said. The decision was made about two years ago when management became concerned about the viability of Apple. Fearing the loss of its platform, the company began examining where the market was headed. Efcavitch was then the director of genetic analysis research and development, charged with developing the new ABI 3700.
"Although the Mac platform was favored in the academic research marketplace, we were seeing broader acceptance of PC-based platforms in the mainstream market. We were also seeing more move away from Mac in Europe and Japan," recalled Efcavitch. "We wanted to see our automated genetic analysis instrumentation and usage move out of research and into broader mainstream markets."
Perkin-Elmer recognized that to move into that market it would have to move with the market. That meant offering networks of processors capable of handling the growing bank of genomic data. New Perkin-Elmer units offer higher throughput instrumentation and multiple instruments that can be networked. Hennessey of Gene Codes pointed out that operations that a few years ago were generating one-time coverage of genomics data on two or three machines today have 10 or 12 machines putting out five times the data.
"There is a growing demand for large-scale assemblies conducive to the UNIX environment," reported Hennessey. "A few years ago, we were trying to sequence entire sections of genomes. Now we have the technology to do large-scale genome-wide sequencing," he explained. "It won't supplant or replace the smaller scale. It is just another market," he concluded.
Which platform will best integrate desktop processing with UNIX servers? Certainly PC units are less expensive than Macs. Efcavitch and Perkin-Elmer are putting their money on the PC.
"I think the Apple was designed to be a graphics-applications-intense workstation while PCs were designed for networking," concluded Efcavitch.