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Despite Competition, Microsoft Sees Desktop Presence as Path to Bioinformatics Success

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In line with its recent strategy to make its name as well known in enterprise computing as it is in the desktop market, Microsoft said it is targeting the bioinformatics and drug discovery end of the life science computing market for its .NET framework and other enterprise-wide solutions.

“We are very, very serious about the pharmaceutical industry,” Steve Chin, Microsoft’s industry manager for life sciences, told BioInform. “So, the bioinformatics side of things, the drug discovery side of things within the vertical market, naturally would be our interest.”

Undaunted by stiff competition from Oracle, Sun, and IBM, Chin said the company is relying on its current penetration of the desktop market as a means of gaining a foothold into the enterprise space. “Scientists and knowledge workers in the bioinformatics area, whether they know it conscientiously or not, have already been on our platform for a long time,” said Chin.

Chin was sanguine about Microsoft’s potential for success in this market despite the fact that the company has yet to announce a pharmaceutical or biotech customer for its enterprise solutions. “Our penetration right now remains pretty light,” he said, “but not because we’re falling behind. The enterprise space is an area that we’ve just begun focusing on. It’s very challenging, yet we’re very excited because we feel it’s a natural extension of what we already have in the industry.”

The .NET framework has a number of features that the pharmaceutical industry would find valuable, Chin said, the first being the ability to access, create, and manage information on any device. He said this would address the industry’s need to get information from the public domain, the Patent Office, legacy systems, and other numerous sources.

Chin said that .NET would also “enable a continuum, a holistic unified view across the whole pharmaceutical pipeline.”

Microsoft has already made some headway in its efforts to establish itself as a player in high-performance computing. David Lifka, associate director of the Cornell Theory Center, said he replaced the center’s IBM RS/6000-based parallel processor running Unix with a cluster of PCs running Windows NT and Windows 2000 and has been able to “outrun everything with this system.” He said he chose the Windows platform because he wanted to build on a platform that would be familiar to users, but was pleasantly surprised when the system performed as well as it did.

Microsoft sees the Windows family in combination with .NET and the SQL Server family as a full package that will ensure its role in enterprise computing.

While it’s surely too soon to tell what kind of success Microsoft will find in this area, early adopters of the platform have been positive. In a case study published in April, the Phoenix contract research organization said it was able to shave weeks off the clinical trials process using a .NET-based clinical trial management system built by DataLabs.

Scott Thompson, vice president of DataLabs, said he considered other platforms when developing the system, including Sun and Oracle, but chose Microsoft because “there were a lot of great tools handed to me right out of the box.”

Thompson said that Microsoft provides a degree of development support that Oracle doesn’t offer — a feature that, combined with the platform’s existing integration with Windows and Office, should be of particular interest to small biotech firms with limited IT resources, he said.

Noting that Oracle and SQL Server are both “robust databases,” Thompson said that Microsoft’s price/performance curve could give it an edge over Oracle. According to Microsoft, a 32-processor CPU running SQL Server Enterprise Edition would cost around $640,000 compared to $720,000 for IBM’s DB2 Enterprise Extended Edition and over $3 million for Oracle’s Enterprise Edition.

But Microsoft is entering a market that is getting increasingly crowded and the established players are likely to put up a tougher fight than the software leader is accustomed to. Unfazed by the level of competition, Chin said that Microsoft’s technology is “superior on all fronts — cost effectiveness, agility, scalability, reliability,” and that its near-monopoly of the desktop market should give it a running start.

“We will leverage on our presence in the scientists’ instruments, in the desktop, and we will get into that market because as a corporate strategy we are aggressively moving toward the enterprise space,” said Chin.

— BT

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