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.
Apple has historically positioned itself as a consumer-focused computer company, making its decision to launch OS X a “radical idea,” according to Ernest Prabhakar, Apple’s product manager for platform development. By moving its comfy, user-friendly operating system to industry-standard BSD Unix technology, Apple risked alienating its loyal customer base, Prabhakar said.
“It was still an open question in many people’s minds whether we were going to just use the [Unix] technology, or actually expose it to our end users, and whether or not we actually wanted to play in the space of the Unix community,” Prabhakar told BioInform. After a great deal of discussion, “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.”
But rather than immediately push OS X on hardcore Unix users, Apple waited for the system to take hold in the
mainstream desktop market. “We wanted to convince people that we could make it easy enough for a mere mortal to use,” according to Prabhakar. “It was just a question of figuring out how long it would take us to convince people that this is a great Mac… and now that that’s pretty well established in the public consciousness, we can say, ‘Oh, and by the way, it’s also a great Unix system.’”
Now, as the operating system approaches its first birthday, Apple is making some noise in the Unix-dependent bioinformatics world. The company had a strong presence at the O’Reilly Bioinformatics Conference in January, where it provided the terminals for the conference’s Internet café and introduced the accelerated A/G Blast algorithm it co-developed with Stanford University and Genentech [BioInform 02-04-02]. A subsequent press release on A/G Blast sent mailing lists and web logs abuzz. And, 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.
A common rave is OS X’s ability to simplify the lives of those who prefer the Mac desktop environment but develop on Unix. For example, William Van Etten, an independent bioinformatics consultant who worked on the A/G Blast project, said that he’s been able to reduce his workspace from five computers — an Alpha processor, a Linux box, a Mac desktop, a Windows desktop, and a laptop — to just one Apple machine.
Another boon for Mac proponents is the newfound ability to run Unix from anywhere on a notebook computer. At the other end of the scale, many envision G4-based compute farms as a promising approach to
high-performance computing on a budget.
“Last year was really about getting the consumer applications out there and getting it out to the traditional customer base, but this year we can focus our attention on the Unix users,” said Prabhakar. “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
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,” said 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 said that demand for such installations remains fairly weak.
“I think [Apple has] made some really great strides, but it’s going to be a huge uphill battle. They may get some business in university environments, but it’s going to be small and marginal,” said Rozenman.
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 over the last two years. But pharmaceutical firms and biotech companies with large chemistry groups began migrating to PCs years ago, leaving Apple’s chances of regaining its lost customer base in the commercial environment pretty slim.
Support from Application Vendors Remains Sluggish
Additionally, software vendor buy-in remains a bit of a catch-22 for Apple right now: 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 substantial user base.
While developers who have moved free and open source Unix-based bioinformatics packages to OS X have touted the ease and speed of portability, the story is different for commercial companies selling PC-based software.
The news of the OS X launch “rocked our world just a bit,” said a director of operations for sales and marketing at a leading bioinformatics sofware vendor who requested that his name and company affiliation remain anonymous. “It was a huge change and we weren’t really sure what the adoptability was going to be.” Combined with the untimely discontinuation of its previous porting tool, the bioinformatics vendor found itself in a bit of a quandary as OS X arrived on the scene. “At no point did we doubt the tenacity of Mac users to stick with Mac, but we had no idea what to do,” admitted the source, who estimated that 25 percent to 30 percent of its customers are on Macs.
The company is in the vendor-selection process for a new porting tool and is “committed to doing a port to support our Mac users,” but the timeline remains unclear, according to BioInform’s source.
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.”
But despite these hurdles, Prabhakar remains confident that Apple’s loyal following will drive the adoption process. “I think people are realizing that the Macs are really starting to dominate a lot of the debate in the bioinformatics world…We’ve been talking to a lot of these vendors before, but the pressure on them to do the ports in a timely manner is increasing.”
Flush with optimism about Apple’s chances for success, Prabakar quipped, “We like to say the life sciences have always had Mac in their genes. Now they can have genes in their Mac.”