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Macs discover new life in sciences

Although the Apple Mac platform was long ago counted out by a lot of corporate IT managers, it has morphed and continues to find adherents -- the graphic arts in particular have persisted as a major stronghold. And the Mac platform may even be thriving again in the science sector where it once held some dominance on the desktop.

At last week's Bio-IT World Conference + Expo in Boston, Apple representatives touted recent success in life science labs. Bud Tribble, Apple's vice president of software technology, said an independent survey indicates that approximately 30% of life scientists now use the Mac. He said this share should grow now that Apple has launched its Unix-compatible Mac OS X. New servers, new clustering capabilities and open-source technical software offerings will help further, Tribble said.

He also pointed to open-source infrastructure software, including Tomcat, Apache and JBoss, as newly available tools for the Mac community. "We're now Unix-based, which means we can leverage open source," Tribble said. This is most acute in the life science arena, he said, because most of the tools in genomics were created during "the open-source era."

Tribble's credentials in computing are imposing. As manager of the original Macintosh software team, he played a major role in designing and building the original Mac OS and user interface. Later, he served as CTO of the Sun-Netscape Alliance, as well as vice president of engineering at Linux desktop start-up Easel. He was a founder of NeXT Computer, where he was vice president of software engineering and a key architect of the NextStep operating system. Tribble returned to Apple in 2002.

In explaining Apple's hold in the sciences, Tribble and others point to a similarity between science and the arts. The same vector libraries that make the Mac the choice for animators working on "Lord of the Rings" make the Mac the choice for proteomic investigators, he suggested.

"Science is 'the other' creative profession," said Mac user Scott Sneddon, senior fellow at Genzyme Corp.'s Drug Discovery Group in Cambridge, Mass. "Artists are not using their computers to fill out expense reports. They are using them to express creativity. That's what lab scientists do, too."

Sneddon describes his own work in drug discovery for Genzyme as occurring at "the interface between biology and chemistry."

Speaking at an Apple press event at Bio-IT World, Sneddon pointed out that science is both quantitative and visual. Thus it is apt for the Mac platform. "Discoveries are made by first looking at things," he noted. Visual pictures later become quantitative data, he added. "You generate numbers, but what you're thinking of is also a visual quality [of the object under experimental analysis]."

Using Perl, MySQL and other open-source software, Sneddon built a system to log chemical and biological data into Genzyme's Discovery Database. This system began its life on an SGI Irix machine, moved to Linux and now runs on Mac OS X Server v. 10.2.

"Bringing data together is a lot easier on a Mac," said Sneddon.

After listening to Sneddon, it appears that bio-informatics may be a worthwhile arena for hardware vendors like Apple, but not so great a place for makers of commercial informatics software. "Shrink-wrapped informatics is for amateurs," said Sneddon, who trumpets open source as meeting his needs for software development.

Apple has launched a new Web site to promote its story in the sciences. You can read more about Scott Sneddon's work at Genzyme at http://www.apple.com/pro/science/sneddon/.

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