Signals Blog

9 Reasons Why the Killer Tablet App for Laboratory Informatics is the Browser

All scientists, regardless of discipline or level of experience, have used a laboratory notebook before. A question many of them ask when using a tablet device for the first time is "Why can't this be my lab notebook?" (OK, this thought may only come after playing several hours worth of Angry Birds, doing email, and watching Netflix first, but eventually, the thought does occur.) The answer is simple: "nobody has written the software - yet."

There are two conceptually distinct approaches to developing software on tablet devices: (1) Native Apps; and (2) HTML Apps. Native Apps get all of the press coverage, but HTML Apps can deliver much greater value to an organization as a whole. Below are some of the reasons.

1. Scientists Hate Learning New Software

Let me repeat that in case you missed it. Scientists hate learning new software. They really, really do.

Most scientists don't consider using software to be a major part of their job descriptions - it's a means to an end. That end is making discoveries, which is the source of bonuses, promotions, paychecks, and speaking opportunities. Learning new software, regardless of the format it's delivered in, takes time away from the pursuit of that goal.

Imagine the delight of your customers when you tell them that your laboratory informatics software works the same way regardless of whether it's running on a desktop or a tablet.

2. Scientists Know How a Browser Works

Given that scientists hate learning new software, it should come as no surprise that they're looking for any means possible to leverage their existing software skills. One of the best ways to do this is ensure your product runs on the one software platform literally every computer user already knows how to use - the web browser.

3. Wireless Access is Ubiquitous in the Lab

Unlike many use cases for tablet devices, laboratory informatics applications can safely assume that a wireless connection exists.

4. HTML5 Supports Offline Access

In those relatively rare cases in which the wireless network is down, browser-based laboratory informatics products can ensure work can continue by taking advantage of the offline access capabilities all tablet-based browsers now support.

5. HTML5 Can Deliver App-Like User Experiences

Many of the interactive, visually demanding things that scientists want to be able to do with their data inside a browser can't be done - yet. But this problem has nothing to do with any technical limitations of HTML. It has to do with lack of ergonomic, well-crafted components.

Our mission at Metamolecular is to make the Web browser a much better platform for science by giving our customers access to high-performance visualization components that work with the grain of the browser. Our chemical structure editor, ChemWriter, is a case in point. Written in 100% JavaScript, it runs on all browsers from IE6 to iPad - and needs no plugins.

We're building a rich set of visualization components like ChemWriter for other kinds of scientific data. One for spectroscopy/chromatography is almost at alpha stage and a number of others are in the design stage. Contact us if you have a custom data type in need of a browser-based viewer.

6. Don't Get Caught in the Tablet Hardware Wars Crossfire

Remember when iPad was the only game in town? Those days are long gone. Look to stiff competition from an armada of tablets based on Google's Android operating system in the next year. But that's not all, Microsoft - the lumbering colossus among the tablet group has its eyes on the prize, and a history of getting what it wants.

Your customers are already buying hardware from may of the new tablet vendors. How many of your customers currently buy hardware from Apple?

7. Native App Development Comes at a Premium

Assuming you're convinced which tablet platform most of your customers will be adopting for the next five years, the relative scarcity of experienced Native App developers will drive up costs to develop and bring your laboratory informatics products to market. Worse, this style of multi-platform development - one for the desktop and one for the tablet, will mean splitting the resources of your software development team. It can work, but your customers may not be prepared to support the added expense.

8. URLs Are (or Should Be) a Scientific Organization's Lifeblood

This one is more debatable in some areas of science because they have yet to catch up technologically with developments over the last ten years.

A scientific organization gains the most reuse from its data if every piece of that data has a URL. We've seen the amazing things this perspective has done for the open Web. The same principles can apply within a scientific organization.

The Web browser was designed from the beginning to use URLs and every user of a Web browser knows how they work. How do you use URLs from inside a dedicated tablet app? It depends - but the answer is more likely than not: "not at all". How will your customers react when you tell them your new tablet app for the lab creates yet another data silo?

9. You Don't Need an App Store for That

The App store is a concept that may work in the consumer market, but it remains to be seen how well it will work in the business and scientific market, in which much tighter control is exerted by dedicated IT departments. HTML Apps sidestep the issue altogether by offering software that's always available, regardless of what IT policies your customers might set.

The Case for Native Apps

Native Apps in the laboratory make the most sense when: no data need to be shared (solo apps); the learning curve is shallow (standalone calculators, tables, and the like); or access to certain hardware is essential (e.g., the camera).

Committing to any technology platform for a tablet product, whether it be Native App or HTML App, involves tradeoffs with far-reaching consequences. A careful consideration of the alternatives is well worth the effort.

Credit: Thanks to OnSwipe for inspiring for this post.