Apps are overtaking web sites: Will that happen in scientific research as well?

Posted by Rory on June 28th, 2011 @ 3:50 pm

Apps are overtaking websites

A Gilmor Gang video last week contains a fascinating discussion around the theme that apps are replacing websites as ‘the default architecture of the planet’.

If that’s true, in future the window to your research could look like



rather than



Before looking at what the implications of this change  for research could be, here are a few of the key points (assertions in some cases) I noted from the video:

  1. Ease of acquisition.  It’s easier to purchase an app from the appstore than something from most websites (except on Amazon), because Apple already has your credit card information.
  2. Virality.  It’s easier to build viral loops into apps than into websites and so popular apps get adopted more quickly.
  3. Ease of access. Many people never felt comfortable using the browser and an address bar to access websites. Accessing an app is more natural and appealing — you just click on it.
  4. Mobility.  The iPad is replacing laptops for people who are travelling or moving around, and use of native apps is higher than use of webapps on the iPad (and the iPhone).

The Gilmor Gang’s speculations are back up by facts: it was also reported last week that people in the US are spending more time using apps on smartphones than browsing the internet on a desktop computer or mobile. Drilling down, it’s also interesting to note what apps people are actually spending time on:  47 % of time is spent on games apps, 32 % using social media apps,  9% using news apps, and 7% using entertainment apps.

Apps for scientific research:  the current state of play favors ‘consumption’ of information rather than ‘production’ of information

That’s a total of 95% of time spent using apps on things which, it is safe to assume, are for the most part not research-related (although a small part of the time spent on social media apps and news apps could be related to research).  If you took a look a the percentage of research time scientists spend on apps as opposed to browsing the web, it would certainly be far lower than 95%, and doubtless a small fraction of the overall amount of time they spend on smartphones and browsing the internet.  In large measure this is due to the fact there there are (relatively speaking) so few apps aimed at scientific research.   There are a few for biology and for chemistry, for example, but they are only able to help with a tiny fraction of the activities biologists and chemists engage in in connection with their research.

In contrast to the paucity of research-related apps for science, there has been a veritable explosion of  apps for use in science ‘teaching’ and ‘education’, some of which are covered in a recent article.  What accounts for the difference?   One probable factor is that most of the teaching/education apps primarily provide content that is intended to be consumed by the users, or at most requires a little simple input from them, whereas most of the research apps require the user to ‘use’ the app in some way by inputting new information or manipulating information or features of the app.  With the current state of mobile technology, it is easy to get information onto a mobile platform like a smartphone or a tablet, but it is still relatively difficult to input information.  So ‘active’ research requiring ‘production’ of information is still much easier to carry out on a computer using websites and web apps.

The future: will research go the way of general usage?

In the near future — within the next 12 months — inputting information onto tablets is going to become much easier, because of improvements in (a) typing interfaces, (b) writing using a stylus, and (c) input via touch.  This will remove the most apparent barrier to using tablets for research in science.   As that happens, the compelling advantages of apps noted by the Gilmor Gang:  ease of acquisition, virality, ease of access and mobility — are likely to come to the fore with developers of tools for scientific research, resulting in an upsurge in apps produced for  use in scientific research.

Next week I’ll take a look at the implications of the likely growth in research apps for individual scientists and scientific communities.



How will the iCloud’s ‘it just works’ approach help scientists use their data more effectively?

Posted by Rory on June 15th, 2011 @ 10:44 am

It just works

A couple of months back a great quote flashed across my Twitter feed:

‘Researchers don’t want to manage their data, they want to USE it!’.

That quote has been rolling around in my head ever since.   We’ve adopted it as our mantra at Axiope, because it so nicely sums up what we’ve learned about how scientists think about their data.  When  Steve Jobs kept repeating the phrase, ‘It just works‘, in the recent launch of the iCloud, I was reminded of the quote again, and I thought, wow, that will appeal to scientists.  The purpose of this post is to look in a bit more detail about what it is in iCloud that ‘just works’, and how that could be relevant to scientists working with their data.

Data/stuff is wirelessly pushed between devices

As Jobs said, “iCloud stores your content and wirelessly pushes it to all your devices – phone, iPAD and mac/pc”.  So, if like most scientists you use your mac/pc and your phone in your research, and a small but growing number of scientists you use or are thinking about using an iPAD in your research, content entered on any device automatically appears on the other devices.

Apps are integrated

Apple’s calendar, mail and contacts apps are integrated with the iCloud so again, when something is entered into one of the apps on one device it is there in all devices.  Useful for scientists who already use these apps; will it help persuade others to adopt them?

Documents and file management and sharing

I suspect for that for scientists how documents and files get handled is more important than calendar/contacts/mail integration.   After all documents (which start out as documents and then of course also become files) are the key tool scientists use for recording and analyzing data, so like files they are an absolutely critical element that scientists will evaluate in iCloud. Here’s what one observer had to say about documents in iCloud:

“Documents in the iCloud directly attacks Google Docs with everything but collaborative editing in a richer UI that feels more directly competitive with Office”

But there’s a rub — you can’t share your documents with others.

Files are just as important as documents — here again the iCloud takes a big step forward.  MG Siegler pointed out in this post:

“Apple has been going out of their way to avoid using the word “syncing” with regard to iCloud. That implies that files exist in one place and need to be moved. But again, even that’s too technical for the story Apple is weaving. With iPad/iPhone and now OS X Lion, you don’t save documents anymore. They save automatically — but an easier way to think about it is that they just exist, as is, in realtime on all your devices.”

Dropbox–which Jobs mentioned in a disparaging aside–is already very popular with scientists.   Why?  One of the main reasons is, ‘it just works’.    The iCloud’s ‘automatic saving’ takes this a step further, a step scientists are likely to view as helping them to ‘use their data, not manage it’, and hence embrace.  But here’s the rub, as pointed out by someone who compared the Dropbox and iCloud experiences:

“I’d rather use Dropbox vs iCloud at this time. With Dropbox it gives you total control and the ability to use anywhere and everywhere. When Photostream, via iCloud, sends the pics I took on my iPhone to my iPad, it’s a broadcast stream. I can’t delete or change them for example.

And iCloud feels like a seprate universe from everything else in my life. As far as I can tell, I can’t point my Boxee to iCloud. I can’t send songs from iCloud to things like I don’t think i can share my iCloud data with my friends or family.”

So you will pay a price for files being taken care of automatically, and that price is a limitation on the ability to share files.

The bottom line

So what’s the bottom line?  iCloud will help scientists ‘use, not manage, their data’ by automatically saving files and pushing them between iPhone, mac or pc, and iPAD, and that is a massive reduction in the overhead of data management.  However, those who take advantage of this new option will find that it comes at the cost of making it more difficult to share their data — in its various forms — with others.  In other words, the overhead of dealing with your own ‘stuff’ is reduced, but the overhead of sharing this ‘stuff’ with others is increased.





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