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'Appifying' the Laboratory

In recent years, research labs have been a notable beneficiary as a variety of highly functional and specialized apps have gained the acceptance and even gratitude of a broad spectrum of laboratory managers, research scientists and bench technologists.

by Bernard B. Tulsi
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Specialized Apps for Research Are Becoming More Evident, Entrenched, & Indispensible

For many techies, the launch of Apple’s App Store was like shooting off a starter’s pistol for today’s unrelenting apps race. No stranger to marketing hyperbole, Apple’s late CEO Steve Jobs immediately dubbed the App Store “…a grand slam, with a staggering 10 million applications downloaded in just three days.”

Upon announcing the 2008 launch in Cupertino, CA, Jobs had famously noted, “Developers have created some extraordinary applications, and the App Store can wirelessly deliver them to every iPhone and iPod touch user instantly.” At its opening, just over 800 native applications were available from the App Store.

As on many other occasions, what once seemed like Jobs hype turned out to be right on the money. Just two years later, the International Data Corporation (IDC), a provider of market intelligence and business advice to the IT, telecommunications and consumer technology markets that is based in Framingham, MA, estimated a total of about 10.9 billion mobile app downloads in 2010, from all suppliers. A Long Island, NY-based market intelligence firm, ABI Research, which acknowledged the App Store as a veritable starting point, has also noted that the app world now has a much broader field of developers and stakeholders. Consultants and market researchers working at M&M in Dallas, TX, estimate that by 2015, the App Store will account for 20.5 percent of overall app revenues.

IDC projects about 76.9 billion downloads in 2014, as apps are created for a more pervasive range of personal and business activities. Scott Ellison, IDC’s VP for mobile and connected consumer platforms, noted that the availability of mobile apps will be one of the “hallmarks of the new decade” and that “mobile app developers will ‘appify’ just about every interaction you can think of in your physical and digital worlds.”

Still, not much agreement exists on the size of the apps market. M&M, in its World Mobile Applications Market Report, 2010-2015, projected in January 2011 that the mobile apps market will quadruple over the next four years, from $6.8 billion to $25 billion. Meanwhile, the research firm Gartner, Inc., forecast revenues for global apps sales at $29.5 billion by 2013, increasing from $7 billion in 2010. And, in December 2010, IDC projected that by 2014 the revenues generated by apps sales globally will hit $35 billion.

A notable contributor to these billion-dollar disparities is believed to be the lack of uniformity in how apps are described and defined, and what categories of apps are included in different revenue estimates. The editors at mobiThinking—an expert mobile Web marketing site— describe apps as compact software with built-in capabilities for specific functions. Two types of apps are widely recognized: Native apps are those that are preinstalled on devices and include address books, calendars, games and Internet browsers that are downloadable from different sites; they are often designed to be compatible with specific device functionalities. Web apps, on the other hand, are housed on servers and are accessible via the Internet. Each time a Web app is used, portions of it are processed by the downloading device so, in general, the same app can be used by a variety of different devices.

Differences in total revenue estimates notwithstanding, apps are clearly on a growth trajectory. This trend is likely to escalate as the shift from desktop to mobile computing intensifies. M&M estimates the compound annual growth rate for apps from 2009 through 2014 to be 29.6 percent. Such growth is the product of several technological (e.g., enhanced networking and 4G systems) and business factors, revamped revenue-sharing practices, and decreasing fees for data usage plans and new advertising business prospects, as well as changing social and cultural trends, especially around the use of smart phones.

To be sure, despite impressive growth, apps are not exactly problem-free. Some experts believe that the proliferation of mobile devices, on which most apps run, may have opened the door a little bit wider for perpetrators of data theft who operate by unleashing spyware and an assortment of phishing tricks. The lack of specific business-oriented apps has also been a constant lament, and there is still a propensity in some segments of management to equate iPads and iPhones, regardless of the apps being run on them, with downtime, entertainment and leisure.

In recent years, research labs have been a notable beneficiary as a variety of highly functional and specialized apps have gained the acceptance and even gratitude of a broad spectrum of laboratory managers, research scientists and bench technologists. True to form, one of the most progressive segments of the research laboratory industry—instrumentation manufacturers and vendors—is at the forefront of the move to phase mobile apps into routine operations.

Case in point is the Shimadzu UV iPhone app, which is available for download from the Apple iTunes Store. Shimadzu Scientific Instruments, (Columbia, MD), offers the app free of charge to UV-Vis spectroscopists, who can use it to access information rapidly and reliably from anywhere. The app facilitates the monitoring of chemical and physical properties of solvents, including the lower limit of usable wavelengths, and boiling and melting points, at any time. The app allows technicians to choose from a variety of solvents by simply scrolling through a list. According to Shimadzu’s literature, this is a convenient way to reference measurements and conversions in laboratory applications, including “distance, mass, pressure, temperature, angles and more.”

Meanwhile, Shimadzu News, a corporate magazine from Shimadzu Europa, is now available as an Apple app for the iPhone and iPod. Both the current and archived issues of the publication are available. The app features a search function and provides access to articles on products as well as market overviews. It also allows users to order the general product catalog, provides information on related articles and is a venue to register for the Shimadzu eNewsletter.

Researchers can download the free Thermo Fisher Scientific Nalgene bottles and carboys app from the Apple iTunes Store as well as from the Google Play Store (formerly Android Market). The instrumentation maker and seller has developed the app to facilitate the selection of the most appropriate Nalgene bottles, carboys and vials for different food and pharmaceutical laboratory needs. Users input a number from the Nalgene catalog or appropriate search terms and the app selects and recommends the most suitable container from among some 700 possibilities in the inventory. To make the selection, the app sifts through a range of characteristics including chemical resistance, autoclave and temperature tolerability, inertness, and a vast array of parameters and certifications applicable to the lab procedure under consideration. The app also facilitates additional refinements in the final bottle selection by allowing users to change their search criteria and review their drawings and dimensions to evaluate quality before ordering. In addition, it allows users to save their results for further assessments; results can also be emailed to the primary user and other parties.

The world’s first dynamic power meter and spectrum analyzer accessory for the iPad, iPod touch and iPhone—the WiPry-Combo—was introduced by the Saelig Company in December 2011. The WiPry-Combo is based on technology developed by iOS-based test equipment developer Oscium (Taiwan). According to literature from the New York-based Saelig, “WiPry- Combo turns an iOS device into an ultraportable spectrum analyzer and dynamic power meter. WiPry-Combo brings RF power measurements to a graphical interface to show RF waveforms like an oscilloscope; instead of showing voltage, RF amplitude is displayed on an iOS portable device.” The software required to run WiPry- Combo, including a demo package not requiring the actual WiPry device, is available free of charge at Apple’s App Store. “The WiPry-Combo is compatible with all generations of iPod touch, iPhone, and iPad devices running iOS version 3.1.3 or higher,” according to Saelig.

The current arsenal of drug discovery apps received a key addition in the middle of last year when Optibrium, a drug discovery software developer, launched a new version of StarVue, a free desktop-based app that lets scientists examine the structures of compounds and related data quickly and conveniently. “StarVue 1.1 is newly compatible with the recently released StarDrop 5, a software platform that intuitively guides the design and selection of high-quality compounds in drug discovery. This compatibility improves the ease with which compound data generated with StarDrop and other sources can be shared, without the need for expensive spreadsheet plug-ins,” according to the Optibrium announcement at the launch of StarVue. Free StarVue support may be accessed through Optibrium’s online community at This community forum also “gives users the opportunity to discuss best- practice methods and approaches in the drug optimization field,” according to the company.

Meanwhile, in May 2011, EMD Millipore, the Life Science Division of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, launched a free first-of-itskind interactive histone modification mobile app. Users of the app can explore an extensive collection of core histone modifications and access information relating to their “biological significance and epigenetic implications with links to published references,” according to EMD Millipore. It incorporates more than 500 references that describe all known core histone modifications and potential modifications, which are expected to have some degree of biological relevance. The app also enables users to “browse available antibodies and enzymes for histone modification and epigenetic research,” according to EMD Millipore literature. Geoffrey Schwartz, director of Strategic Marketing Communications at EMD Millipore, says, “The net result is a compelling mobile application that provides relevant scientific and product information through a simple and intuitive interface built using a sound architecture and best practices.” More information on the interactive histone modification mobile application, including how to download it to an iPad, is available at

And in January of this year, scientific software company BioData Ltd., founded by Digital Science, an arm of Macmillan Publishers, launched Labguru, a tool to help manage research in academic labs. Labguru features affordable Web applications that are customizable to help researchers plan their experiments, track progress, share results and comments, manage their inventories, and organize documentation, lab protocols and data. Jonathan Gross, founder and co-CEO of BioData, says, “Labguru helps researchers, principal investigators and lab managers see the big picture of their research without losing sight of the details vital to scientific discovery.”

Among its features, Labguru boasts an intuitive Web-based interface and email alert service. It helps to facilitate and improve how experiments are planned and how research projects are tracked, both in terms of current status and long-term goals. The app helps researchers annotate their findings, figures, protocols and papers. Furthermore, it helps to establish context by associating research papers with protocols, notes and data to facilitate the preparation of manuscripts and theses. Some of its practical features include the ability to locate reagents and samples in the lab facility, mitigate inventory shortages, and prevent order duplication and missed expiration dates as well as schedule the use of shared equipment. One of its key features is the ability to retain knowledge as key lab staff switch from projects or leave altogether. It is free for individual use, and for a nominal fee users may obtain “additional sophisticated collaboration, order management and equipment scheduling features.”

The foregoing is just a miniscule sampling of some of the recently launched apps for the research laboratory setting. With the current proliferation of mobile tools and their growing applicability in the scientific work space, it seems inevitable that the use of versatile compact software apps will continue to grow as their value becomes more evident and entrenched, indeed more indispensible, in the modern research laboratory setting.