For two years now, ZappyLab has been building mobile tools for laboratory researchers. For two years we have heard the concern that scientists won’t adopt mobile technology for their experimental work. The skeptics’ reasons generally fall into one of the following bins:
- contamination of the device
- apps that have been built for scientists did not catch on
- inconvenient to use with gloves.
I will address each of the concerns in detail below, but first I will ask you to imagine yourself in the middle of Manhattan’s Central Park around 1907. You are having a pleasant picnic with a friend who says, “Cars have no future. Just look around – do you see any cars? Nope! Only horses. Why is that? Well, because cars have no grace, no soul, no style. They are heaps of metal with deafening noise. And they cost a fortune compared to a horse. Ford is an idiot.” This is the same friend who would warn today that mobile has no chance of entering the lab.
Contamination concern: Researchers don’t want the phone to contaminate their experiments and are afraid of brining hazardous chemicals back home on their device.
We released our first iOS app, the Lab Counter, in the summer of 2012. Since then, we have launched many more on Android and iOS. Each of our apps has Google Analytics inside, so we have tons of anonymized data on downloads and usage of our tools. It is clear from our stats that researchers all over the world are not only downloading our tools, but they are using them with extraordinary engagement. In academic centers, pharmaceuticals, and biotechs, thousands of researchers are using our apps and using them on regular basis.
Undoubtedly many will not want to risk a chemical spill on their phone and will not put it on their bench. But who said that our Bench Tools suite has to be installed and used on a personal device? Consider the above-mentioned Lab Counter; it replaces a metal counter that laboratories typically purchase for as much as $1,000. It is possible to buy several iPad minis for this cost and we already know of several laboratories that have saved hundreds of dollars by using our free Lab Counter app. And the counter is just one of the many utilities inside our suite.
Scientists don’t want or need mobile: The few apps that have been made for scientists have not caught on – clearly scientists just don’t need mobile tools at the bench.
It is true that the vast majority of science apps that have been released over the past years have been total flops. No one downloads them. Zero interest. However, it is wrong to assume that the cause of this is lack of interest from scientists. As I noted above, we have clear evidence that scientists do want and do use our mobile tools at work. So why do most other apps for scientists fail?
One problem is that many of the science apps are just marketing gimmicks. Companies wrongly assumed that if you make an app for scientists, it will instantly get thousands of downloads just because it is mobile. Well, if it is a poorly-built, buggy, useless app that you did not seriously invest into, it will not do you good. It will just collect negative reviews for a few days, and then it will die with no more downloads. If you want it to be used, you have to take the user interface and development of the mobile seriously and invest a huge effort into making a candy of an app.
The second and main reason for lack of popularity, even for good science apps – there is no market yet. It seems that two years after launch, ZappyLab is still one of only two companies that is seriously building mobile tools for scientists (mobile is at the core of our development and we are on iOS and Android). Contrary to what many think, the lack of competition actually makes our job harder. It means that scientists just don’t know that mobile tools exist for them. So when a biologist comes to iTunes, she is looking for games and music, like everyone else, and not for research tools.
If you want revenue, a mobile app for scientists will give you none. And if you want to do marketing, a mobile app is a waste of money for you. The app will not promote your company; in reverse, if you want downloads, you will have to work very hard to promote and market the app.
Inconvenient to use with gloves
I have been at the bench for ten years, and much of the work is done without gloves. I am not pouring ethidium bromide while counting cells or pipetting water into cuvettes. I don’t wear gloves when I am on the microscope. And if I am handling chemicals and need to write in my notebook, I take the gloves off. Moreover, there are cheap stylus pens that can be used to tap on the tablet or phone, while wearing gloves.
The above points are a technical argument about overcoming the inconvenience of gloves and phones. The true reason why scientists will use mobile in the lab is that the phones and tablets of today and the way we currently use them – this is already the past. You shouldn’t have to touch your phone. Think of leap motion. And why should it even be a phone? We have already ported Molarity and the Timer from Bench Tools onto Google Glass. We are actively working on adding the Protocol checklist to the GoogleGlass version of Bench Tools.
Voice activation, motion control, head-up-devices like Glass, watches, and the technology that we don’t even know about today because it will be announced tomorrow – that is what scientists will be using in the near future. But if you don’t go mobile and realize what the near future is – you are betting on the horse instead of the car.