Sniping on the new (was: what software do biologists need?)

Steve Clark CLARK at SALK-SC2.SDSC.EDU
Tue Mar 23 16:44:28 EST 1993


Randy Zauhar writes:

/  I agree with Leonard Bloksberg regarding "sniping" on the net - I for
/one agree that there is a great need for discussions of the kinds of
/software that need to be readily available, and I have little patience
/for "flaming" people on the net (usually preceded by "I don't mean to
/flame anybody, BUT...."). 
   [stuff deleted]

Well, I don't mean to flame anybody, BUT, while discussions of software 
(current and future) are valuable, there is also some point to discussing 
the practicality and difficulty of creating new software. For example, to 
quote L. Bloksberg who was refered to above:

   [stuff deleted]
/I can repost my previous requests for a plasmid drawing program
/for IBM, and an inexpensive program to enter DNA sequence from autorads, into
/GCG, from an inexpensive digitiser (video or scanner).  Software that currently
/exists is often too big, expensive, and difficult to work with.  
   [stuff deleted]

A major problem that a lot of biologists have is that they don't want to 
pay a lot of money for software. I can understand that - the way the 
granting agencies are these days, not many people can afford to buy several 
packages at a few thousand dollars each until they find one they like. At 
the same time, people like software that is easy to use. The problem with 
writing software is that it is very labour-intensive and therefore costly 
for any company to develop. The most difficult part of any software to 
write is the user interface because 1) it is difficult to come up with an 
intuitive way to have the user select from possibly dozens of options, and 
2) it is practically impossible to predict all the retarded things a user 
will try to type in response to a questions posed by the software, and 
respond in an appropriate manner. (Programs that flash the message "You 
Lose!" just before they crash the system aren't considered to be very 
robust.)

	So there are three choices. Use public-domain, freeware or 
inexpensive shareware programs and put up with the little bugs, lack of 
support and upgrades, maddening inconsistancies, etc, or spend a lot of 
money for commercial software and put up with smarmy salespeople, little 
bugs, lack of support and upgrades, maddening inconsistancies, etc. The 
third choice is to write your own code, or hire someone to do it for you. 
That can be a very expensive proposition in terms of time and/or salary.

(Of course, in truth there are some excellent programs that are 
freely available that are supported and maintained by the author(s), and a 
few commercial programs that aren't a total waste of money.)

	In order for a company to make software available at a reasonable 
cost, it is necessary to sell a lot of copies of it to spread the development 
costs out as much as possible. For software that addresses the specific 
needs of (molecular) biologists, there just isn't such a large market, so 
the software has to be pricy. On top of that, a lot of people who work in 
labs have no problem with taking copies of it with them when they move to 
other labs, or "lending" it to other labs down the hall as a favour. This, 
or course, reduces even further the number of people who will pay for the 
software and helps to drive the price up even higher.


Steve Clark

clark at salk-sc2.sdsc.edu  (Internet)
clark at salk               (Bitnet)

Disclaimer: I am not now, and have never been, working for a company that 
developes software for profit.




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