February 27, 2003

Linux has the upper hand in biotech - for now

- by Tina Gasperson -
For the past eighteen months or so, Linux has been the natural choice for biotech firms who need the power of supercomputers to perform complex calculations. The partnership continues to cement itself, partly because Microsoft doesn't really have a biotech strategy.Seems to be another miss for Bill Gates' company, or perhaps it is just business as usual - let the trend get big and then jump in, muscle everyone else out and reign as king of the hill. Either way, this time it is Linux and other free software putting down first roots in the minds of emerging biotech companies.

If a Google search can be an indicator of the state of biotech, then it is a quite revealing one - a search on the terms "Microsoft" and "biotech" pulls up maybe a couple of speeches by Gates on genetically modified food sources, and several reports that happened to be created in PowerPoint. Punch in "Linux" and "biotech," and you'll get a much richer lode of news stories, announcements, information, and advertisements.

Maybe Microsoft is concerned that it cannot produce the kind of computing power necessary to sustain intense database mining like that which is a mainstay of the biotech industry. Clusters and supercomputers and teraflops are terms that cross our lips with increasing frequency, but not in combination with the word "Microsoft."

A quick daydream about Microsoft never calls up visions of immense quantities of computations and calculations - no, a Windows reverie includes a few nice thoughts about office software and BSODs - two things definitely not called for in the world of genes and new medicines and nanotechnology.

Again using Google as a guide, "Microsoft" and "teraflop" don't seem to be used in conjunction very often, not nearly as often as "Linux" and "teraflop." So it would seem that Linux, as a "geeky" operating system and a long-time friend of the academia which biotech is permeated with, has the upper hand. But will Linux keep it?

As a result of the complete mapping of the human genome, the information floodgates have been opened, and pundits believe that the first ones to patent ideas about how genes work and interact with existing and not-yet-discovered medications will be the ones to profit most from the field of biotech.

Whether or not you agree with the idea of patents, especially patents in their present incarnation, it is true that those who are first to stake a claim to certain methods and processes have an advantage. Another reason why Linux is the man in biotech right now.

However, the advantage can easily be lost if the innovation is not coupled with fiscal wisdom. Perhaps Microsoft is counting on Linux entities that will fail to combine otherwise good ideas with sound (read profitable) business practices, leaving the innovations to the vultures with deep pockets.

Or maybe not. But in biotech, the Linux community and Linux businesses have an opportunity to beat the giants, because the giants were sleeping when the game started. All I'm saying is, when the giants awaken, be prepared for a fight.


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