Why have chemistry software on mobile devices?

As the founder of Molecular Materials Informatics, and the programmer/scientist who designed and built its mobile chemistry products, a sensible question to address is: what is the point of going to all this trouble to redesign the core user interfaces of chemical information software so that it works well on things like phones and tablets?

To many of the people who already own mobile devices and enjoy using them in preference to more conventional computing hardware, this question probably answers itself, but to many others, smartphones and tablets are just tools that have some role to play. Why does having apps to create, manage and exchange chemical data make sense – and why would somebody think that was enough of a business opportunity to justify quitting a great job and starting a new company?

One way to answer this is to point out what everybody already knows: mobile devices are here to stay. Until a few years ago almost all computing was done using machines that were at least as big as a laptop, weighed at least as much as a large brick, and required two hands to operate. Now, computing tasks are split between 4 categories of machinery:

  1. desktops
  2. laptops
  3. tablets
  4. phones

Of course not all of us use all of them, and we don’t necessarily want to use as many as we do. But regardless of how much we may enjoy having so many different tools to use, it is frequently quite inconvenient to have to switch to a more powerful (and less mobile) device for certain tasks.

If desktops and laptops are the only tools that can work with chemical data, other than simple browsing, then a road warrior who needs to use any of these tools can’t leave the office with just a tablet or just a phone – it is necessary to haul around a laptop. If a mobile device can do almost everything that a person needs for some unit of time, that’s not good enough, because it still necessitates having access to a bigger, heavier device.

To put it concisely: the more capabilities that are successfully ported to smaller devices, the higher the probability that you will be able to get by with only that device. And this is a goal that is worth putting some time and money into.

And it’s not just for the benefit of people who spend a lot of quality professional time away from their desks. There are an incredible number of PCs sitting around which exist only to provide a small handful of features. Examples that spring to mind are various types of information portals, monitoring software and instrument controllers, but in fact this also describes a lot of the PCs that sit on peoples’ desks.

How many chemists spend some amount of time using a computer that doesn’t do much other than web, email, and searching for chemical structures in the corporate registration system? Or a computer that does nothing much other than run a lab notebook application? People are realising more and more that modern tablet platforms, exemplified of course by the groundbreaking iPad, are only a couple of apps away from being fully functional replacements for a lot of under-utilised personal computers.

Not having the necessary toolkit components to build user interfaces for chemical information software would be a lost opportunity. But much of the work has been done, and this is just the beginning.

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