Survival of the fittest
By Randy C. Hice
I had successfully lured my old college swim buddy into a mountain biking trip in the nearby Rockies by misrepresenting the impending danger.
"Ah, it's just a dirt trail...a chance to see nature!"
Of course, I knew that denizens of sea level towns in Michigan will feel as though they are breathing the fumes from an active volcano when oxygen deprivation sears their lungs, but after all, one must take entertainment where one finds it. Looking over my shoulder, I saw Bill precariously pedaling a few yards up the steep rock-strewn path. He had a number of choices set before him.
First, if he fell off the mountain to his left, he would ricochet down the craggy rocks into so desperate of a situation, rescue workers would ignore him, and mountain lions would pick his bones clean. Second, if he veered to the right, the razor sharp cliff would plane his hide down to raw nerve endings, causing so much pain, he'd seriously consider voluntarily opting for choice (1). Third, if he stopped pedaling, even for a second, he would lose balance and risk careening backwards down the path he'd just covered, and would soon suffer from either choice (1) or (2).After an hour and a half, we stood atop the summit.
"What a view, don't you agree?"
"I can't see anything, you jerk, nothing but spots. Get on the cell phone and call for a chopper."
"Signals don't carry up here. You'll have to follow me."
Looking down, Bill saw a trail, perhaps two feet wide, at an impossibly steep grade, and antlike people who were on the ascent, unaware of the brutality before them. Now, an interesting thing about mountain bikes is that all are not created equal. In this case, Viva la Difference. My bike is made for the very thing I enjoy; an insane free fall down steep slopes with loose gravel, big rocks, suicidal cliffs and, for sport, humans attempting to walk up the trail that, upon seeing an on-the-edge biker streaking for them, dive for cover like newly sprayed cockroaches.
Bill, on the other hand, had no rear suspension, also known as a "hardtail" bike. As I shot down the deadly cliff, Bill tried to follow, but the vile bumps caused his rear end to buck like a rodeo bull, and he nearly plummeted into Eternity. The dry Colorado air singed my eyes as my velocity approached free-fall dimensions, but Bill, fearing for life and limb, slowed to a crawl, even bailing off his bike to suffer the humiliation and shame of walking down the hill.
Bikers and hikers passing him going up viewed him with disdain and loathing, and shunned him like a leper. At the bottom, I made a point of using the extra 20 minutes while waiting for Bill to load my bike on the rack, change clothes, and feign sleep to further amplify how I brutally I'd beaten my hapless companion. Almost weeping, he collapsed in the seat, gasping for air. Hikers and bikers loading into their cars recognized him, and barely resisted spitting on the windshield of the car to show their disgust for his weakness.
'Survival of the Fittest' was coined by Darwin, but holds true today. In the ever-changing world of LIMS vendors, it is move up or move out, and those who cannot turn on a dime suffer the same fate as my friend Bill. The big question is this; will there be only one LIMS vendor in the future?
Though preposterous in notion, this is not the rambling of a guy who has bounced off one too many rocks and mutters like Homer Simpson. We see a slow Darwinian process uncurling before us. LIMS vendors, at some atavistic business level, make the decision to invest and evolve, or milk ancient technology and die a grisly death.
In the former case, it takes a management style that is pro-risk, and, to an extent, cash rich. Investing in product development is both a short- and long-term venture. In the short-term, immediate updates, bug fixes, improving Technical Support, and such, are all elements that must be addressed just to stay at sea level. But, to avoid slipping beneath the waves, strategic investment is also critical. This means venturing into unproven ground, and possibly spending many thousands of dollars producing functionality that may never have any customer impact, or influence sales.
In the latter case, several major vendors made a decision, announced or secret, to choke off support and development of their product. It is rare that a vendor would actually warn people well in advance that they are killing their product, or simply not making substantial investment in it. One pathway, for a company who now considers their product to be an expensive liability, is to shrink the product, and all support, into profitability. This means cutting support staff, issuance of only the most trivial updates, and slashing budgets all around. Usually, the company clandestinely opens talks to sell the product so as not to spook the herd. When a company sells a niche product, such as LIMS, the suitors are few in number, and usually have only two reasons for even considering purchasing an existing product:
a) The company needs a LIMS to augment their current product offerings, and is unwilling to start from square one in the Software Development Life Cycle. Purchasing a product may even give them immediate name recognition, and may well afford them credibility with minimal investment.
b) There is a cash cow roaming in the bushes. Incumbent products with substantial user bases have a huge paycheck in terms of Annuity Support contracts. Even if a company never intends to sell or enhance the product, the checks keep-a-comin'.
But why take on a product with no hope of refurbishing it? Because with the Annuity Support money comes a huge customer base for which a vendor, who already has a product, can be in a position of power for transitioning the customer from the moribund product to their own offerings ... a double dipping yee-haa!
Is this disingenuous? I don't think so, and if I were in the position of a company to take on a dying product for support dollars, I'd have to think about it. How honest a company wants to be about their plans is another issue anchored in business ethics, and your mileage will vary here.
Is this new? Hardly. When Oracle took over support for VAX DBMS and VAX RDB, they sure weren't planning on sinking cash into development. Annuity Support. So, is it crazy to think that the LIMS industry will follow the leads of the Banking industry? Will the healthy fish devour the weak?
I don't believe that we'll see a point where there is only one choice, but we will see fewer players trying to grab the brass ring. The business climate in 2004 is not the climate of the nascent era of LIMS of 1984. Business rationale has changed, and investment due diligence is much more Draconian than in times past.
The glass-half-full sect may think differently. With the herd thinning, is it time for a major juggernaut to come in and dominate the market? Ask SAP what their intentions are. They are not-so-secretly hitting up existing customers to use the LIMS functionality associated with their QM module. It's a gamble, like the card game of hearts. If you think you're holding a pile of hearts, and the Queen of Spades, you can shoot the moon. Of course, if you end up short, you're ridiculed for the rest of the night as you slowly and meekly try to regain face. I don't know if SAP plans to shoot the moon, or is just raising a wet finger to test the breeze. Either way, we'll know in a year or two.
Regardless, Darwin's Law holds true, and Survival of the Fittest will dictate the industry, as it always has. Those with The Right Stuff will sale to the summit, those who flee, or run slowly, will sail off the edge of the mountain in a broken heap, and only a memory will remain.
Randy Hice is the president of the Laboratory Expertise Center. He can be reached at email@example.com.