The Mac may not be an established player is scientific computing, but Apple is gaining respect in the industry, said Apple vice president of software technology Guy "Bud" Tribble.

He made the case for the Mac to attendees at the Biosilico 2003 conference at Stanford University on October 23.

Tribble, one of the designers of the original Macintosh user interface, said that with the advent of the Power Mac G5 and Mac OS X, the Mac now has the Unix backbone, 64-bit processing power, Windows interoperability, and open-source credibility to be a viable computing platform in the life-sciences space.

"Really, for the first time in this industry, you have a computer that can do all the scientific applications, and you can run Microsoft Office," he said. "It's been kind of a Holy Grail that started with Mac OS X."

The Apple executive cited Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University's recent decision to build a 1,100-node high-performance supercomputer based on G5 Power Macs as a sign of Apple's growing importance in scientific computing: "We're very new entrants into the 1U server market, and yet we've seen Virginia Tech show up," he said.

Because OS X is based on the BSD (Berkeley System Distribution) version of Unix, developers are able to take advantage of the wide array of open source applications written for Unix, Tribble said. They are also able to create open source applications, such as the iMOL molecular visualizer softwar,e that take advantage of the Mac's Aqua user interface. "These things are just popping up as open-source apps that run seamlessly on the Mac," Tribble said.

"I think there's a niche left by SGI (Silicon Graphics) in the high-end visualization workstation," said conference attendee Shreedhar Natarajan, a graduate student at the University of Illinois. "That's where Apple could make a big leap."

Because bioinformatics involves a great deal of data analysis, often performed by several applications at once, the Mac's user interface could offer an advantage over other operating systems, Natarajan said: "I need three screens to look at code clearly," he said. "It's just more pleasing to look at the Mac. With the Mac screen, the rendering is just more clear and crisp."

Unix marketing

Apple has not created any specific programs to market its systems to the life sciences. In fact, the company has avoided talking about Unix in its marketing programs, Tribble said. "We don't really market it because we market to consumers and this would only confuse them."

A lack of Unix marketing is unlikely to have an impact in the highly technical scientific workstation space, however, said Roger Kay, the vice president of client computing with research firm IDC: "The technical guys know that it's there and if they're Unix shell hounds, they can go work in the shell."

Kay said that the fact that Apple elected to include a wide variety of software development tools in its most recent, Panther release of OS X will add to the Mac's scientific appeal.

"They do have a pretty good workstation play," he said. "They have got BSD Unix under the hood with a nice clean interface on top, and their new G5s are pretty powerful, so they can address this new kind of application market."