FRAMINGHAM (11/07/2003) - Last week Sun Microsystems Inc. abruptly withdrew from the Interoperable Informatics Infrastructure Consortium (I3C) that it helped to found in 2001. Sun cited a change in I3C's direction as the cause. But Andy Palmer, I3C president, indicated Sun's current market woes were the more likely reasons.
"Personally I was very disappointed but I understand that they're under severe financial pressure," said Palmer, who is also CIO of Infinity Pharmaceuticals Inc. and just assumed the I3C's presidency four months ago. He said Sun's sudden departure was a surprise.
Loralyn Mears, Sun's market development group manager, life sciences, said "Looking back the vision was grand: 'Let's create the solutions where everybody can plug everything in.' Well, you know it's hard to define what that everything is, especially when every couple of months there's a new everything to add it."
"Over time, especially the last year, it became apparent that the I3C wanted to pursue a direction of formal specifications and standards, which was never really the original intent," said Mears.
"I don't think that [standards] work overall around the discovery area," said Mears, adding, "the market is too dynamic. People need things too quickly. Things become fashionable or out of fashion extremely quickly in this market. The only place I feel standards are really effective is around things like instrumentation."
Palmer disputed the shift towards standards-making and expressed surprise at Sun's criticism, "I really don't understand where they're coming from. Solving these big, really hard problems takes a certain amount of commitment and wherewithal, and I think that there are a number of vendors, like IBM, that have demonstrated a tremendous level of commitment of resources and fortitude to solving interoperability problems in the life sciences."
A bigger question for I3C is proving its worth. Its ranks swelled quickly, to roughly 75 members, before it started charging a fee for various membership levels. Twenty-two members are listed on its site at http://i3c.org/membership/roster.asp and Sun was still listed at the time of this writing. I3C executive Andy Ellicott says the real number is 25.
Few pharmaceutical firms and no Big Pharma have yet joined. The group has produced several "reference" solutions. Some observers say the group has become more user-focused and less vendor-driven. Palmer says this isn't a change.
"One of the things that's become really obvious to me over the past four months is that some of the core technology initiatives that are required to promote interoperability in the life sciences are being worked on or are available in other places," said Palmer. "I think some of the key initiatives that are going in the W3C with their semantic web initiative and some of the initiatives going on at the OMG office are closely aligned with the types of technology that professionals in informatics are going to need to achieve interoperability in the life sciences.
"The real value of the people that are members of the I3C is that we can deliver these real practical use cases, and that's where we are going to focus our time and energy. We understand what the problems are, where the technologies come from to support solutions, (and) we're almost indifferent to where they come from," said Palmer.