What does the history of computing teach us about the future of sequencing?
"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers", goes an infamous quote from the early days of computing, often attributed to IBM CEO Thomas J. Watson. That turned out to be wrong, and today pretty much everyone carries a programmable computer in the format of a smartphone in their pocket and has at least one more at home.
Genome sequencing is an emerging technology that has a number of similarities to computing. For example, exponential growth in performance. In computing, the computing power that can be bought for a fixed amount of money doubles every 18 months or so (Moore's law). In DNA sequencing, the number of bases that can be sequenced for a fixed amount of money doubles at an even faster pace.
Another similarity is the occurrence of disruptive innovation in both fields. Initially, computers called mainframes filled whole rooms. Later years saw them being replaced by minicomputers and even later by PCs, which would be smaller, cheaper, and easier to use. A similar trend can be observed for DNA sequencing. A possible comparison is:
It's possible to continue this game, predicting that eventually there'll be sequencers that are equivalent in size to laptops or smartphones, and that everyone will carry one in their pocket.
Of course this is possible, but just because it happened with computers does not mean that the same thing will happen with sequencers. The reason is that there are important differences between the two technologies. One is that whilst even in the early days of computing IBM sold computers to a diverse bunch of companies, DNA sequencers go to a more restricted set of customers in the life sciences. That may change, but currently it's not obvious how an accountancy firm or a apparel retailer would benefit from sequencing technology. I'm not claiming that this couldn't happen, but I don't see why it should be more likely just because it also happened in the computer industry.
After having thought about the issue, I'm sceptical that the computing market can teach us anything concrete about the sequencing market. Except maybe not to indulge in bold predictions.