Previous generations of desktop systematics software - MacClade in the 1990's and Mesquite, NEXUS Data Editor, etc. in this decade - were a boon to the community, greatly enhancing researcher productivity. However, in the last several years, with the explosive growth of the World Wide Web and the increasing sophistication of web-browser software, a new category of software has emerged, the "web-application." Web-applications leverage existing web-based data services (mapping, taxonomic lookups, and access to specimen and bibliographic databases, for example) and enhanced user interface techniques to produce software that combines many of the best features of desktop software with the ever increasing capabilities of the Internet.
MorphoBank was designed to address shortcomings in existing desktop systematics software using modern web-application techniques. Areas of concern included:
Seeing the images that document the basis for a character state is enormously helpful to researchers both during and after the research process. This is particularly important if the matrices are large, with hundreds of taxa and thousands of characters. Before MorphoBank there was little support for inclusion of imagery in phylogenetics software. A researcher would have had to trust her memory as she made comparisons among hundreds or thousands of species. It is much more effective to store an image of a character with labels to refer to repeatedly while adding new data.
A large quantity of documentary information - and the majority of visual documentation - was being lost when morphologists produced phylogenetic trees. No archive existed for morphologists to store the images that backed up their character designations. This was wasteful and incurred a lot of repeated work due to lost information. The field of morphological systematics could subsequently not grow as fast (in terms of numbers of characters) as molecular systematics, the latter being well-databased in GenBank.
Single-user file-based systems are wholly unsuitable for collaborative work, whether team members are dispersed across the hall or across the globe. For all but the smallest and most disciplined of teams, file version control and conflicts quickly becomes untenable, with copies of files proliferating in e-mail inboxes and on FTP sites with no one certain as to what the "real" dataset is. MorphoBank provides a central database for project data, ensuring that all team members are using the same dataset at all times. Changes made by one member are instantly visible to the rest of the team. Further, all changes are logged making it possible to determine how any element of a project's dataset arrived in its current state.
Many valuable phylogenetic datasets are available on the Internet only in truncated form (typically lacking images and other context) or not at all, in part because there is no simple mechanism with which to publish data from most desktop applications to the Web. Treebase has been a useful site for archiving matrices but is not a tool-based application for collaborating on and viewing phylogenetic matrices and does not store images. MorphoBank is inherently web-based, and publishing of project data is a matter of pushing a button.