Taking the road less traveled to mobilize desktop software

PerkinElmer badly needed a mobile version of its popular desktop software, ChemDraw. The 75-year-old health and environment firm with $2.2 billion in annual revenues turned to Robin Smith, the founder of a startup called ArtusLabs, which PerkinElmer acquired two years ago.

Smith was given the title of vice president of research and development and charged with bringing ChemDraw to the iPad, along with all the challenges that go with it. "My job was to be the disrupter, the guy who sticks his head out of the foxhole and gets shot at 10 times," Smith says.

Then Smith made a potentially dangerous decision: using ChemDraw's veteran desktop developers to mobilize the software. It's a move that usually leads to failure, because desktop developers tend to jam too much functionality in a mobile app.

Every Desktop App Going Mobile

PerkinElmer is hardly alone in its quest to mobilize desktop software. Practically every software developer with a popular desktop app is looking at ways to port it to the iPad. At stake is the reputation of a well-known software brand, which can be ruined by an unwieldy mobile version.

ChemDraw, which arrived on the Macintosh in 1986, is a graphics-driven software suite for drawing molecules and chemical reactions. Today, ChemDraw has a million users, and nearly every chemist has heard of it. PerkinElmer not only wanted to bring ChemDraw to the iPad, but also lay the groundwork for the development of hundreds of mobile apps across the company.

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With his background in fast-moving startups, Smith was tapped to lead the massive project. He knew right away that he had to make big decisions to get the train on the right track. "People were talking about using Adobe Flash as our platform for development for the future-it was wild," he says.

One of the toughest questions, he says, was who would develop the mobile app?

Smith could have farmed out the work to a mobile body shop or hired a bunch of young mobile hotshots, but instead he decided to retrain a group of veteran ChemDraw developers. While Smith won't give exact numbers, he says he re-allocated a third of the entire engineering workforce to do mobile projects, thus creating a center of mobility excellence within PerkinElmer.

Dancing With the Developers Who Brought You

"A lot of people thought we were crazy," Smith recalls. "They said, 'Hey, you've got a lot of older engineers, why don't you hire a bunch of young developers?' The debate went on, and what we found was, if we hired a bunch of young guys, we're going to be missing the scientific skills and the background for what makes ChemDraw beautiful."

One of the benefits of retraining workers is that it re-energizes them-but at a price.

CTO Martin Hudson at mobile consultancy Mobile Data Systems has seen many companies hand off their mobile project to in-house desktop developers who had lobbied for the exciting work.

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Time and time again, the following happens, Hudson says: Developers bring their baggage with them, scope creep bogs down the project (or renders the mobile app unusable), and Mobile Data Systems is called in to fix the problem.

"IT professionals want to do a good job, and this means putting in as much stuff as you can," Hudson says. "With mobile, you have to understand where to draw the line."

Using the same developers who wrote the original desktop software is also wrought with political pitfalls. Some will have vested interests with certain features that they helped develop on the desktop.

Nevertheless, Smith pressed ahead with his plan to keep development in-house. A core group of PerkinElmer developers took six months to get up to speed on mobile, and then four months to build ChemDraw and a free app called Chem3D.

Scope Creep, Conflict and Arrows

The road to the iPad was riddled with scope creep and conflict. How did Smith get through it? "Sheer willpower," he says, adding, "I've got so many arrows shot at me during this process."

Smith had a few tricks up his sleeve when times got tough. He assuaged fears that developers' hard work on the desktop was for naught in the mobile world. The goal, he repeatedly told them, was to build a companion app to the desktop application, not a replacement.

"Our desktop product was packed full of powerful things that probably only a fraction of the world could appreciate, but that's not what we were after," says Hans Keil, business line leader for desktop and mobile apps in the Informatics division at PerkinElmer. "We wanted to widen the number of users for the ChemDraw franchise. I wanted to keep it simple, because those are the apps that succeed."

Smith also made an argument for simplicity that appealed to the developers' intellect in science. From synthetic chemistry to organic chemistry, the science is terribly complex. Successfully simplifying chemistry in a mobile app, he argues, is actually a testament to your fundamental mastery of the subject.

"We can simplify it because we know it better than anyone else," Smith says. "This leadership message gets people motivated."

ChemDraw developers responded in kind. They even came up with ways to make collaboration easier on the iPad. A feature called Flick to Share lets a user share a molecule model with someone who has the same app in the lab or classroom simply with a flick of the finger.

This month, PerkinElmer released ChemDraw ($9.99) and Chem3D (free) for the iPad on the Apple App Store. Early signs show a successful launch: a 4.5 star rating. Ironically, negative comments generally criticize the app for not having some features on the desktop version.

At universities, ChemDraw had been confined to academic research, not first-year chemistry. But this is changing with the iPad app. PerkinElmer is working with educational publisher McGraw-Hill on two pilot programs at St. Louis University and the University of Illinois to get feedback about the collaboration features. There are also efforts to bring ChemDraw on the iPad down to the high school level.

When it comes to mobilizing a popular desktop app, there's a lot of upside if the app works well. New markets open up and existing staff becomes energized. PerkinElmer chose to go an unconventional route using veteran desktop developers, and so far it's paid off.

Tom Kaneshige covers Apple, BYOD and Consumerization of IT for CIO.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn. Email Tom at tkaneshige@cio.com

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This story, "Taking the road less traveled to mobilize desktop software" was originally published by CIO.

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