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Taking the road less traveled to mobilize desktop software

Tom Kaneshige | June 27, 2013
Moving complex software to the iPad is no small task--a fact not lost on PerkinElmer when it needed a mobile version of its popular desktop chemistry product. It avoided the temptation to contract young mobile hotshots and instead relied on its veteran desktop team.

Robin Smith, PerkinElmer
Robin Smith, PerkinElmer 

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.

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."


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