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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.

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.

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.


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