5 free project management applications you must try

Putting together a project plan can sometimes seem more daunting than completing the project itself. When you need to track each step of a project, along with your costs, staff, and other factors, you probably need a project management application.

Project management applications are usually centered around Gantt charts, where each step in a project is represented as a bar in the chart. These visuals are linked to lists of the resources tied to each task (such as the person, team, company or another entity responsible for doing any given job). Everything is synchronized to a calendar, which updates you on the progress that your project should have achieved at any given time during its life cycle.

It's a simple idea, actually. Yet project planning can be intimidating, especially if you're unfamiliar with the methodologies behind it. As a result, learning to use project management applications can be a project in itself -- and you have to pay for the privilege.

For example, because of its brand and its place in the market, Microsoft Office Project is a popular choice for beginners. But at US$600, Office Project is expensive, especially if you just want to use it for some simple projects, or if you're not sure you really need a project management app.

For this roundup, I'll take a look at five free alternatives to using Microsoft Office Project. None of these are from major software companies -- four out of the five are open source while the fifth, jxProjects, is advertising-supported. On the one hand, this means that you don't get the amount of hand-holding that you would from a commercial product. On the other hand, these products often employ more innovative methods than commercial software.

In this roundup, I'll examine what each of these applications offers, how easy each is to use and how useful each choice may be for those unfamiliar with project planning.

Gantter.com

Although Gantter.com is Web-based, it has no online collaboration features. Rather, Gantter.com is meant to be used like a standalone desktop application.

Like a desktop application, Gantter.com loads up in only a few seconds; feedback from clicking through its menus and functions was so snappy I hardly noticed that I wasn't using a standalone application.

The user interface resembles the look and feel of Google Docs -- so much so that I found myself instinctively looking for the ability to save my plan to my Google Docs account.

Gantter.com doesn't have nearly as many features as for-pay applications such as Microsoft Office Project, which includes collaboration, synchronizing with different calendars across several resources, networking and additional enterprise-worthy features. In fact, it pretty much operates at a beginner's level of charting; it focuses simply on planning, and time and budget estimation of your project via Gantt charting in the most elementary, quickest and simplest manner possible. With this in mind, a standout feature of Gantter.com is that you can easily create custom calendar templates, in which you can, for example, mark any day (other than the traditional weekend) as a non-working day.

Microsoft Office Project files can only be imported into Gantter.com if they are first exported to XML. Gantter.com cannot directly read the proprietary Office Project file format. So information and formatting may be lost exporting to XML and then loading the file into Gantter.com. Not surprisingly, Gantter.com cannot save your plan to the Office Project file format.

Another drawback: You cannot print your plan from within Gantter.com. Its developer, Volodymyr Mazepa, says he plans to add print functionality in the future. But for now it's best to use this project management app to create XML-based project plans from scratch.

I really like the tutorial that the site provides. Don't know what Gantt charts are, what a "resource" is, what a "task bar" represents, or how these elements are compiled and brought together when formulating your project plan? Check out gantter.com and follow the tutorial. You'll learn the basics in less than an hour, if even that. And the general rundown also works as a good primer for anyone unfamiliar with the way a traditional project management program works and how a plan is put together.

So if you're new to the world of project management and the use of Gantt charts, I recommend checking out Gantter.com first to teach yourself the fundamentals.

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Howard Wen

Computerworld (US)

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