Microsoft Project 2002 beta

Microsoft recently unveiled the marketing beta of Project 2002, the latest version of its best-selling project management software that is due for final release this month.

The previous version, released two years ago, ran only on individual desktop PCs. The new version will be server-based, allowing workers to communicate better on their projects through a LAN or over the Internet. Project now comes in three versions: a standard edition that serves as an upgrade to the previous desktop version, and professional desktop and server editions that allow employees to connect and collaborate on projects.

The program is designed to help users manage projects and knowledge and to work together on projects through data sharing - the server version works with the standard for team collaboration, while you'll need the Professional version if you want enterprise-wide collaboration. Microsoft has also improved the Project Web interface for those who want to access information over the Internet. Individual users, however, will need a separate licence to access the service, so it isn't cheap.

Project management software has traditionally been perceived as having a steep learning curve and Microsoft has continued its efforts to improve the approachability of Project. Its user interface is now consistent with the other members of the Office XP suite (complete with Task panes and Smart Tags). It's also easier to swap project data between Project, Excel and Visio. It comes with some sample project templates to get you going, though there is an unhealthy preponderance of examples involving upgrading and installing Microsoft software.

Data entry is performed simply and logically thanks to the Project Guide, which resides in a pane on the left of the main chart. You define the tasks to be completed and allocate the resources (people, equipment and so on). Once this is done, you can track and manage your project, ticking off milestones as they're completed and inserting delays and so on. It's also easy to group project information, for example, by duration or priority of tasks. The groups are highlighted on the screen, making analysis more graphical and clear.

The task calendar is used to indicate when a task can (or can't) occur. A useful touch is the estimated duration feature, where you can use a question mark to indicate that the duration for a task is a guess; another is the graphical indicators, such as coloured alert buttons in custom fields used to highlight problem areas. The new version can account for changes in the project and automatically update everyone's schedules. For example, if a piece of equipment is out of stock and prevents you from building products for two weeks, project deadlines can automatically be pushed back. Workers will be notified immediately of the delay via e-mail, but Project 2002 will also update each individual's schedule, so the project manager won't have to type in the changes.

Experts also benefit from sophisticated controls over resource levelling (a technique used to achieve smoother use of resources over the life of a project). By using task calendars with a wider range of task priority values and much more flexible support for outline coding, it allows customisation for unique project needs.

In brief:

Microsoft Project 2002 beta

This succeeds on two levels: for the small company, where its ease of use makes it a piece of cake to operate, and for the enterprise, "where collaboration, crucial on larger projects, is key. Microsoft continues "to do a good job of simplifying the black art that is project management.

Price: $1386 Standard version; "$2321 Professional Version; "$3479 Microsoft Project Server 2002 (includes five Client Access Licences).

Phone: 13 2058.

URL: www.microsoft.com.au.

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Roger Gann

PC World
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