Project Management Tools – Strengths & Weaknesses

Update: This is a very old post written in early 2005. If you're looking for a project management tool now, instead of dotProject, check out web2project. It's a fork driven by real-world features and community feedback and has a release schedule.

Due to the impending release of dotProject v2.0 and a database server by my existing host, I had cause to evaluate a few other Project Management tools yesterday. The landscape has not changed a great deal, but I thought it valuable to recap. I dug around, installed, and created some simple projects in dotProject, Gantt Project, and Microsoft Project. I haven't fully dug into Open Workbench, but it's on my agenda.

Here are a few bullet points on the strengths and weaknesses of each one:
Gantt Project:
+ It's entirely Java-based, so if you have the JRE or JDK installed, you're good to go. This means that once you have the JRE or JDK, it will work on Windows, Linux, and OS X with little effort. It doesn't get much easier than that in terms of installation, but if you're really lazy, it has Webstart also. For those of you who work on a variety of systems throughout your day having a tool with the identical interface across all those systems is a huge benefit.
+ The simple creation of tasks and drag and drop interface are both top notch. If you are tweaking the start date of a task, you simply drag it to the new date and you're done. If you have task dependencies, you simply drag from one to the other and the arrow automagically appears. For a rapid development of a project plan, this is very helpful.
+ Everything is stored in XML. This makes it easy to present things on the web via a simple XSL transformation into HTML.
+ It is Open Source which will prevent the upgrade treadmill but still provide a way of fixing/adding critical improvements.
+ It has a small community creating additional modules for integration with other tools and the feature set is steadily growing and becoming more robust.
– It doesn't have advanced features such as Resource Leveling, Critical Path Management, PERT Charts, or detailed Task Tracking.
– It is built for a single-user mode, not for a collaborative environment where you have multiple people working on and updating the status of tasks.

MS Project:
+ It's part of the Microsoft Office suite and integrates cleanly with the various pieces.
+ MS Project does have advanced features like Resource Leveling, Critical Path Management, and PERT Charting.
+ Although the file format itself is binary, there is a way to do an XML Export for using the data in other capacities.
– It is built for a single-user mode, not for a collaborative environment where you have multiple people working on and updating the status of tasks. I have heard of a web-based version that may resolve this, but that goes to my next point.
– It only runs on Windows, though there may be a version for OS X. This is fine for some people, but some of us use a variety of systems throughout the day.
– It is proprietary. In order to get the newest functionality and/or updates, it will cost you. If you want to use it at work, home, and on a laptop, it will cost you. This puts it out of the reach of many small business owners and startups.

Let me iterate again, I am a contributor to this project.
+ It is web-based so there is NO install on your local machine. All you need is a web browser. Your data to follow you around as long as you have an Internet connection.
+ It is built around the concept of being a collaborative tool. Therefore, a Project Manager can create the Project Plan, assign tasks, and monitor progress as individuals log time against tasks. Through the File Module, users can even upload documents to share with other users of the system.
+ It is Open Source and built on a php/mysql framework. This makes it relatively easy to extend and integrate with other packages.
+ It has a very active community around it creating translations, new modules, and fixing bugs.
+ Previously the install process was quite cryptic for some, but with the v2.0 release, this has been streamlined and cleaned up. The new method simply requires the specifying the connection to an existing mysql database and setting a few preferences.
– It doesn't have advanced features such as Resource Leveling, Critical Path Management, or PERT Charts. These are acknowledged weaknesses and the Resource Leveling will be addressed in the v3.0 release.

There you go. Now admittedly ignoring some of the other possibilities out there – such as Primavera – this touches on some of the major Project Management tools available. There are definite strengths and weaknesses of each and a few purely taste issues.

Which one is the best?

Well, it depends on which aspects are the most important to you and your organization.

For a point of reference, according to Microsoft itself, Excel is the tool most used for Project Management.