5 Free Apps That Make Project Management Easier

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.

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.

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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 $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.

GanttProject

GanttProject is an open-source application written in Java. It runs on Windows, Mac OS X or Linux, as long as the Java Virtual Machine runtime is installed on your computer. It can be launched directly from the GanttProject site; or you can download the installation file for your specific operating system and install the Java code to run as a standalone desktop program.

GanntProject has a number of features that set it off from other applications. For example, Gantter.com and most project management applications intentionally restrict the number of colors you're allowed to use to designate your plan's task bars. GanttProject lets you use whatever color you like for your bars, and also apply textures to each of them.

Calendars can be customized by setting what days count as non-working days. However, I found Gantter.com's calendar tool easier and faster to use. Also, GanttProject lacks the ability to break plans down to an hourly schedule -- it can only be used to create plans that run on a daily schedule.

A user interface feature that I really like in GanttProject: Clicking on a task bar automatically highlights the corresponding task name in the sidebar window listing the tasks.

Unlike Gantter.com, GanttProject lets you print your plan charts to paper. It even features a very capable print preview tool. With it, you can perform tasks such as adjusting the width of your chart and clicking through different page sizes to ensure that your plan will be big, and legible, enough to read as a hard copy.

Native Microsoft Project files can be imported into GanttProject -- at least in theory. In practice, a couple of test files in Microsoft's MPP format I tried failed to import correctly or could not be imported at all. Files in the MPX format fared better.

GanttProject loads and saves files in its own proprietary format, along with importing and exporting files as XML. It can also export plans to spreadsheet format in CSV format ("comma-separated values").

One thing that sets it apart from other free applications is that GanttProject can create PERT charts, where the tasks in your plan are depicted as a series of interconnected boxes. You can drag and re-position the boxes to other areas on the timeline, and the pathway lines between it and other task boxes will adjust accordingly. This works well as a quick and easy way to fiddle around with your plan.

jxProject

JxProject is another Java application. According to its creator, Peter Hawkins, it was borne from his frustration with other software that he felt was difficult to use when dealing with resources that were part-time or located in different time zones. Thus, although many project management applications don't support time intervals of less than an hour, jxProject lets you plan projects with tasks that run for just a few minutes.

jxProject has an interesting "resource optimizer" tool that can analyze your project; figure out which parts, for example, have unusually long periods of time devoted to certain tasks; and estimate which tasks can have their priority adjusted to be scheduled earlier. As a result, this tool can help to compress/shorten the overall life cycle of your project. Practically speaking, the optimizer works best if you're intentionally including plenty of time for your project but would like to see how much sooner tasks could possibly be completed if you take a "crunch time" route.

While Gantter.com features beginner levels of charting that may not show enough information at once for some people's tastes, jxProject's Gantt charts may come off as overwhelming. The default page layout is a grid with alternating shaded rows, and columns corresponding to the days of the week and month. The resulting look brings to mind engineering graphing paper. It's a blessing that there is minimal use of colors and that you're not allowed to change the color of the black-and-white task bars -- it makes it possible to read the graph without the additional distraction that color would bring.

jxProject is free to use, but an ad banner appears at the upper-right of the program window. It's not directly obtrusive to the user experience, but the movement of the ads can be distracting. You can get rid of the ads by buying a user license for $20 (which is good for up to 5 users).

jxProject is probably not the ideal tool to create Gantt charts expressly for presentation to others, or to use with fellow project collaborators who are unfamiliar with project management applications. jxProject appears to be specially tailored for use and to be read by lead project managers who are in charge of keeping track of the minutia of every task and resource in a project.

OpenProj

Like GanttProject, OpenProj is an open-source project, and has the potential to be the most popular among the project management software on this list, mainly because of its compatibility with Microsoft Office Project files. (According to the Web site, OpenProj has been downloaded over 1,250,000 times.) It comes as a desktop program in versions for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux.

OpenProj works well on its own for building project plans. Serena Software can offer this application free of charge because makes its money by selling back-end, server-side features to go with OpenProj for business clientele needing multi-projecting, reporting, time sheets, notifications and other enterprise-level apps.

The first thing you'll notice is its extensive charting features. OpenProj features Gantt and PERT charts, and also incorporates WBS, RBS, Earned Value costing, and a few other charting methods. Like GanttProject's PERT charting interface, the tasks and resources in the PERT, Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) or Risk Breakdown Structure (RBS) charts of OpenProj are manipulated by simply dragging and dropping boxes; the pathways among them then reroute automatically.

The way which OpenProj shows you Gantt charts falls somewhere between Gantter.com's clean, simple look and jxProject's layered, visual complexity. OpenProj aims for a visual balance between these two. In its default settings, it labels its task bars with the name of the corresponding resource, and does so with an overall look that isn't as busy or overwhelming as jxProject's. You can also click on a bar and drag it side-to-side along the time line to place it earlier or later in the schedule, as well as adjust the sides of the bar to shrink or stretch the time duration of the task.

Like jxProject, OpenProj lets you assign tasks with work times that run for less than one hour -- down to one minute.

But OpenProj is missing the one user interface feature that I really like in GanttProject, in which clicking a task bar highlights the corresponding name in the task list. (jxProject lacks this feature as well.) I hadn't realized how truly helpful this was until I went over the details of my project as rendered in OpenProj to mentally check off and review the task steps in my project, from start to finish.

A last big plus for OpenProj is that it successfully opened every plan file saved in the Microsoft Office Project format that I used in these tests. The other project management applications on this list usually had problems importing Office Project files, if they had the ability to do so directly at all (without the need to first export the file to XML).

Open Workbench

As its name implies, Open Workbench is yet another open-source project management program. It runs only on a Windows computer with the Java Virtual Machine Runtime installed. The company backing Open Workbench sells online training for $150 to get you up and running. Otherwise, this application is free to use, although you have to go through the minor hassle of registering for a user account at the Open Workbench Web site.

Open Workbench cannot open files saved in any of the Microsoft Office Project file formats. It accepts only XML files and its own proprietary file format. Fortunately, Open Workbench managed to import all of the XML files created by Office Project that I threw at it.

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