REVIEWS

Project Progress

TaskMaster whips up project plans

by Dan Ruby

NEXTSTEP is a natural platform for project-management applications. A high percentage of its users work at sites implementing major projects, typically software development or government contracts. Also, the NEXT- STEP interface and client-server model would seem to offer a perfect environment for taming the complexities of project planning and tracking.

Yet this application category one filled with strong products on PC and workstation platforms has been sorely underrepresented on NEXTSTEP. Pittsburgh Project Manager from Visus is a marginal product, and AEC Software's FastTrack Schedule is designed only for making Gantt chart presentations, not managing project data.

Now Lighthouse Design has stepped in to fill the gap with Task-Master, a full-fledged project-management system including what-if analysis and resource levelling. We found that Version 1.0 of the software, which is shipping in limited release to large customers for $1395, is a strong first cut at meeting the feature set, design, and performance needs of typical users. It lacks, however, one basic feature PERT charts found in most competitive products on other platforms, and it lacks some high-end features.

Lighthouse plans to release a feature upgrade, probably 2.0, later this year.

As expected, TaskMaster's strongest point is usability. Because of its roots in arcane management science, project-management software has traditionally been inaccessible to nonprofessionals. Some releases for Macintosh and Windows have attempted to package the concepts of project management for average users, but often at the expense of power and complexity.

Split level
TaskMaster presents a rich, attractive, and accessible interface to the user. Its main window is divided into four parts: task outline, Gantt chart, resource histogram, and resource outline. A movable "splitter" can be adjusted to reveal more or less of each view.

With added interface niceties such as a tool ribbon and an option- packed Project panel, TaskMaster equals or surpasses project-management packages on other platforms for pure usability. Even so, it is not perfect: The splitter approach is too limiting. Also, the main window and Project panel may be oversized for lower-resolution PCs. The company says that it plans to refine the interface in 2.0.

The Task and Resource views combine a Concurrence-like outliner with an Improv-like spreadsheet. You enter project data into spreadsheet cells but control the structure of the spreadsheet from the attached outliner, expanding and collapsing cells to create a hierarchical structure that models the project. The task outline includes data such as starting and ending dates, dependencies, constraints, and priorities. The resource outline contains cost data for the personnel and equipment assigned to the project. Once you assign a resource to a task (either by dragging and dropping or by selecting the items and pushing a button), information from each view is integrated into the other as an additional spreadsheet dimension.

Just as the spreadsheet is attached to the outline, the Gantt chart is an extension of the spreadsheet. The chart is a visual represen-tation of the project data, displaying each task as a bar whose length, color, end symbols, and titling show project detail at a glance. Critical-path and impossible constraints are called out, as are milestones and delays. The program provides a great deal of customizability in chart appearance, so it easily rivals FastTrack Schedule as a presentation tool.

Beyond usability, TaskMaster is strong in its handling of tasks and resources. Only disk space limits the number of each you can use. The program provides eight kinds of task constraints. Each resource has its own calendar.

The resource-load chart shows at a glance when resources are overloaded. TaskMaster's leveling algorithm works by reassigning resources or inserting delays to bring each resource down to its scheduled work load. We didn't undertake benchmark tests, but scheduling performance with a large sample project on a NeXTstation was more than adequate.

Once you have completed one or more project plans, you can also use TaskMaster to track actual performance. The program effectively presents comparisons between plans and actuals to allow the user to make midcourse corrections.

Although it has much to recommend it, TaskMaster has some significant shortcomings as well. Most glaring is the absence of a PERT chart or network diagram. This type of diagram of the relationships between tasks in a project is a standard feature in almost all project managers on other platforms.

TaskMaster's outliner fulfills the brainstorming function of a PERT chart, and the program provides an acceptable (though less intuitive) alternate method to set dependencies. Also, project files can be opened in Lighthouse's Diagram! program to produce a flowchart for presentation purposes (though this process is not well documented). Nevertheless, the absence of PERT charts is a significant omission.

Also missing in this release are standard reporting formats. For now, other than printing task outlines and Gantt charts, the only way to produce summary data for presentation and reporting is to export the data to another program for formatting. Import and export functions worked well.

While TaskMaster supports the linking of multiple projects and provides a coding system for a work-breakdown structure, it lacks the features of other high-end project-management systems. For now, users searching for a client-server system that has security and record-locking for multiple users will have to look elsewhere.

Despite our high standards, it may be unreasonable to expect that a product can attain state-of-the-art status in its first release. In Version 1.0, TaskMaster earns high marks as a solid project-management im-plementation for NEXTSTEP, but its missing features leave it short as a cross-platform contender.

Dan Ruby is editor in chief of NeXTWORLD.


TaskMaster 1.0

3 Cubes

This first release of a midrange project-management system offers a rich feature set and a highly accessible design but lacks PERT charts and high-end functionality.

$1395

Lighthouse Design, 2929 Campus Dr. #250, San Mateo, CA 94403.

415/570-7736, 800/366-2279.