Where science and tech meet creativity.

EtelosEveryday, life seems to get a snert more complicated. As IYA gets closer and Astronomy Cast grows, the number of projects I’m involved in is increasing and the projects are increasing in complexity. For the past year one of my colleagues has been trying to sell me on Microsoft Project, but I’m a Mac girl, and that just doesn’t fly for me. Instead I found this little gem of a program: OmniPlan. It allows me to carefully allocate my time, and when writing grants it’s an excellent tool for allocating the time of everyone involved. There’s just one problem with OmniPlan: it’s a stand alone application designed for a manager, but not designed for a team.

In organizing Astronomy Cast, we started off looking at Basecamphq September ’06. That lasted about a month. The free version just didn’t do what we wanted and going to a separate website was something I wasn’t very good at doing on a regular basis. Then we (translation: Fraser) discovered Google Notebooks, and organization was inflicted on our podcast. Today we keep notes, to-do lists, listener questions, and much much more in a Google Notebook, and when we need something a bit more complicated, we bump up to a Google Spreadsheet or Doc.

While these tools aren’t designed for Project Management, they have the advantage of being part of my standard workflow – I can put widgets for all the Google tools in my iGoogle homepage and whenever I pop open a new browser window I see what new things have been edited, added to, or arrived in my inbox. I also keep my calendar in Google (one flaw – I can’t get alarms to go off on my iPhone when I import calendars to iCal from Google).

Google Notes has served us well, but it’s time to move on. Today, faced with a glorious snow day and 8 hours I normally don’t have, I decided to evaluate online project management software. Here are the specific needs I identified:

  • Project Calendar must be sharable via iCalendar protocol
  • Must allow me to easily add other people
  • Task List / To Do list should allow me to create Gantt diagrams or similar project timelines
  • File Sharing that doesn’t care about file format
  • Ability to comment on tasks, projects, etc…
  • I need to be able to email collaborators in a straightforward way

Not knowing what all was out there, I did some Googling. I learned that if you want to view a demo of @Task you have to give them a phone number, which triggers one of their sales reps calling you before you have time to launch the demo. I also learned @Task is designed for managing Fortune 100 companies, not podcasts, so I moved on. I also looked at Intuit’s Quickbase and determined it will take more than 10 minutes to figure out, but will do anything. At $249/month, it is a graphically ugly, very powerful, out of my price range, but an option for someday when I have money and need power. (I definitely want to learn more.)

Those two set aside, I had two practical contenders left: Basecamphq (software that had already given me a poor user experience a long time ago), and a new (and poorly rated awhile back on LifeHacker) program from Etelos that integrates with google aps. Without a lot of optimism, I set out to compare these two packages and hopefully improve my workflow. All I could do was hope both had experienced extensive updates that made them useful. One of them came through for me.

Side-by-Side breakdown of selected features

Feature Basecamphq Etelos Projects for Google Apps
Has Google Gadgets no YES
Create and Share Project Yes, 1 free Yes, 1 free
– invite collaborators Yes Yes
– comment on projects Yes* Yes
– attach files to projects No Yes
– bulk email collaborators/viewers No Yes
Create To Dos Yes** Yes
– assign responsible person Yes Yes
– assign collaborators/viewers No Yes
– assign priorities No Yes
– comments allowed No Sorta
– attach files to projects No Yes
– bulk email collaborators/viewers No Yes
– schedule task related meetings No Yes
Project Calendar Of Milestones sorta
Project Timeline No Yes
File sharing Paid version Only Yes
Export data Not findable Yes
Track Time on Project Paid Yes
Chat Yes GTalk
Price for Unlimited Projects $149/month $99.95
GB space with Unlimited 50 GB 10 GB
GB space with Free Version 0 10 MB

* Basecamp offers both a messaging area for discussions and a “whiteboard”
** Basecamp has both milestones and to-dos. To-do items do not allow deadlines.

How I compared them:
I have several website design projects in my head that needed written down somewhere. I went into both programs and assigned myself at my star stryder address several tasks, and assigned myself at my siue address several tasks. I then attempted to collaborate with myself, leaving my alter egos comments and such.

What I discovered is that for projects with true teamwork going on – the type I prefer to participate in – Basecamp just doesn’t cut it. It also doesn’t deal with due dates or priorities. (see features list above)

Here’s an example scenario that sold me on the Etelos software: Over the last couple weeks I’ve been working on drafting an internal IYA vision statement for the New Media working group. I was the person in charge of this, but I wanted input from several of my colleagues. To do this in the Etelos software I could create a task, give it a due date and priority, attach a file to the task, and then invite my team members as collaborators. They could then attach new versions of the file and leave comments as needed. I could also email all of the collaborators from the Task View easily. If I was getting paid to do this (I wasn’t), I could even track the time I spent writing, commenting, etc using task associated time logging. (hmmm, this has so many applications for Astronomy Cast…)

In Basecamp (where I’d need to get a paid account to share files), I wouldn’t have the ability to associate a bunch of other people with a To-Do item or a Milestone. (The to-do versus milestone thing is also problematic. Since To-Do items don’t have deadlines, you have to either name them with a deadline in the title, or use a Milestone, which gives you very limited writing space. – Neither To-Do items or Milestones have priorities either.) I’d also have to put the comments (they call them messages) associated with the task in the main project area and share them with everyone. This isn’t optimal, and it could lead to issues with too many cooks (really – sub-committees need to be able to hold their meetings without the whole committee leaning over their shoulders).

The collaboration tools I want just weren’t in Basecamp.

And then there is the whole integration with Google Aps thing that Etelos has going that just makes me happy. I put their gadgets on my iGoogle page, and I’m now one click away from project management. To login, I can also go to any page on the Etelos site and just click on “installations.” If you just go to the Basecamphq homepage there is a link that says, “login”, but when you click on it you are taken to a screen telling you to go to your projects specific URL and telling you to email someone if you don’t remember what that URL is. This is highly highly annoying.

Now, just incase you think I’m so totally in love with the Etelos software that I found no flaws, let me assure you that their software isn’t perfect. Its number one problem is a nasty habit of giving me a new tab every few minutes as I switch between projects, tasks and settings. It is stupidly easy to end up with 10 tabs open. Eek! Their interface is also uglier then Basecamphq and it can be slow to update. This was only really annoying when interacting with the project timeline. I’d reorder tasks and it would think for a few minutes and then adjust the timeline.

The Etelos software also didn’t have a native calendar. Instead, it linked directly to a Google calendar. Now here is where things get weird. I keep myself logged into google via a gmail account all the time. I logged into Etelos using a different email address, however, and embedded the Etelos into my iGoogle page. Somehow (cookies?) Etelos was able to know to go to the calendar associated with my iGoogle rather then trying to associate one with my other account. When I signed out of Google, Etelos no longer could get to my calendar and asked me to please log into Google, so I don’t feel totally invaded, just a little unsure about my cookie settings. Now, to be completely honest, I like that it uses Google Calendar directly. Google calendars are iCalendar compliant and can be subscribed to with pretty much any calendar program (although, as previously noted, alarms may go away). I’m also a Google Calendar addict and see that this would allow me to associate a bunch of calendars with Etelos Projects seamlessly.

Basecamp’s internal calendar is iCalendar compliant as well, but it is limited to milestones and 1 calendar per project. With Etelos, you can add anything you want at anytime to multiple Google calendars.

Etelos is a new kid on the block, and its forums are pretty empty compared to places like WordPress. I suspect they don’t have a ton of users. That said, I was impressed to get a personal email from them within a couple hours of setting up my trial account. It was just a friendly little, “We’re here to help,” message that let me feel wanted. I know that is purely emotional, but it still gave me a bit of confidence that their support folks wanted my business.

So, I think my free Etelos account and I are going to see what we can plot. I’m going to continue to adore my OmniPlan and use it for writing grants (Mmmm, Gantt diagrams…). For day to day activities, I think I’m going to consider setting aside my hacking habits and stop using Google Notebook in misbegotten ways.

I know I’m not the only one abusing software for project planning. In addition to Google Aps, two common software abuses are the use of Wikis/Twikis and of Blackboard/Moodle.

Wikis/Twikis are tools for documenting things for replication later. Think of them as knowledge bases. If you are going to be running a yearly conference or reducing data the same way every 6 months, then set up a Wiki or Twiki and document document document. What Wikis/Twikis lack are calendars, to do lists, and management tools. They also don’t generally allow controlled emailing of collaborators. I think that all projects that include lots of repetitive things that will get perfected over time need Wikis/Twikis as the living memory of the projects and organization. I do not think they are needed for folks constantly doing new things that are all one-off activities. Not everything needs a dedicated, editable, collaborative webpage 😉

Blackboard/Moodle are academic programs designed to run universities. You can assign tasks (and grade them 😉 ), discuss things in forums, and share files. Different sub-committees can be created as separate classes. It’s a giant hack, and requires you to have your own server. That said, it can work. It just doesn’t work perfectly and everything is named wrong. Still, in a university setting, it can be a good way to get the entire university discussing a project and collaborating.