As a busy international project planner, if I were to write an advert on Lonely Planet or Craigslist today for a traveling companion, it might read something like this: “Looking to travel the world with a companion: must like living on the cheap, traveling light, and not be fearful of dangerous places. In addition, must do Microsoft Project.”
I doubt I would find many takers, especially when they knew we would be traveling to, say, somewhere deep in the Congo to report on Ebola prevention or Ittoqqortoormiit to oversee polar bear counts. Likewise, the folks responding to my advert might balk when they found out that traveling with a heavy laptop is impractical and that internet access would be spotty — if existent at all.
However, I wouldn’t be looking for a human companion, as few would like my job: steeped in cost calculations and burn-down charts while trudging through leech-infested mud. What I would be looking for is an app that would allow me to work on my Project 2016 files no matter where I had to go, without access to the web, and on any lightweight device that I had on hand.
Notwithstanding unanswered want ads, I’ve found my companion anyway.
Before the big reveal, first a true story. On my last trip to Tibet, documenting monasteries and other infrastructure, we had set up camp just below Mt. Everest on the Chinese side. I was sleeping in a tent that was bitterly cold, and I was having a hard time staying warm inside of my sleeping bag. I thought I had a brilliant idea (now I realize it was just altitude sickness): I turned on my laptop and used that flat slab like a high-tech hot-water bottle, to warm the bottom of my bag and hopefully my toes as well. It seemed to work, and I soon fell asleep with warm feet. When I woke, my feet felt like ice, and so did my laptop. It was now as frozen as the glacier outside, and the mechanical hard drive within would never spin again.
So goes the life of a traveling project manager. Nowadays, I travel light, with only an iPhone or iPad or my new MacBook that has no moving parts that can inexplicably stop moving and corrupt all of my hard work; and I travel with my newfound traveling companion – one that does Project very well.
A Near-perfect Traveling Companion for Microsoft Project
Project Plan 365 is an app that works on a multitude of operating systems. Whether you’re a project manager on a Thai beach vacation or, like me, working (always) on a project in a remote village of Nepal, you can now edit your Project .MPP files directly on any one of these devices. No Windows required!
This solution comes not from Microsoft (we have asked so many times), but from Housatonic, makers of the free Project viewing app, Project Viewer 365. Yet while a project viewer helps, what good is a viewer when your project is looming late or you have to reorganize your work? You may be able to see how badly off you are, but you can’t change anything about your project for the better. Housatonic’s solution has changed all of that, and now you can edit your project files on the go, working on the same .MPP file you use in the office and with an interface that is a spitting image of Project itself.
Project Plan 365 is the only tool I have found that actually uses the native Project file format and not some intermediary or problematic format like MPX or XML. The utility runs in Windows and Mac and on iOS and Android. Licenses costs $99 USD for the ability to edit your projects on a Mac and another $80 to edit on your iPhone, iPad or Android device.
I was skeptical at first. Through the years I’ve tried countless other “solutions” to my traveling conundrums: Project Online inside of a tiny browser window; OmniPlan on my phone (that exported bugs into my projects); and even more exports and imports using Microsoft Excel or FastTrack Schedule, which is nothing short of a nightmare. Nothing I tried worked reliably (outside of installing Windows on my Mac) until Project Plan 365 came along.
However, as a cautious project planner and one that values my project’s integrity like gold, I was wary of introducing a new tool into my workflow untested, so I put Project Plan 365 through some tough paces first. I might be crazy enough to visit Everest without a warm sleeping bag, but I’m not crazy enough to expose my Project files to untested elements.
Before letting this new app anywhere near a production project file, I did this testing first:
- I created a new project from scratch in Project Plan 365 for Mac, using all the basic features one would expect to use: tasks (both normal and reoccurring), resources (work and materials), baseline, etc.
- Then I downloaded and edited an existing project file (.MPP) with Project Plan 365, one plucked from Microsoft Project Server, to see what happens with a customized project maintained there.
- I tested both project files for interoperability by bringing them back and forth several times between Project 2016, Project Plan 365 for the Mac and the Project Plan 365 iOS app.
I was looking for gotchas, and I have listed those below in the results.
Creating a new project from scratch on my MacBook was a breeze, and I found the scaled-back ribbon interface downright relaxing compared to the cluttered interface of Project 2016. Everything worked as expected. When I opened this newly created file in Project 2016, I found no gotchas.
Editing a customized Project plan downloaded from Project Server didn’t go as well, and depending on what type of customizations you have included in your plans, your mileage may vary. For my test, I used a file with a few custom columns and fields, along with a formula or two, as well as some changes to the Gantt chart’s default formatting.
While Project Plan 365 supports custom columns and fields within a stock view, any Project 2016-included formulas may or may not translate well into Project Plan 365. For example, my go-to RAG indicator column went haywire after traveling back and forth a few times, and I noticed that inactive tasks changed states (to active) after the traversal. Also noted were a few more incompatibilities in master plans, resource pools, custom views and custom Gantt styling.
Housatonic publishes a comparison chart listing the unsupported features of Project Plan 365 vs. Project 2016, so I suppose these gotchas are to be expected, as unsupported functions of Project 2016 are subject to interpretation by Project Plan 365, so what’s a $99 product supposed to do?
Project Plan 365 on Mobile Devices
As for editing my test project plans on my iPhone 6+ and my full-blown iPad Pro, all I can say is fantastic! Imagine sitting seaside, updating your project plans directly on Dropbox or OneDrive, all the while taking in the beach views. (Actually, I did this in the car, on the way to work here in Kathmandu — but a project manager has to dream, no?)
Housatonic has done some smart app programming, as they have made the most common editing tasks easy to see on smaller devices, so I felt comfortable editing Project tasks on my phablet and tablet.
One slight inconvenience is that to work offline (without access to the internet), you have to remember to download the files from the cloud beforehand and then save them back to the cloud when you have a connection.
The only other gotcha I found was minor. If you include a file link inside a note using Microsoft Project, once the .mpp opens on your mobile device, the linked file is now gibberish inside the note. I suspect this is more a mis-function of iOS than a problem with the app. Overall, Project Plan 365 has tons of pros and very few cons.
Differences between Project 2016 and Project Plan 365 for the Mac
Considering that Project Plan 365 costs just a fraction of what Project 2016 costs, one would expect major differences between the two products. After all, some tradeoffs are expected since you’re not using the real deal. I found that Housatonic does a good job in providing the most-used features of Project while leaving out features and functions that, if really needed, would warrant waiting until you’ve returned from your beach vacation and could finish the job on your work machine.
However, I did miss two Project features that I use all the time:
- The Timeline: I love Project’s timeline, and distribute that view much more often than a network diagram or calendar view (which are included in Project Plan 365).
- The Organizer: I missed this immediately after fat-fingering the name of a new working calendar for my resources, as once created, there is no way to change the name of the working calendar without the Organizer. (However, the CEO of Housatonic tells me that this feature is to be added during 2017.)
Others may miss visual reports, master plans and subplans, manual scheduling, Team Planner or resource pools, but as noted, this scaled-down companion product only costs $99!
While I cannot recommend trudging through leech-infested mud in the Congo or sleeping near Everest in a thin sleeping bag, I can recommend traveling with Project Plan 365 as a companion to Project in the following scenarios:
- When you want to update project plans in the field, but only want to carry your phone or tablet;
- When you want to create new plans or edit existing plans on a Mac but without having to install Windows on your Mac; or
- When you need a companion by your side at all times — one that does Project near-perfectly and never causes a fuss when the internet is down.