Microsoft Project 2010 at First Glance

Microsoft’s Office 2010 Engineering blog ran a nice overview of Project 2010 back in October, a quick read that highlights some of the new features in the upcoming release.  Now that the public beta has been available for a few weeks, I’ve finally had a chance to see what they’re talking about—and I must say I’m impressed.  Changes to Project have been positively glacial in many ways, especially compared to the pace of change in the Office suite.  Project for Windows debuted in 1990, for example, yet it wasn’t until sixteen years later that users gained the ability to Undo more than a single action arrived. 

It is immediately apparent when you open Project 2010 that this time is different: there’s a lot here that’s new.  Consider, for example, some of the changes you see as soon as you fire the program up and load a plan:

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(click picture to enlarge)

  • The Ribbon – The first thing you notice is that the “Fluent” or ribbon interface introduced in Office 2007 has finally arrived in MS Project.  I liked the idea of the ribbon the first time I saw it in Office, but in practice, I hated that Microsoft had moved all the commands I had spent years learning to find.  That the ribbon is supposedly easier for new users did little to elicit sympathy.  So far, I’ve found the transition to be less annoying in Project 2010, I think in part because Office has moved me up the ribbon learning curve, and partly because Project has a smaller command set than the main Office programs, so there’s less to hunt down.  The best news here is that the Project 2010 ribbon is fully customizable, so if you don’t like where Microsoft has put something, you can move it.  The ribbon definitely makes some things more intuitive, so I’m cautiously optimistic I’ll come to like the new interface.

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  • The Timeline – After the ribbon, the next thing you notice in Project 2010 is the timeline that appears beneath it.  The timeline is a cool enough feature that it’s worth reading Heather O'Cull’s detailed description, but to summarize, it lets you easily translate the dependency-driven, Gantt chart view of the world that project managers are trained to manage into a straightforward timeline view that’s more accessible for other stakeholders.  A timeline has been a prominent feature in almost every steering committee or end user kick-off presentation I’ve seen, but until now, creating one has been a manual exercise in PowerPoint, one that could require significant rework when project dates change.  In Project 2010, it’s all generated automatically, and updated dynamically.  I suspect this will be one of Project 2010’s more popular new features.

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  • The Entry Grid and the Gantt Chart – The next change you notice are the improvements to the data grid and the Gantt chart.  Text in cells wraps, and row heights adjust automatically, so you can read the full name of each task.  No more choosing between either partially obscured task names and ridiculously wide columns!  There is also a new look to the bars themselves, by default, as grab handles are visible on either end of the task bar.  This is a visual indication of Project’s new user-controlled scheduling features paradigm, which the Project Team blog describes as “a collection of features designed to make Project a more flexible planning and schedule management tool. The idea is that you, as the project manager, can have complete control over when a task should happen. If and when appropriate, you can leverage Project's powerful scheduling engine to help forecast the date of a task based on various factors like dependencies, calendar, constraints, etc. But at any time, you have the flexibility to manually override Project's automatic calculations.”  Manually scheduled tasks don’t move based on the location of predecessor tasks, so you can, for example, lay out a plan by hand, then turn on automatic scheduling for individual tasks or for the entire project, providing very granular control over the schedule.  You could use constraints to manually lock down tasks in earlier versions of Project, but you would spend a lot of time fighting with the scheduling engine.  I can see this new style of scheduling being particularly useful during the execution phase of a project, where you may want to manually adjust the scheduled dates of certain tasks without upsetting the rest of the schedule.

Again, these are just the features you see without leaving the initial view.  The full extent of the changes in Project 2010 go much deeper, not only in the traditional desktop program but also in how it integrates with SharePoint and Project Server.  The Project team has published posts that detail some of the new capabilities in more detail.  Here are some of my favorites:

It’s nice to see Microsoft making so many improvements to this most popular of project management tools.

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