LinuxWorld: SaaS rival to Microsoft Project goes open source

A young maker of web-based project management software is jumping headfirst into the open-source world as a way to woo users from the dominant, but possibly vulnerable, Microsoft Project.

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A young maker of web-based project management software is jumping headfirst into the open-source world as a way to woo users from the dominant, but possibly vulnerable, Microsoft Project.

Projity is releasing a free desktop version of its 18-month-old Project-On-Demand service. Called OpenProj, the still-in-beta software will be bundled with several leading flavors of the Linux operating system, according to an interview last week with Projity CEO Marc O'Brien.

Confirmed distributions so far include Mandriva, Mint and the Gentoo-derived Sabayon. All are among the 10 most popular Linux distributions, according to DistroWatch.com.

Projity is also talking with OpenOffice.org and Sun Microsystems, the maker of StarOffice, about integrating OpenProj in some fashion with their open-source productivity suites, O'Brien said.

Finally, Projity plans to invest "significant resources" into driving the creation of an open standards document format for project management that would be an alternative to the .mpp/.mpx formats used by Microsoft Project, and would eventually become a subset of the OpenDocument Format natively used by OpenOffice and StarOffice. OpenProj can open Project files and also runs on Windows, Mac OS X and Unix OSs.

O'Brien hopes these moves will help OpenProj eventually win between 7 million and 11 million users - making it a true rival to Microsoft's market-dominating Project software, which currently claims 20 million users.

"These are not pie-in-the-sky numbers," said O'Brien, who led and sold an earlier web-based project management software vendor, WebProject, before founding Projity.

He said Project 2007's high price makes it vulnerable. Listing at $599 (£294) for a full standard desktop edition and $999 (£490) for the professional standard one ($349 (£171.3) and $599 (£284) for the respective upgrade editions; server versions of Project cost more), Project 2007 cannot be purchased as part of any of Office 2007's eight bundles.

In an email reply to a request for comment, Irwin Rodrigues, director of the Microsoft Office Project team, said he "respects that customers have an opportunity to choose from a variety of alternatives ... that said, we find that customers make their choice based on business value, and they have consistently chosen Microsoft Office (and Microsoft Office Project) because it gives them the tools they need to be more productive, better able to create documents, collaborate and share information."

Jack Dahlgren, a project management software consultant, likes the OpenProj beta, which he said has a similar look and feel to Microsoft Project but better ease of use.

"My feelings are that OpenProj is significant because it offers cross-platform use of Microsoft Project files," he said, though he thinks Projity's user projections are "quite optimistic."

OpenProj is not the first open-source rival to Microsoft Project. It was preceded by Open Workbench, an open-source version of the Clarity software from CA.

Nor was Project-On-Demand, released a year and a half ago, the first Web-based alternative to Microsoft Project. Earlier players include Vertabase and eProject.

But Project-On-Demand has shown some momentum, with year-over-year revenues growing an average of 70% during the last four quarters. Projity has 100 companies as customers. O'Brien said the total number of subscribers - there is a $19.99 monthly charge for regular users and a $7.99 monthly plan for "lite" users who only need to be able to view, not edit, project management documents - is under six figures.

O'Brien said that Project-On-Demand, which is integrated with Salesforce.com's CRM Web service, will also be integrated with two other on-demand platforms by next quarter: NetSuite's CRM service and WebEx Connect.

As for the open-source desktop version, officials from both OpenOffice.org and Sun Microsystems confirmed that they are talking with Projity, though both cautioned that nothing has been worked out.

"We're interested in giving our users an alternative to Microsoft Office Project," said Louis Saurez-Potts, community steward for OpenOffice.og. But he said that OpenOffice, which is composed of six applications, is unlikely to add any more apps to its core bundle.

"The general community sentiment now is to go with agility and lightness rather than to add components," he said.

OpenProj's expected license could also be a problem. O'Brien said current plans are to use the Common Public Attribution License (CPAL) approved last month by the Open Source Initiative (OSI).

That would pose a problem for directly integrating OpenProj with OpenOffice.org, which is distributed using the Lesser General Public License (LGPL), Saurez-Potts said.

Dahlgren also said that Projity's strategy so far of mostly aping Microsoft Project in terms of features will lead to diminishing returns. He would like to see the Projity "go beyond what MS Project offers by offering advances in usability or in the key areas of networked scheduling, resource management and portfolio management."

More news from LinuxWorld here: LinuxWorld 2007 Roundup

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