A screenshot of BonsaiI’ve been a huge fan of Natara Software’s award winning program Bonsai. It’s an outliner program that runs on your Palm OS device, but it also sports an excellent Windows desktop application as well. For the vast majority of clients that I consult with that say that they want to learn Microsoft Project, do much better with Bonsai. It’s much easier to learn and to use and for most projects it’s all you really need.

That’s really how I stumbled on to Bonsai years ago. I had tried MS Project, but found that I spent most of my time fiddling with the software and not doing the work. There were just too many options and variables to deal with and it made the overall experience cumbersome. In looking for a Palm OS based solution, I came across Project @ Hand, Natara’s other project application that allows you to work with MS Project files on your Palm. I saw Bonsai and thought, “Maybe that’s all I need?”, and sure enough it was! So for several years I’ve been using Bonsai to keep track of tasks and projects. It’s a wonderful tool and syncs like a dream with my desktop.

As I began working with more and more distributed teams, I found that I needed to find an online solution. Sure Bonsai was great for me, but there wasn’t any way that I could share the data with anyone else easily. You can beam outlines back-and-forth, but there’s no way to “sync” them should either of you make changes to the file. Bonsai is simply not designed to work in a collaborative environment.

Thinking that I had to leave Bonsai and move to something else, I explored various online groupware solutions. Many of them were simply too complicated, but I did find one that I liked a lot called phpCollab. I used it with several clients and even petitioned Natara to support it, but I eventually gave up on it.

What I discovered is that clients didn’t want to learn a whole new user interface just to keep track of their projects. It was much easier to just call, or e-mail me. In addition, I found myself spending more time on setup and tweaking than on doing the actual work. So I went back to Bonsai and just resolved myself to very lengthy e-mail charting the progress of various projects. It was simply one of those cases where “you just can’t get there from here.”

Then one day I stumbled across a feature called “Export” that sparked my interest. On the Windows Desktop, you can choose to export your outline into a variety of formats: XML, CSV, Text, and HTML. What interested me about the export feature is that if I could figure out how it worked, then I could export my outlines and post them on the web. Clients could then review them and see at a glance where we were on the project. Granted, they couldn’t interact with the outline by checking things off, but that was OK. I didn’t really want to give them that kind of freedom anyway.

And that’s really where everything kind of fell into place. So often the goal of a web based system is to enable multiple people to work with the same data. That may be the ideal thing for some, but my experience has been quite a bit different. Although there may be various people working on a project, inevitable, there’s only one project manager and it’s his job to keep the list in check. Others may be involved in a project quite heavily, but they usually report to the project manager as to their progress. In this scenario, most of the communication is done via e-mail and telephone and those tools work quite well.

Using Bonsai with the export feature allows everyone to easily “get on the same page” without having to learn a whole new UI (user interface) and updates can be done simply and easily through the Bonsai desktop. The only remaining hurdle was to figure out how to make it all work. After some research I found that by using the right images, CSS and some JavaScript to interact with the DOM of your web browser, you could easily replace the Bonsai experience on the web. The best part about the export template is that the items are created as with simple bulleted lists.

Want to see for yourself? Simply select this link (opens a new window) and browse this sample task list I’ve created.

It’s not quite perfect yet. I’d like to replace the “+” and “-” signs with arrows, but I haven’t had the time to get that working just yet. I know it can be done, I just have to sit with the code for awhile and figure it all out. I also want to detail how I did this so that other Bonsai users can do this for themselves, but that’ll happen later once I work all the kinks out.

At this point, I just wanted to share with everyone the progress that I’ve made thus far and show just how cool Bonsai is. Feedback, as always, is welcome, so let me know what you think! 🙂