I’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.
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! 🙂
I too have been a user of MS Project and felt your pain. With MS Project you have to know EXACTLY how your project is going to flow, if you leave something out-it’s cumbersome to insert and correct the following events. One could argue that you should set your outline up in Bonsai and then transfer it to MS Project, but why bother. I think it’s better to use Bonsai to outline your project, I only wish it had other project management tools incorporated. Maybe Natara could take Project @ Hand and link it to Bonsai?!?
I truly like your idea of exporting and posting to the web. As long as all involved know that one person is the project owner and will update the data. One question though, how would a secondary user import an outline posted on the web? I see the import function in Bonsai, but how easily is that done?
Thanks for your comment!
In answer to your questions, it’d be great to have a desktop app for Project@Hand so that you’re not dependant upon MS Project, but I don’t think they have anything like that in the works. It would be nice though to have something in between Bonsai and Project@Hand.
As for the syncing with the web, that’s not possible with the templates that I’m using. It is possible to sync outlines though albeit an import and replace method. In doing research for this article, I came across this weblog post:
Which educated me a little bit about OPML, which is an XML-based format that allows exchange of outline-structured information between applications running on different operating systems and environments. Bonsai supports it, so that’s one way that you could exchange outlines back and forth. However, for Bonsai users, it would be just as easy to post the .otl file to the web. 🙂
I’m a big Bonsai Fan also … and your HTML export is REALLY great! could you share it with the Bonsai community?
As soon as I have it done, I plan on “releasing” it. It’s fairly straight forward, but I don’t want to release something that’s half baked and then have to provide a bunch of support the help people get it ready for their use. Make sense?
I’m almost done, and as soon as it is, I’ll be sure to share it on the Natara boards, as well as here. 🙂
Looks plenty good enough to show clients or log work progress for others to view.
I see you’ve linked each task…perhaps with an eye to linking to the accompanying notes or perhaps the other relevant details of a given task? I like that!
Are you still working on the polish of this export manipulation program/script? I’m of course curious since I’d like to use it myself to both document active and archive past progress on different projects via bonsai exports.
Your dynamic interaction would be a welcome expansion on the existing HTML export.
Just discovered this today, 25 August. Looks terrific. Have you had the chance to make this “good enough” for distribution?
You know, you could sell it as a “add-in”.
Hi, it’s many years already 🙂
Have you managed to release it?
It HAS been a few years, hasn’t it?
Unfortunately, I moved to Mac OS and Natara has chosen not to support Mac OS, so I’ve had to move to other tools to manage my projects.
I am currently using “Things” from Cultured Code (http://culturedcode.com/things/)