Is Project Online ready to replace Microsoft Project?

The desktop application is still there, but the heart of Microsoft's new approach to project management is the online Project service built on Dynamics and integrated with the Power platform. How does it compare to the veteran desktop tool?

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When we looked at the online version of Project a year ago, it was a fairly basic service built on top of SharePoint with support for modern Groups and a handy feature called Roadmap for getting an overview of multiple projects. That version of Project Online was more or less a placeholder for a new project management system that Microsoft was still building on top of the Common Data Service for Apps platform that powers Dynamics, using the powerful scheduling engine from the desktop and server versions of Project, but still being hosted by SharePoint Online to make it easier to share documents and chat in Teams.

Now that service has launched, where does that leave the desktop version of Project, and which one should you be using?

Beyond boards 

The Project web app lets you start simply in a grid view that looks rather like Microsoft ToDo, creating a project by making a list of tasks the way that you would in a task management app and assigning tasks to people who are already in the system because they're in Teams, or just in your Active Directory. Taking advantage of Office 365 like that saves a lot of preparation time, like adding people to an enterprise resource pool in standard Project fashion. It's also a switch from the traditional top-down approach of the classic Project workflow, with a formal project manager; if your project is more of a collaboration inside a team, you can easily have co-authors who can create, assign and track tasks.

Creating complex tasks is also straightforward: rather than juggling a multi-level task dialog, you make all the different tasks and mark them as sub-tasks to group them together. You don't need to remember to save a project, or to check it in or out as you work on it -- that sounds obvious for modern web apps, but it's something you still have to do with the desktop version of Project and Project Server. If you have tasks that are similar, or that repeat in multiple projects, you can copy and paste them.

You can add more than the basic fields to tasks in your project, including custom formulae, but so far there are only eleven options rather than the 300-plus in classic project. 

Planning tools like Trello have made Kanban boards familiar to a mainstream audience and Project inherits the board view from Planner (which is now built by the same team). You can group the board view in several ways, like by how far tasks have progressed, or use buckets for classifying tasks in whatever way makes most sense to you. Tasks that are due soon or today are highlighted in yellow; tasks that are overdue are highlighted in red, in both grid and board view -- and that works in the high-contrast mode that's now available to improve accessibility.

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Timeline view shows the duration and dependencies of tasks in your project.

Image: Mary Branscombe/TechRepublic

Fill out the start and end dates on a task and it automatically gets scheduled (something you used to have to select for each project); the timeline view (which is a Gantt chart without the intimidating name) lets you drag tasks to the right date, drag to allocate more or less time, and drag them around to reschedule them. You can also drag the dot that appears next to a task to make it depend on another task, or you can open the detail pane and add dependencies there. Click in the field and it suggests a few tasks; start typing the name of the task you need done first and the list filters down to matching tasks to choose from. Again, this seems obvious, but in desktop Project setting dependencies is much more fiddly because it means looking up the task number. 

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Project knows that most people only work Monday to Friday and will automatically move tasks to working days. 

Image: Mary Branscombe/TechRepublic

This is a much more fluid and intuitive way of building a project, but start and finish dates will automatically set or be recalculated based on task length and what tasks depend on. That includes changing dates so that they're based on business days -- a seven-day task takes more than a week. Calendars know about official holidays in different regions, so UK staff will be scheduled over Thanksgiving. You can also create custom calendars that include weekends if your business includes conferences and expos, or that mark which days part-time staff work so tasks assigned to them will show as taking as many days as necessary to fit their schedules. You get a pop-up notification to let you know about the changes. The more details you add about how much work a task involves and how much has been done, the more of that you'll see when you hover over a task.

When you need people that aren't in Office 365, or resources like printers, vehicles or rooms, you can create those as contacts if they're people or bookable resources if they're not. You can also add services like printing shops, which are available to you through Dynamics. In future, Microsoft is planning to add more Dynamics features directly to Project like budget analysis, resource management, and expense and time tracking. You can already set stages, phases and workflows for your projects by building those in SharePoint Online.

An increasing number of projects involve technology: the tasks and deliverables you're putting into Project might be an Adobe Cloud marketing campaign or JIRA tickets. Because it's based on Dynamics, Project gets the same connectors as Power Automate (previously Microsoft Flow), so you can integrate data from those systems directly rather than having to copy, paste or type everything again by hand. 

SEE: Microsoft Teams: A cheat sheet (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Similarly, when you want more than the standard project views, the Project reporting system is a template pack of nine reports in Power BI, so you can see the state of projects at a glance, find out what team members are working on, use the natural language Q&A to understand them better, or build your own visualisations in Power BI Desktop. The templates and dashboards you make in Power BI show up in Teams. Actions taken in Project can also be triggers for Power Apps that can do things like posting into a Teams channel to alert people to issues in the project, or you can create Power Apps that let people report problems with a task that update the Project plan. 

If you want to use more of the Power platform, you can use the AI Builder tool to, say. build a model that predicts which projects are likely to succeed based on feedback from project managers on previous projects, and which projects have enough tasks falling behind that they're running into problems and need more attention.

Project online and off

Project Online shifts project management to the cloud, but not in quite the same way that Office 365 shifts Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook to the cloud, where the web versions are near-duplicates of widely used tools that will remain in wide use.

If you want, you can continue using the desktop version of Project as a client for the Project Online service, making it a replacement for Project Server in the way that Office 365 replaces Exchange and SharePoint Server: you don't have to set up and maintain your own server hardware and software, and you don't have to handle remote access.

Users can use the Project web app from a phone or tablet, or when they just don't need the full power and complexity of Project Professional (which gets rebranded as Project Online Desktop Client, but is the same software, with a subscription rather than a permanent licence). The cost of the desktop client licence puts the subscription cost up -- from £7.50/$10 per user per month to £22.60/$30 (or more if you want portfolio management).

But the desktop version of Project was never as widely used as, say, Excel, and it remains a tool for experts and project management professionals. The Project Online service doesn't try to replicate or replace the desktop client, which formal project managers will likely continue to use, and which does have some features not yet in the Project web app.

Senior managers and executives who want to look at the state of a project would be unlikely to turn to the classic Project desktop app, but will be comfortable in the Project web app. And although the view-only plan for keeping an eye on projects without actually working on them is no longer listed on Microsoft's website, it's still available to enterprises.

However, the new Project service has its own complexities, due in part to the way it relies on SharePoint. For extremely large projects, high numbers of resources or multiple calendars, you may need to do some performance tuning.

'Accidental' project managers who have to coordinate a team and deliver something will find the Project web app a more natural evolution that brings them most of the value of Project without the formality and complexity. But while it's intended to be easy to get started with, the full scheduling engine and dependency tracking, the overview of multiple projects with Roadmap and advanced features like portfolio management (in the more expensive subscriptions) mean the new Project isn't just for the basics. If you've already got your organization on Office 365 and the Power platform, the integration with Teams and Power BI dashboards and Power Automate connectors allows you to customise and extend Project in very sophisticated ways.

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