Innovators? Or Tripping over their egos?
winners and losers in the PM software industry
| || |
Harvey A. Levine
It has been interesting to watch the evolution of products—many entering their second or even third decade of life. Those vendors that are still prospering are those that were willing to let go—they were open to change. Excessive pride is a sign of a self-centered view, of a lack of objectivity. Pride can be a demon, a failing that will stand in the way of flexible, dynamic development. Stewart Alsop referred to this as “tripping over their ego” when talking about Lotus losing position in the spreadsheet market.
Moving to a PC, and then to Windows, is not enough to make or keep a product a winner. Too many developers came out with a leading-edge product ten years ago and then stayed with a relatively stagnant design while the rest of the industry passed them by.
If you want to see the most successful vendors and products of the ‘90s, look for those that were willing to accept change. Look for those that were repeatedly willing to be innovative, rather than milk an old design. Look for those that were willing to explore the full capability of new hardware and software technology, rather than just make a product available for that technology. Porting a product to Windows or providing support for client/server environments does not necessarily make a product better or ensure its success.
Look for developers that invest strongly in market research. It is not enough to have a good product idea. It must correspond to what the market needs, wants, and is willing to pay the price for (whether cost or support). It is not enough to get feedback from existing customers. An expanding company needs to find out what its potential customers want. It is important to support your users, but real growth and strength comes from expanding the user base.
Many of the less dynamic “old-timers” among the developers are generating more revenue “servicing” old clients than selling software. While this may relieve cash flow problems, eventually, with a lack of development and the lack of “new blood” and new ideas, the company, and the product, will become too weak to survive.
Change will not necessarily always be for the best. But the developers that are open to change are more likely to survive, because they are more inclined to eventually offer a more appropriate product.
Acquisitions, to fill product voids, will usually not succeed fully unless the acquired product is completely integrated into the family of offerings. This means similarity in culture, protocol, look and feel, and terminology—not just connectivity.
There should be an obvious message here for developers of project management software. But what does this all mean to the system buyer? Here are some important things to consider:
1. Age of the company/product does not mean that much. An established company can be up to date and innovative, or can be stuck with an old dog. A new product may take a few years to mature (be careful of very new products) but may have good features and even better promise.
2. Make sure that recent acquisitions have been fully integrated into the company's product line (where promoted as part of a multiple product solution). Often such acquisitions are primarily to obtain a user base or programing or marketing expertise rather than software. It can take about two years or so to see the benefit of such acquisitions in the product line, if at all.
3. Look at the track record. Does the company have a history of offering frequent improvements, responsive to both current and targeted user needs?
4. Company size matters. Does the vendor have adequate staffing and revenue to provide support and product development?
5. Look at the growth curve. Is company revenue and staff growing?
6. Avoid excessive sameness, over time. Products should exhibit some metamorphic development as they change to suit the environment. Some changes can be bothersome because they may necessitate re-education. But, such change, when it responds to user needs, improved technology, changes in culture and custom, will generally extend the useful life of the product.
7. Has the product been developed for or ported to a graphical user interface (Windows, Motif, etc.)? And has that development fully taken advantage of the GUI?
8. Look for freshness and innovation. The developer is likely to be more dynamic and responsive.
9. Look for openness.
- Open APIs
- Published data specifications and standards
- Features that facilitate import and export (connectivity) and third-party add-ons
- Features that facilitate product integration into a wider system of software and platform options.
During the past 30 years, I have observed and worked with probably over 50 project management software developers. Several of these are now gone from the scene. Several others have been acquired by other vendors. Of this latter group, some products have been improved by the new owner, are fully supported and viable. Others are just being “serviced.” That is, older users are being provided with support, but there is little product development or new sales. And the support function is fairly small.
Of the still large array of viable vendors, some are in decline, or just holding on. Although the overall sales of project management software is growing, most of that growth has been realized in sales of Microsoft Project. Just a handful of other project management software vendors are experiencing significant growth. I‘m not going to dwell on the developers and products that are gone or near dissolution. Nor can I report fairly (in this limited space and time) on those that are in the holding-on category. I will, however, throw caution to the wind and provide some commentary on those vendors and products that I feel have demonstrated support for the healthy criteria outlined above.
You can't talk about project management software today without mentioning Microsoft Project. Far from being the perfect project management software package, it has leaped to the top of project management software sales. There can be no doubt that this is due, at least in part, to the leveraging effect of being part of the vast Microsoft offerings. Many people are finding MSP on their desks, without selecting it. Others are choosing MSP as part of a total Microsoft solution. Yet, credit most go to Microsoft for their persistent marketing research, and their response to the market. Release 4.0, for instance, in response to feedback from potential users, emphasized “helping hand” features, such as Cue Cards and Wizards, and workgroup functions. These features, while failing to address complaints about shortcomings in actual critical path scheduling functions, do address the concerns of many of the newer members of the project management community. Microsoft Project certainly utilizes today's platforms well (both Windows and Macintosh), and exhibits innovative solutions to user needs. MSP also integrates well with other products—both from Microsoft and third-party vendors (which Microsoft uses to supplement features lacking in the base product).
Scitor's Project Scheduler 6 has won critical acclaim from users and the media, without the benefit of other PC-based applications. Directly competitive with MSP in price, it is a different product entirely. Lacking some of the user aids, it more than makes up for it in its scheduling, resource management, and workscope organization features. PS6 also provides stronger multiproject and summarization features, and an innovative and powerful report writer. The result is that PS6 can provide most of the typically desired functions without resorting to external products.
Both of these products use their platforms well and provide innovative viewing and inputting protocols. Both support the development and tracking of workscope, schedules, resources and cost. And both companies are certain to be around for some time. But do choose carefully, because the differences may be critical to your needs and successful use.
Two well-established project management software vendors (Primavera and Symantec) have recently made strong and innovative moves, each in a direction away from where they established their reputation. In each case, these developments have built upon recognized and respected capabilities, but the vendors did not allow their prior developments and successes to constrain their creativity or design concepts.
Developed by Breakthrough Software and later acquired by Symantec, Time Line was once the product of choice among newer users of project management software. Five generations of the DOS version, balancing functionality with user-friendliness, met many user's needs, but failed to keep up with the growing demand for a graphical user interface and support for multiproject scheduling. The GUI needs were addressed by a Windows version, which turned out to be more of an upgrade of Symantec's On Target than a GUI version of Time Line. On Target was an innovative attempt to provide a scheduling program for the layman, avoiding technical jargon, and minimizing functions.
Last year, Symantec set out to deal with all of these needs with a new Time Line for Windows 6.0. To address the multi-project, multi-user needs, the new Time Line moved to a SQL database platform. A report writer (based on Crystal Reports), offered as an option with version 6.0, has been bundled with the most recent version, 6.1. Now, with a strong feature set and support for Windows, multi-project/multi-user, and advanced data handling and reporting, Time Line has moved away from its original novice user base. In order to provide improved customer support, Symantec has recently spun off the Time Line product group as an independent (but Symantec-owned) corporation: Time Line Solutions Corporation. TLSC will provide an expanded Customer Support Center (in Novato, California) offering training, consulting, and customization.
Primavera Systems Inc. is another company that had established a strong position early in the period of the shift to microcomputers. Primavera Project Planner (P3) was the predominant choice of power users and construction industry applications on the PC. Although significantly higher priced than the products discussed above, and with a slightly steeper learning curve, P3 was recognized as a solid performer, and sold well. Eventually, P3 also was faced with the need to support GUI and multi-project requirements. Its users waited patiently while PSI labored on a Windows version. When finally released, P3 for Windows provided a nice balance between the accepted functional formats of the DOS version and the interface advantages that were possible in Windows. Of all of the older DOS products that were moved to Windows, P3 is one of the better adaptations. This required some fresh thinking about how to take advantage of the view screen possibilities in Windows. Through all of these changes the data structure was maintained. Therefore, users of both DOS and Windows versions of P3 can access a common project file, simultaneously.
Facing competition from the popular-priced group of project management software products (such as Microsoft Project and Project Scheduler 6), Primavera recently elected to completely revamp its SureTrak low-end scheduler. Acquired several years ago as a DOS product, the new SureTrak Project Planner for Windows (STW) is a masterful balance of numerous demands. The interface utilizes most of the innovative looks of the new P3 for Windows. STW also is fully compatible with P3. In fact, an STW project can be saved in STW and/or P3 formats. The latter can be opened up in P3 as if it was a P3 project. With all of this P3 compatibility, old Sure-Trak users will still find most of the DOS SureTrak functions in the new version.
So now, Primavera clients have a choice of two Windows-based project management programs, which can be used separately or in consort. SureTrak, like all products in its competitive group, has resource calendars and real-time scheduling. P3 retains its task calendars and batch scheduling. However, I just looked at a Beta of release 1.1 of P3 on my 100 MHz Pentium. In my test of a small project, a complete sequence of scheduling, resource leveling, and printing a diagnostic report to the screen took less than 5 seconds. This is pretty close to real-time. P3 also includes ReportSmith (a report writer) and Buy The Hour (a time capture program).
Another product gaining early position in the PC-based project management software market was ABT‘s Project Workbench. PW became very popular among users in the Information Technology sector, with its emphasis on people planning and tracking. PW was also another product that suffered from a less-than-attractive user interface when compared to the emerging GUI-based products. It was easy to learn and use (capitalizing on Lotus-style menus), but its character-based screens had their limits. When ABT designed a Windows-based version of PW, they didn't stop at just changing the interface. Project Workbench for Windows incorporates a clever and very powerful view generator. This function creates multifaceted views that far exceed anything available from other products. All views are printable, and serve as reports. All views can be named and stored in expandable outline lists. In fact, there can be multiple sets of view libraries (as they are called) for different system users. Although the basic functionality of Project Workbench did not change significantly with the release of PWW, the new version appeared to be much more powerful because of the view generator—and I have actually found it to be so.
These are some of the products that have not stood still, but respond to the market and represent innovative design. There are others. For instance, Digital Tools has developed AutoPLAN II as a GUI-based tool for Unix users. Developments are in progress for a multi-platform, client/server system that uses a Unix server. Additional products and open APIs will enhance the overall product line.
The jury is still out on two product lines that are just emerging. Artemis Prestige, ported from DOS to Windows (as well as VAX) by Lucas Management Systems, did not represent a good adaptation of the Windows interface. Most of the capabilities and features expected in a Windows interface were missing. LMS is introducing a new line of products that will work together to support scheduling needs. These include Artemis ResourceView, Artemis ProjectView (Prestige), and Artemis TrackView (Time Reporting). We'll have to see if the new integrated product suite makes better use of user interface technology.
Welcom Software Technology's Open Plan is another product that has suffered from its reliance on a character-based interface and an x-base (dBASE, FoxBASE) file format. Early looks at the new Open Plan Professional for Windows showed promise, but there seems to be delays in full release of the new product. There is also a potential for a low-end version of OP (OPPro is about $6,000). This could replace Texim Project, an acquisition by Welcom that was difficult to integrate with Open Plan because the product design structures and language of the two products were so far apart.
Eventually the users will decide who was innovative and responsive—and who tripped over their ego. I‘ll continue to throw in my two cents worth. Want to throw in your two cents? I‘d like to hear from you. You can reach me at 76153,1552 on CompuServe.
Harvey A. Levine, principal, The Project Knowledge Group, Saratoga Springs, New York, has been a practitioner of project management for over 30 years and is a past chairman of the Project Management Institute.
PM Network ● July 1995