Merlin 2 Project Management on Mac OS X

Merlin 2 is a project manager for Mac OS X that is as powerful as Microsoft Project, and a lot easier to use. It includes high-end features such as Net Plan charts, resource levelling, and utilisation graphs. Merlin 2 can be used to plan anything, including creative projects. Merlin 2 builds further on the success of its predecessor, and adds a large number of improvements and additions that make the application even more powerful than it was. It has remained just as easy to use as Merlin 1.x, though.

Merlin 2 has excellent support for mind mapping programs. NovaMind was on the import list in version 1. Now MindManager and a whole bunch of other applications are being supported as well. The list includes OmniOutliner, Microsoft Excel and Project, and Entourage for addresses. The list of export formats is even more complete with MindManager, NovaMind and Freemind for mind mapping, OmniOutliner, OPML, MS Project, and delimited files in csv format.

Merlin’s integration with third-party applications also includes iCal for exporting Merlin’s calendars. iCal isn’t just on the export list; it can also be set to synchronise with Merlin 2 so that you can use iCal and even publish those project calendars to others on the team.

Merlin 2 comes with a collection of project templates in both English and German. The templates include templates for developing software, for audits, budget tracking and more, but most of them are aimed at general businesses. I asked ProjectWizards if they had any templates for creative businesses and that proved not to be the case. That doesn’t mean project management can’t make a creative business more efficient. It does imply that you will have to start from scratch, until some users will post templates on web sites for others to download.

As project management in creative environments may be highly individual, this will not happen soon. However, as it says in the “Project management and workflow” section on A List Apart, even something “simple” as designing a web page benefits from planning ahead. When there’s a whole team designing, planning may be the only way to keep chaos at arm’s length.

Templates are one of the new features of Merlin 2 that make it easier to start managing a project faster. The Activities stored in the Library are a second way of speeding up project management. The list contains ‘snippets’ of a project, which you can simply drag and drop to the Activities window where the item will show up. Usually, these items are grouped items so that a number of elements are available with one drop, but you can also have milestones in there, or individual elements of a project.

The reverse is possible too: you can drag a group of items to the Library and store them in there so that they are available for later projects. Library Activities can be dropped in the NetPlan view as well, but it’s harder to see where you have to drop the snippet there because of the Net Plan concept.

The Net Plan by itself is new too. It shows a logical relationship between activities with the option of showing critical paths. Completed tasks can be shown by crossing out the nodes. The view options for the Net Plan are located under the View menu. This view options dialogue can also be accessed by control-clicking or right-clicking with the mouse. The view can be customised, including the gradients, colours and styling of the elements.

The Resources and Utilization views are closely related. In the Resources view you will get an overview of who is working on the project and what role he or she has in the project. The Utilization view shows how much of the resources you are using. To creative users, I believe this view will be the most challenging to understand. For example, if you select a resource to be used 4 days of the week for 20% of its time, chances are that the utilization window will show you the red “over-used” icon when allocating the resource to 4 tasks.

Project Reports: a Bit of XSLT and XML Gets You There

An interesting feature of Merlin 2 that I found particularly powerful while I was testing the application is the new report engine. The first version of Merlin was a bit weak in this respect, but version 2 shines when it comes to report types, and report formats. First of all, you can have Merlin open the HTML or XML file of the report in the external editor you designate in the Preferences. This enables you to create a new report type, without having to start from scratch.

Reports come in templates now. There are half a dozen report templates delivered with Merlin, including one that shows you the list of next activities in a specified period — you can change that period. Also, report templates are included for cost allocation and milestone trends.

The best news on the reporting front, however, is the ability to build your own reports. For the time being, this is not obvious as there is no documentation on the subject, although I soon found out that the reports live in the Merlin application package. Each report is little more than a XSLT document, with CSS, and an info.plist. I do hope that ProjectWizards is going to release some instructions to create new templates, as that would really make the application as flexible and scalable as it possibly can get.

Other novelties and improvements include the miniature map that was added to the activity, Net Plan and utilization view which can be accessed over the “Eye” icon on the bottom left hand of each view in each chart. The selected area of this overview represents the visible part of the view and can be moved while dragging with the mouse. A very powerful search functionality with Spotlight capability is now part of Merlin 2 too.

There is a lot more in Merlin 2 to explore. The good news is that you can get your hands on a demo download that is fully functional for 40 activities. If you have the slightest need for project management, I would suggest you try Merlin 2 out for yourself. You won’t regret it.

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