3 solid project management apps for iOS and Mac

If you’re managing projects within an Apple-based enterprise stack, you have some very good options.

multi tasking project management designer
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Have you ever wondered why wedding planners can charge so much?

It’s because organizing all the elements of a big wedding is a highly complex task with lots of potential points of failure. Most big projects are like that, consisting of numerous tasks with many potential failure points and often including dependencies so intricate that one small detail could derail or delay the entire task, with disastrous effect.

Project managers have always relied on aids that can help them pull project teams together, remain organized, and monitor progress. In the past, that meant spreadsheets, wall charts, and even scale models. These days, the tools have gone digital. Project management software has become a big category, with the various tools that are available being more or less well suited for different tasks. Managers of big projects often rely on Microsoft Project, but that option isn’t readily available for project managers working with an Apple-based enterprise technology stack.

What are the best options for those project managers? Here we look at three Mac- and iPhone-friendly project management and collaboration alternatives that offer the essential tools found in Microsoft Project:

  • MeisterTask
  • Merlin Project
  • OmniPlan

All three are used in some of the world’s biggest businesses. And all three can take a project, break it down into many smaller sub-projects, automate much of the management tasks, and present the results in an attractive, easy-to-follow format that helps project managers monitor progress and predict problems, often making use of Gantt charts.

Here’s a rundown on the good and bad of each.

MeisterTask

The good

  • With the dashboard, you can zoom out across all your projects.
  • The Agenda feature is quite useful, but it’s only available in pro versions and above.
  • Collaboration tools are built in.

The bad

  • Complex to get started with
  • Not yet available on Mac App Store, though iOS app exists

Price

  • Free for up to three projects; paid versions start at $8.25/month

Supports

  • Windows and macOS users can access the web version from many browsers, and a native wrapper is available for both platforms; a mobile app is available for iOS, iPadOS and Android.

First published in 2015, MeisterTask is powerful project management software built around three primary interfaces: dashboard, projects, and tasks. The company positions MeisterTask as a European alternative to Trello, but its capabilities make it a quite good project management assistant, with the advantage of being certified as fully GDPR-compliant. This reflects the reality that some Europe-based enterprises must ensure that confidential project assets are protected under EU privacy law.

mt device group MeisterTask

You can run MeisterTask on any of your Apple devices. (Click image to enlarge it.)

MeisterTask provides a range of views, including both Gantt/timeline views and Kanban boards, that help monitor progress in an easy-to-manage visual style. The boards are customizable, so you can personalize the way your project is run to match the way your teams work.

Tasks are managed using cards — for example, Open, In Progress, and Done — that can be moved across columns on the project board. You add new projects by tapping the + button and then working through numerous setup options.

MeisterTask supports an unlimited number of projects, tasks, and collaborators, with a notification system to keep all those balls in the air as key targets are met or missed.

There are also some powerful tools: task automations help you build workflows, the capacity to store all relevant communications and files inside your task is very helpful, and the ability to watch specific tasks may help you monitor critical project deliverables. (The capacity to create relationships between specific tasks is also an essential.) Dig a little deeper and you’ll find time-tracking, reporting, and search tools.

Most projects see multiple teams making use of multiple apps across their workflow. MeisterTask supports this with integrations with some of the most used solutions, including Zendesk, Slack, Spark, Teams, Microsoft 365 Groups, Outlook, Google Workspace, Dropbox, Box, IFTTT, GitHub, Harvest, and more. It also supports Zapier, which lets you build complex workflows to feed into your project management matrix. But two of the most used features are likely to be the capacity to send emails that MeisterTask will automatically turn into tasks and the ability to get email notifications if a task is moved.

I like the recently introduced reporting tool, which can help identify potential problems in projects, reassign tasks, and measure team productivity. These reports let you quickly get to a bird’s-eye view of what you are managing.

The Agenda feature works a little like Trello. You can pin tasks from any project into your Agenda and create sections for different tasks or needs. Agenda will also suggest tasks you might want to add to it. It should be very helpful for tracking multiple tasks, including those assigned to you, from across many projects, but it is a fee-based feature not available in the free plan.

Working with MeisterTask, I did hit some hurdles. For example, while I quickly became engaged in the beautiful user interface, it took me longer than I’d hoped to create my first project — I experienced a little too much friction adjusting smaller details, and some tools felt a bit hidden. I also felt that some decisions were unnecessarily complex to apply — for example, I think it would be better to assemble your team and set leadership/contributor privileges from within a single interface, rather than requiring access to two. It is helpful, given the occasional complexity of the tool, that the company has provided an extensive selection of tutorial videos online.

Will this solution help you manage your projects? Definitely, and it will do so very well, but it may sometimes require a little more dedication to the tool than to the project itself.

Merlin Project

The good

  • Delivers numerous tools to take a project from visualization to reality.
  • Includes mind-mapping tools and Kanban, project, and Gantt views.
  • You can import into and export from Microsoft Project, Excel, XML, OPML, MindManager, and more.

The bad

  • Relatively limited in-app messaging and commenting system
  • Apple-only
  • Lack of integration with enterprise apps such as Slack

Price

  • $149/year or $14.99/month.

Supports

  • macOS, iPadOS, and iOS; already M1-native for Macs with Apple processors

Developed specifically for Mac, iPad, and iPhone users, Merlin Project is a superbly well-featured, businesslike project management tool with an extensive range of features to help you build powerful and effective work and project breakdowns.

Kick it around and you’ll find an impressively extensive range of easy-to-access project breakdown views, including Gantt charts, PERT, Kanban, and more, but what’s particularly appealing to me is that you can use a good old-fashioned mind map to visualize your project, which can then be turned into a Gantt chart for further refinement. When 7 Habits of Successful People author Stephen Covey said, “The key to creativity is to begin with the end in mind, with a vision and a blueprint of the desired result,” he pretty much defined the best way to approach project management, and a mind map is a great way to create the blueprint.

mindmap en Merlin Project

The mind-mapping feature of Merlin Project is a throwback idea updated for digital operations. (Click image to enlarge it.)

Merlin Project’s powerful resource management and dependencies tools are easy to find and understand. Managers should also explore the Assignments tool, which helps track everything from budget and schedule to the distribution of tasks.

The editing of tasks takes place via a familiar-feeling Inspection window. Select an item and see all the relevant details, enter costs for each project component, and analyze availability — you can achieve all manner of functions here. Windows are clear, and while it isn’t always evident which toggle or switch you need to hit, you’ll get there in time. The developer has also created an extensive set of tutorial resources.

Most projects consist of tiers of organization. As the world of work becomes increasingly asynchronous, remote project management tools must reflect that. One way in which Merlin Project supports this is with the provision of multi-user support. This is smartly done, so that collaborators can continue working in the project file even while offline, with changes synced next time they get online.

I’m a little less impressed with the in-project communication system. While you can add comments and annotations to pretty much everything and automate project management, the fact that most commenting can take place only in-app is a little limiting. While you can add items in a section the application calls Notes, I’d prefer this to integrate with other messaging or note-taking apps for more flexibility.

Integrations with other apps seem a bit limited. All the base Apple, Microsoft Office, and Microsoft Project applications are integrated, as are GrandTotal and others, but Merlin doesn’t play well with Slack or other collaborative apps your teams may already use. It does, however, work well with the critically acclaimed Things task-manager app using AppleScript.

You can synchronize with cloud services such as iCloud Drive, Dropbox, and Box (though only Dropbox and iCloud Drive on iPad, for some reason), but even better (at least when collaboration on documents held in one of those services) is a feature called MagicSync, which syncs changes across multiple users. The application has clearly been built with the needs of enterprise workers and project teams in mind.

OmniPlan

The good

  • The approachable user interface has nested complexity for power users.
  • Includes multiple project views, including Kanban, network, and Gantt.
  • Unique Automation tools can be of great help to advanced users.

The bad

  • No built-in mind-mapping tool
  • Lack of integration with enterprise apps such as Slack
  • No web interface for cross-platform collaboration

Price

  • OmniPlan Standard, $200; OmniPlan Pro, $400 or $20/mo. subscription. Available for iPad, iPhone, and Mac on a universal license.

Supports

  • macOS, iPadOS, iOS

Maybe project management is in Ken Case’s blood. The CEO of the Omni Group recalls that, when he was growing up in Seattle, his father, a project scheduler at Boeing, used to bring home enormous rolls of paper with Gantt charts on them. In any case, the Omni Group, a leading developer of software for the Apple ecosystem, has produced OmniPlan, and it offers what you need to manage any project.

If you have experience using software on Apple’s platforms, OmniPlan will help you get started quickly, with all the complex tools you’d expect to find in project management available as you need them.

omniplan 4 ipad gantt OmniPlan

Gantt charts might be what King & Spalding program manager Greg Cimmarrusti had in mind when he said that being a project manager is like being an artist: “You have the different colored process streams combining into a work of art.” (Click image to enlarge it.)

That’s not to say OmniPlan is a simple solution; it’s not. Despite its approachable interface, not every setting is easy to find. I became a little frustrated when attempting to build a recurring weekly task into a sample project, for example. Fortunately, OmniPlan is also supported by an extensive manual to help you find your way to the tools you need.

What you’ll find is extensive. The application has tools for resource allocation, project scheduling, charts, Gantt views, recurring and manual tasks, and a file format designed for better compatibility with third-party cloud services and with iCloud.

You’ll also find it easy to move between the iPad and Mac, because the UI is pretty much identical on the two platforms. On an iPhone, you’ll be constrained by space, but it still makes sense.

OmniPlan is also a superb tool for managing the most complex tasks effectively, in part through the use of Views, which let you zoom out for the big picture and zoom in to identify dependencies and conflicts.

As with any project management solution, however, the devil sits in the data. The more data you feed it, the more insights it will deliver. It’ll even track your petty cash spending, employee productivity, and essential equipment availability, if you want it to do so and feed it the data. Kick it around and all the features you expect are present, so scheduling violations and the capacity to identify tasks critical to project delivery are rendered easy to find.

There are also some unique features. For instance, OmniPlan lets you assign a measure of effectiveness to each team member. This reflects the reality that more experienced staffers are efficient, sometimes able to handle in a day a challenging assignment that might take more junior staffer a week. Of course, you only have so much time available from those star performers, and this feature helps you manage their availability more effectively.

Situated to the right of the main window, the Project Inspector carries the tools you need to configure each separate task component. It also captures valuable information such as how long that task has taken to run, its due date and how much effort in terms of total staff time has gone into that portion of your project in a summary view (the view you’ll use to reel off stats to clients and management).

The dashboard view is built to reflect the reality that you’ll usually be working on several projects at once. It shows you all your current projects and how they are progressing. If you find one isn’t on track, you can zoom in on each element of it from within this view to identify problems and reallocate resources to expedite the task.

OmniPlan also offers Monte Carlo simulation, a built-in stress test that evaluates how likely it is you’ll deliver your project on time based on an analysis of what happens if any steps within your scheme stall.

Automation is another unique feature, one that should be of great help to project managers with a little coding skill. This makes it possible to create powerful automations that work from within your project, which advanced users may exploit to streamline project management. You can build automations using JavaScript on your Mac that will then also run in OmniPlan on iPads and iPhones.

The one serious omission: OmniPlan does not include a mind-mapping view to help when putting projects together. Merlin Project shows how useful this can be.

Recommendations

There are advantages to each of these applications. While OmniPlan is the most approachable solution, none of these is simple, and inevitably there is a learning curve.

In a sense, one thing all these applications do is encourage you to sit down and think deeply about what you are trying to do, helping you turn each element of that process into actionable data. No matter which of these three solutions you choose, you will at some point need to read the manual.

All three applications have their advantages, and all three are already in use within some of the world’s biggest enterprises. You’ll also find all three are reasonably secure, though you must ensure that any cloud services integrations used pass through your security policy.

Best for compatibility

If compatibility with multiple platforms is your goal, MeisterTask has some of what you need, including Android support, though the cloud-centric nature of the application may be a disincentive to security-conscious enterprises.

Best for project development

Merlin Project is a powerfully featured solution with excellent sync and collaboration tools and a smart mind-mapping feature that you can use to start new projects. The mind-mapping tool is its unique selling proposition.

Best for user experience and sophistication

OmniPlan, mainly because of its lovely user interface and the ease with which you can jump in and get started, with powerful tools to discover over time. The automation features will be useful to advanced users.

My favorite? For me, OmniPlan has the advantage, with Merlin Project a close second.

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Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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