Ooh, Ooh It’s Magic

MerlinIn the twenty-first century, software development has become incredibly easy: if you have a need for a program that you don’t think exists — like, say, a credible alternative to Microsoft Project that runs on Mac OS X— all you have to do is imagine it, then Google it or write about it on your weblog, and there it is; someone else has already thought of it. Somewhere, some enterprising and talented programmer has already coded it and tested it and even built a snazzy little Web site for it and it’s maybe even in its second or third major version. Just like magic.

It’s a cheeky sentiment, but I honestly feel that happens often enough to ring at least partly true. The most recent example being just yesterday, when I asked that very question about project planning software. As several very sharp readers pointed out to me in short order, there are at least a few excellent options out there that I had no idea existed. One of them is called Merlin. I downloaded it, gave it a spin and was immediately floored by how closely it matched what I had been looking for in vain: Gantt chart resource management and budgeting just like Microsoft Project — except Mac-like and elegant.

Merlin Project Plan

Ask and Ye Shall Receive

I was hooked; as it happened, I had to build a new project plan this very morning, so I impulsively reached for my credit card and bought a license for it. After a few hours of work, I was pretty much pleased as punch. Unfortunately, it was only after I had invested a good amount of effort in my plan when I discovered that the program is not without bugs; there’s a nasty rendering error on my system that tends to pop up when scrolling the Gantt view. But it’s the kind of thing that a simple patch will likely (hopefully) resolve; it’s not a show-stopper by any means.

Above: The Merlin interface. Like Microsoft Project, but not.

What’s so great about Merlin is that the interface was designed with an exceeding amount of intelligence and care. It’s obvious that someone very smart and very knowledgeable about the way project managers work (and the way Microsoft Project works) spent a lot of time looking for new efficiencies in the way people interact with this kind of software. For an application niche that I had almost given up on as a permanent province of Redmond, having this program in my toolbox feels a little bit like magic.



  1. merlins user interface is visually very appealing – but there is one BIG issue: i do not see any multi-user functuality – which i think is one of the most important aspects of project management. btw: Fast Track Schedule Single User is $299, and the multi-user (concurrent-user) version has a price tag of $22,475 !!

  2. While we’re on the topic of project planning, it’d be interesting to hear about your practices in executing one in the context of Merlin. IOW, if you had to describe how you go about creating a project plan, including using the budgeting functions, in a few paragraphs, what would that look like? … a mini-How-To is what I’m looking for, I guess …

  3. Hmm, that’s a great idea for an article. It would be tricky to balance the detail that would need to go into a decent how-to with the discretion necessary to preserve ‘trade secrets,’ for lack of a better term. I can give you a quick overview now, and I’ll think about how I can discreetly expand on them in a full-fledged post…

    Basically, most projects can be broken down into phases, and we use our company methodology to understand them as such. They form the basis for the project plan, and since we know basically what happens within each from the perspective of activities and deliverables (thanks to experience, mostly), we assign resources and time that way. It’s pretty much as simple as that.

  4. Not only is Merlin a great Gantt project manager for OS X, but it also works seamlessly with the brilliant mind-mapping/visual-outlining app NovaMind.

    NovaMind has by far the coolest interface and design quality for mind-maps of any app. You use it to brainstorm and flesh out project agendas graphically, then “Export to Merlin” to send the project outline over, where it’s displayed in Gantt form– ready to be annotated with project details. Very, very, cool stuff.


  5. Since Merlin/NovaMind use the XML-based OPML format to exchange their hierarchical outline data, you can also use other cool OS X outline apps that support OPML, as part of a project planning workflow.

    For me these are OmniOutliner, HogBay Notebook, and the powerful DevonThink Pro (still in beta). There’s also ShadowPlan, a great Palm-based outliner that recently released an OS X desktop version to sync with, and should soon export to OPML. (codejedi.com)

    Finally, be sure and check out Near-Time Flow, an amazing new integrated Cocoa app for research, notetaking, blogging, and group collaboration on documents and projects. This thing really pushes the envelope with OS X and WebKit functionality, and loves open standards like a good Cocoa app should: (near-time.com)

  6. has anyone mentioned the project center features in entourage yet? i think it’s a nice feature for personal project planning, though missing gantt charts and HR planning.

  7. Wow, I’m gonna have to check this out. I’ve been looking for the same kind of thing.

    Your comment is very true. There is something of a common unconscious with these things. For example, I’ve recently found myself in quite a few discussions with various people, all looking for something like this. And in the last couple weeks, I’ve run into your post and two posts on Binary Bonsai addressing similar things. It’s always interesting to run into that collective unconscious.

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