Elevating the Status of Task Management

By Jason Brooks  |  Posted 2011-02-10 Print this article Print

Tasktop Pro 1.8 stitches together application-lifecycle-management systems with the Web-browsing, document, calendar and e-mail activities that form the context of a specific task.

Task management, while no less central to one's workday than e-mail or calendaring, is the ugly stepchild of productivity applications. At worst, tools for managing to-do-list items tend to occupy some unnoticed corner of a larger application. At best, these capabilities are pushed off into separate products that integrate only weakly into a user's desktop environment. Most often, tracking tasks across a team ends up as yet another chore piled onto an e-mail system not designed for the job.

Tasktop Technologies is out to elevate the status of task management, starting with software developers. Through their use of issue-tracking systems, software developers tend to be more tuned to collaborative task management than most, though they still depend heavily on Web-based applications and e-mail for accessing these systems. Tasktop Pro 1.8, based on the open-source Eclipse Mylyn project, elevates task management for developers by stitching together various application-lifecycle-management systems with the Web-browsing, document, calendar and e-mail activities that form the context of a specific task.

However, more than simply stitching together views of the many different information sources that are required to work on a project into an unwieldy developer dashboard, Tasktop only displays the pieces of information relevant to an active task. In my tests of the product, Tasktop dutifully watched as I opened documents, Web pages and specific source-code files, and added these elements to the context of my active task.

Tasktop 1.8 is available as a stand-alone application or as an Eclipse plug-in. Tasktop Technologies is working on a version of the product, currently in beta, that's delivered as a plug-in for Microsoft's Visual Studio. Tasktop integrates with external issue-tracking and product-management systems through connectors. I tested Tasktop 1.8 with Mozilla's Bugzilla issue tracker, and with the connector for Google Apps. A list of supported connectors, which include Jira, Rally and CollabNet, is available.

Tasktop 1.8 Pro is $99 per seat, and the stand-alone version of the application is available in Windows, Linux and 64-bit Linux versions. I tested the product in its stand-alone Linux 64-bit version, and as a plug-in to Eclipse on both Windows and Linux.

Tasktop 1.8 in the Lab

I tested Tasktop in a couple of different scenarios. I used the product in a hosted environment provided by Tasktop Technologies and pre-populated with Bugzilla and Hewlett-Packard Quality Center repositories. I used this environment to collaborate on a handful of tasks with my contact from the vendor. I also tested the product on my production notebook with a handful of pending projects, including a project for the writing and testing required for this review. For this latter scenario, I mostly stuck to a local task repository that ships with the product, and I integrated my Tasktop installation with my Google calendar and e-mail accounts to test those integration points.

The first step in configuring Tasktop is adding a task repository via one of the available connectors, and configuring the repository with your account information for the system. Next, you create a query to grab some portion of the tasks stored in the repository.

With Bugzilla, for instance, I could create queries using the same dropdown options and search fields that appear in the system's standard Web interface, or I could provide a URL to define the query. Since each repository type stores different information, the interfaces for building queries and for individual tasks look a bit different. However, once configured, tasks from various sources all automatically synchronize with the local Tasktop installation, with each appearing in the product's task list under a folder for each query. I could also apply my own categories to each item so that tasks from different sources could appear together in my list.

In addition, I could schedule due dates for my tasks and synchronize those events with my external calendar-in my case, a Google calendar, though I could also synchronize with an Exchange-based calendar from a Windows machine running Outlook. My tasks appeared alongside other events on my calendar in a schedule applet docked at the bottom of the Tasktop interface. Also on the scheduling and time-management front, I was able to track the amount of time I spent working on each task, create reports based on this information, and export the reports in CSV (comma-separated values) or HTML format.

When I selected a task to activate, Tasktop tracked the files, Web pages and source packages I used while working on the tasks, and stored that information alongside the task. I could remove elements from the stored context, and adjust, with a slider control, the amount of context displayed. When I was working on tasks backed by an external task repository, I was able to attach the task context I'd assembled to the external task source, so that people collaborating with me could access that context.

For the Web-browsing tracking, I could use a browser embedded within Eclipse. Or I could use Firefox 3.6, which (combined with a Tasktop extension) would track the pages I browsed while working on a particular task and add them to my task context. When I switched to a new task, Tasktop directed Firefox to close the set of tabs and open the tabs from my newly activated task.

I ended up writing this review into Google Docs, using the embedded-Web-browser configuration. When I was ready to work on the story, I would activate my Tasktop review task, and my review document at Google would open in the middle pane of my Eclipse instance.

I configured my Tasktop instance to connect to my Gmail account-although I could have similarly accessed any IMAP-based mail account-and created a query that matched messages with a "task" label. I could then label mail messages I wished to act on, and those messages would automatically sync to my task list. From there, I could categorize and edit the e-mail-based tasks, but unlike the issue-tracker-based task repositories, the editing relationship was one-way. I couldn't see the modifications I'd made in Tasktop from Gmail, nor could I attach comments or context back to the Gmail messages.

As Editor in Chief of eWEEK Labs, Jason Brooks manages the Labs team and is responsible for eWEEK's print edition. Brooks joined eWEEK in 1999, and has covered wireless networking, office productivity suites, mobile devices, Windows, virtualization, and desktops and notebooks. Jason's coverage is currently focused on Linux and Unix operating systems, open-source software and licensing, cloud computing and Software as a Service. Follow Jason on Twitter at jasonbrooks, or reach him by email at jbrooks@eweek.com.

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