Elevating the Status of Task Management

By Jason Brooks  |  Posted 2011-02-10

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.

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