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I might be channeling a little Douglas Adams in that headline, for those fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but not panicking is exactly how we should all approach the inevitable end of Microsoft Project Online. There are several good reasons for approaching its demise with tranquility, not the least of which is Microsoft signaling it well in advance. While there is no firm end date announced (expect it in 2024), they are actively promoting the new alternatives before the widely used product goes into the great big software repository in the sky. So, what any user of Project Online should do, is have a good old think about what can replace Project Online, and how the end of one tool might make space for the introduction of a better alternative.

If you’re interested in the what, why, where, how and of course when of the end of Project Online, you can check out our webinar dealing with all of that, hosted by myself along with my colleague Marc Soester.

A long history makes Project Online obsolete

First, I’d invite you to look at where Project Online came from and how it fits into the Microsoft Project scheme of things. It is a Grand Old Dame of project management, which makes it…dated. In fact, the base technology is a good 30 years old. In those intervening years, not only has technology moved on – a LOT – but so has project management. We’ve gone from Waterfall to the (notable) introduction of Agile, along with folks using a wide and growing range of other tools, techniques and approaches. The ‘project manager’, too, has gone from being a formal designation to encompass people with a range of capabilities and training behind them: the citizen project manager is in effect an information worker, and the start of a skills continuum all the way up to your professional practitioners wielding methodologies like PRINCE2, Six SIGMA, Kanban, Critical Path, PMBOK, and so on.

It’s a wider audience; the revolution is that there are more people doing more kinds of work using project management tools. This means these people, handling everything from a small campaign initiative all the way through to the design and production of a new jumbo jet, need more versatile, more capable tools. And they have them, too, whether formal or informal – with everything from Excel upwards in use today.

This is precisely why ‘don’t panic’ is so applicable. The world has moved on, so it is time for Project Online to move on, too.

Mind the gaps

To date, Microsoft’s project management tools have left a few large gaps that enterprise project managers and PMOs will need covered when Project Online leaves the scene. There’s Project Online for the professional project manager and PMO; Project for the informal project manager taking care of smaller initiatives, and then Planner for work and task management. Microsoft has recognised that there are a variety of people out there – but as I said, it is a continuum, and Microsoft’s solutions don’t quite cover the lot.

Planner is an ideal tool for individuals and small teams to manage tasks, collaborate on small deliverables and track basic work assignments. The new kid on the block, Project for the web, is a cloud-based project management offering that started off as an ideal solution for informal project managers and mid-weight projects but lacked the capability to deal with enterprise level or complex project management. Project Online, coupled with Project Desktop, is the enterprise level solution providing effective scheduling, financial and resource management capabilities to deal with large and complex projects.

Project for the web, built on the low-code Power Platform, is where Microsoft is investing and there have been a number of enhancements to the product over the last few years to start bridging the gap to Project Online’s functions, but beware, gaps there still are.

In fact, it is precisely because of the way the Microsoft project solutions lineup that we developed Altus, which provides something of an umbrella for all types of projects and project managers, extending from the strategic, enterprise and complex, down to BAU initiatives. Doing that, we believe, is the only true way you can achieve a complete view of all projects, while also providing everyone with a tool that works for their initiative or task.

Now, we expect there’s probably two to three years before Microsoft fully pulls the plug on Project Online, so you do have some time before doing anything, but beware – there will be no further investment in this platform and support will ramp down as the end date approaches.

Examine your options

What are the options? One is staying with Microsoft Project, and losing Project Online and being aware that the replacement – Project for the web – isn’t the same thing. This means leaving some of your citizen PMs short, as they may find Project overwhelming or cumbersome, and that you’re only addressing part of what your project managers need. You could introduce something like Primavera P6 for the citizen PMs and BAU but that is a scheduling tool and there are limitations in gaining that all-important complete visibility across all projects.

Or you could look at something like Altus, which is designed to work with all the tools out there – from spreadsheets upwards, and the various Microsoft tools including Project, Project for the web, and Planner (and yes, Excel too), and any others. This means nobody is forced into using anything they find intimidating or unwieldy. It also means the PMO can truly take control of everything going on in the business, because there is seamless integration with all of these tools for consolidated and precise reporting.

If you have an interest in Microsoft Project, and would like to know more about where it came from and where it’s going, I’d encourage you to take a look at the webinar. We ran several polls with nearly 100 people who signed in, gaining some fascinating insights into how project managers like you are approaching the Project Online end-of-life. We also share a few more insights, including methods of transition being taken by our customers, along with our own preferred ways of getting customers onto a more robust solution. Take a peek – and as always, get in touch if you’d like to know more.