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Pyra's Killer App

I had lunch last week with Evan Williams and Matt Haughey, two of the
folks at Pyra, one of the most interesting web app companies this side
of the Mississippi. Pyra is best known for unleashing Blogger on the
world, enabling thousands of webloggers to post snippets of content to
their sites almost instantly.

While Evan, Matt and the rest of the Pyra team has been busy enhancing
and stabilizing Blogger, I've been busy messing around with Pyra
proper, their eponymous web-based project management and collaboration

On its surface, Pyra seems to be a simple task management tool. A
left-hand frame stores an outlined-based hierarchical view of project
information. When an item's selected, information about it is
displayed in the right-hand frame. It's incredibly easy to create a
project, populate it with features, tasks, issues and URLs, and
organize them into folders.

It's Pyra's teaming functionality that makes things interesting. Since
Pyra's on the web, it's designed to be collaborative from moment one.
Pyra will send out email invitations to new team members, and allow
the project owner to designate permissions to each team member (e.g.
"Can only propose new items" or "Cannot be assigned"). Once your
team's in place, you can assign features, tasks and issues to them,
and they can use Pyra's built in "add comment" feature to conduct
inline discussions on very granular portions of the project. Pyra
enables filtered views of project data ("Show me items assigned to me
with a due date one week from now"), highlights new items since your
last login, and automatically logs any edits to any item.

As a web-based app, Pyra also enables geographically disperse teams to
collaborate on projects more effectively. The industry standard tool,
Microsoft Project, has sported out-of-the-box web features for several
years, but (obviously) favors an NT-centric workgroup environment,
preferably with Exchange installed.

Pyra's just in beta, though, and if you look hard, it's beta-ness
shows. It's lacking dependency support, a timeline (or even
GANTT-based) view of project tasks, integration with one or more
third-party web calendar apps (e.g. "Send your tasks to Yahoo!
Calendar"), an import from Microsoft Project, sort by date, etc. It's
also screaming for file management functionality, and even integration
with source management tools like RCS. The scary thing is that when
you mention obvious feature enhancements, or throw your wildest
functionality or integration ideas at the Pyra folks ("Hey, how about
generating an XML feed of project task data to enable, say, an
XML-RPC-based feed for information display outside the app, like on a
corporate intranet"), they usually smile, nod and say things like
"Yeah, we've thought of that, and we have it running in our shop."

A collaborative, web-based project management tool like Pyra has the
potential to change the way project management is practiced. PC-based
PM software (like MS Project) is geared towards generating a
document -- The Project Plan -- that without vigilant attention to
detail (usually of the mind-numbing sort) quickly becomes out of date.
This document-centric approach to managing tasks and schedules puts
the people that know best about current status one step removed from
the plan, and puts the project manager in the middle of what should be
a simple transaction ("mark this task complete"). Furthermore, with
its discussion functionality, Pyra enables team members to carry on
asynchronous conversations about features, tasks and issues inside the
project plan environment itself.

Of course, Pyra doesn't obviate the need for a project manager...just
the need for the project manager to spend so much time maintaining The
Project Plan. With Pyra, project managers could spend their time on
true value-add project activities like setting goals, fostering
inter-disciplinary communication, prioritizing features, resolving
issues and communicating with project stakeholders that aren't part of
the core team.

Contrary to popular opinion, Pyra's killer app isn't Blogger, it's
Pyra. Of course, that's mostly semantics, since Blogger's an
application built on top of the Pyra framework. Which means that Pyra
could not only be your next project management app, but your next
content publishing platform as well. An integrated content, template,
task, issue, and discussion database? Sounds like a killer app to me.

Now they just need to figure out the business model...

-- Michael Sippey





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