It's almost impossible to manage a modern workforce without management software, and the default choice is still MS Project for most companies. But a growing number of businesses are starting realize that MS Project is bloated, expensive, and doesn't necessarily do much to streamline management. Free alternatives are available, but are they worth using?

The most championed free alternative is OpenProj, an open source piece of software designed to emulate Microsoft Project. If you're a fan of MS Project, there's not much to contest here. It does a decent job of imitating Microsoft's layout and interface, and it even opens MPP and MPT files. Unfortunately, it can't save them back to the same format, instead saving them as XML files. So there may be some compatibility issues if you need to work with people who have MS Project.

The only real problem with OpenProj is that it does exactly what it's built to do, emulate MS Project. So while it is free, it doesn't really bring any value to the table that MS Project doesn't already deliver on. And that's a problem if you're looking for a genuine alternative, because OpenProj copies MS Project in every way, warts and all.

The bloated features are still there. The lack of online collaboration is still there. The design intended only for project managers is still there.

OpenProj isn't necessarily a good choice because the only people who will be able to use it effectively will be project managers who can already use MS Project effectively, and those people would rather be working with MS Project.

Most of the other free alternatives face similar problems, although we did discover a few that are worth looking into.

TeamLab is one of the more interesting options available. We like it because it's built for collaborative use on an intranet or on the cloud. It's intuitive and designed to be used by anybody, not just project managers, so it is a legitimate alternative to MS Project that adds value to the table. It's got a variety of easily understood features that allow for document sharing and editing, CRM, digital discussions, email notifications, and of course, project management.

There are a few important pieces missing, however. TeamLab doesn't do task-dependency. This can make project management a real chore. Any time the schedule is changed, you have to update any subsequent tasks as well. A task-dependency feature would make scheduling much more adaptive so that it would take up less time.

TeamLab is also missing personalized to-do lists, which takes a lot of the wind out of it's project management sails. This forces employees to weed through the project schedules in order to find out what they need to be working on, and they end up doing a lot more “managing” than they should be. Worse still, TeamLab doesn't offer Gantt charts for project managers to work with.

Additionally, TeamLab isn't exactly free. It is open source, so you can download the source code for free, but there are some pretty dramatic IT costs involved if you want to set it up on your own internal servers. TeamLab does offer a cloud-based version of its product, but it is not free.

All in all, TeamLab is certainly worth looking into, but it won't be enough to handle all of your project management needs, and that means it's simplicity can actually be a source of complication for project managers.

Small businesses can do a lot for themselves by turning to cost effective options instead of free ones. Workzone is a good example of a low cost alternative to MS Project: one that still offers task dependencies, Gantt charts, and personalized to-do lists, as well as some of the online collaborative features mentioned above. Remember, you get what you pay for. Spending more doesn't always guarantee high quality, but opting for “free” is rarely your best bet.