Each spring, just as the buds appear on the trees and the nesting birds fill the world with songs of optimism about the future, the schemes that I have been contemplating all winter begin to show signs of blossoming into actual projects. Traditionally, I honoured this evolution by getting an elaborate project planner and opening a file for each scheme, delineating the next two or three hundred steps the project requires. As tedious as this is, it gives me something to do while the project sponsors decide whether or not to move forward. Factually, I rarely used all those elaborate project plans I created because, in the real world, my projects always depend on too many other people with different planning software or they only needed a 'to do' list to be organised. So, this spring I set about to find the perfect, small, shareable and easy-to-use project organiser. In my search, I discovered two project planning applications that have arrived on the market in the past three months and thus far have drawn more praise than anything that has come before. The first find was Merlin ( www.projectwizards.net/en/merlin US$188) and it's a treat. It is simple enough for a child to figure out - a single toolbar selects the project you want or adds new projects with new activities, elements and resources. As you fill out the Wizard windows, it creates a beautiful set of Gantt charts to illustrate progress as well as a 'list view' of your project and its elements. It doesn't get more simple or prettier than this. As far as sharing goes, it imports and exports Microsoft Project files as well as OmniOutliner and NovaMind Mindmaps. I use OmniOutliner to sequence lists and thus it is a handy mini-planner. But Merlin magically turns your OmniOutliner shopping files into a full-fledged plan with timelines and priorities. One of its cooler features is an integrated risk management component. Is there an 80 per cent chance that a certain contact will flake out on his or her tasks? Might the talent cost more than originally anticipated? Is there a chance you can't get the materials on time? You can make note of all this in a second with Merlin. It will also create your project as a website for remote project participants and it is completely integrated with Address Book and iCal. If you use those apps, this is an awesome feature. If you use a different contact or calendar app, you will have to switch and that may be a pain. The company is quite responsive, so if you need Entourage support, for example, write them an e-mail. My next discovery was SharedPlan Personal Edition ( www.shaerdplan.com US $69.95) and its larger sibling, SharedPlan Pro (US$199). These apps are not as pretty as Merlin and not as intuitive, but they have their virtues when it comes to cheap, simple and useful. First, they are easy to use and far more straightforward than traditional project planners. I figured out how to operate both and set up a project in 40 minutes. It sets up using a programme evaluation and review technique (Pert) diagram or network chart. This is simply a box with a label with lines connecting other boxes in sequence. Each box represents a project element. Double click on a box and a form opens, allowing you to detail the characteristics of that item or event. It only takes moments to get used to this set-up and when you are done a simple icon click gives you your project displayed in a Gantt diagram that shows element schedule times on a calendar. SharedPlan is cheaper and will be more familiar to those who prefer Pert diagrams. They make a Mac, Windows and a Linux version. The Pro app comes with subproject support, the Gantt charts are editable, and it imports Microsoft Project files. The Pro version also generates custom reports, making it the feature leader, but its printing is a little lame. It prints the window, not a finished diagram. The application also feels a little Windows-esque. I prefer the multidimensional transparency of Merlin. If you just want to start using a project planner for the sake of co-ordinating a small team with no fuss, both of these apps will not disappoint. If you use iCal and Apple's Address Book and you appreciate a pretty application, Merlin will deliver the magic. E-mail Dave Horrigan at firstname.lastname@example.org with your Mac queries.