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Zugg
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Joined: 25 Sep 2000
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Location: Colorado, USA

PostPosted: Thu Jun 12, 2008 4:58 pm   

Looking for "Client Management Software"
 
Chiara is branching out and starting to do some consulting as a "Virtual Assistant". She wants to be able to easily track her clients, keep track of the time she spends on their project, organize all files related to a client, track phone calls and schedule appointments.

The requirements are sort of a cross between a "Contact" manager, and a "Project" manager. I am looking for a software tool to help her with this.

I've done some basic searching, and most of the solutions that I have found are gigantic systems that are complete overkills, and also cost hundreds of dollars. I need something for less than $100.

Here are more detailed feature requirements and desires:
  • Store contact information for each customer
  • Organize files associated with each project for each customer (a single customer can have multiple projects)
  • Interface with version control software (preferably SVN) to create "snapshots" of a particular project at a particular time so that it's easy to go back in time to see a particular version of a document.
  • Track time spent on each project and allow a billing report to be generated. Each time block might have a different billing rate. Need something like a "stop-watch" interface to keep track of which customer is being worked on
  • A calendar system that can show what meetings, phone calls, and other appointments are scheduled. Filtered by specific client, or showing all activity.
  • Each project for each client needs a "to-do" list with each task assigned a priority, possible due-date, estimated difficulty, estimated time. This can be viewed per client or with an overall summary that might indicate which task is the most critical or important to work on next across all clients.
  • Must run on Windows XP/Vista. Web-based solutions are not desired because of the requirements to interface with a document and version control system.
  • Must cost less than $100 or so.

In a way, this is similar to my own needs for project management and bug/issue tracking. When I searched for simple project management software a while ago, I didn't find much at the low end. I ended up with "MyLife Organized' which is a nice task organizer, but doesn't have any of the client management features that Chiara needs. I

So does anything like this exist? Seems like this is the kind of software that lawyers, accountants, and consultants might be using to keep track of their clients. I've found "billing software" and I've found "customer relationship software". But the billing software doesn't have the project management and version control features. And the CRM software seems more focused on sales forces, and also doesn't have project management features.

And once you get into project management and version control, it seems like you enter the realm of the huge "enterprise" solutions that require an entire IT force to setup and maintain. We need something aimed at very small businesses.

Maybe she will need multiple products, but it sure would be nice to find a nice simple interface that integrates all of these needs into a single application. She doesn't really want to duplicate client information across multiple applications.

Any ideas or suggestions would be much appreciated!
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Rorso
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Joined: 14 Oct 2000
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PostPosted: Thu Jun 12, 2008 5:08 pm   
 
Microsoft Access, Google calendar, and TortoiseSVN could probably cover a lot of that list. You might want to look into Google's calendar API, http://code.google.com/apis/calendar/ , if you would like to interface to it.

Edit: I don't know how good the calendar functionality is in latest Outlook, but Google provides a tool to help synchronize between them. It can be found at http://www.google.com/support/calendar/bin/answer.py?answer=89955

The big benefit of using Google Calendar to store calendar data is that you can invite others to see what time you are available.
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Zugg
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Joined: 25 Sep 2000
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PostPosted: Thu Jun 12, 2008 5:55 pm   
 
Rorso, that doesn't handle *any* of the project management needs though. With Microsoft Access I'd have to write a custom database application for Chiara, and if I'm going to do that, then I might as well just write it in Delphi and make my own application that does everything.

Also, while TortoiseSVN is excellent for people like you or me who understand how version control works (I use it every day), Chiara is a very non-computer person. It would be very difficult for her to use. I need something that works more automatically "under the hood" with very little user intervention. If anyone has played with the Mac OSX, something like "Time Machine" that just automatically takes snapshots of project directories and lets you just browse to the state of the files on a specific date in the past.

I've looked at Google Calendar and haven't been too impressed yet. We are using Mozilla Sunbird here instead with calendars stored on our own server. But I'll look at the API to see if it's something useful. But I also still don't like the idea of storing our data on the Google servers, which is why I don't use a lot of the Google services. Proprietary customer information needs to stay *local* to our machines, except for encrypted backups.
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bortaS
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PostPosted: Thu Jun 12, 2008 6:12 pm   
 
You might want to look at something like Maximizer. The last version I used was 8.5 and that did everything except the integration with source control. The new v10 includes a document management feature, but it doesn't look like it has document versioning. I know they were using BTrieve for their database (back on 8.5), but I think they use something else now.

http://www.maximizer.com/
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Zugg
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PostPosted: Thu Jun 12, 2008 7:55 pm   
 
Thanks bortaS, that's an interesting possibility. Looks like it has everything but the source control, but if they keep documents stored in the normal file system, then I might be able to automate the SVN stuff myself for her.

But everything else looks pretty good. It looks like the price is $229 or so, which is higher than I'd like, but not totally outrageous for what it does. It might mean going back to Outlook instead of Thunderbird, but their v10 product claims to have IMAP support, so I'd have to try it and see how it worked with our server. It seems to use Microsoft SQL Express these days, which is fine for local use. I like how it integrates with MS Office, which is something Chiara already uses a lot.

Anyway, definitely something I'll investigate more, thanks!
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Rainchild
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PostPosted: Fri Jun 13, 2008 1:17 am   
 
Maximizer, Act!, etc... there's a number of CRM packages out there which support that kinda jazz. I personally hate them all, and think they are bloaty and poorly developed.

Usually the project management style in CRM's is fairly lightweight - no gantt charts or anything like that.

I can't remember if Maximizer stored its files in a directory or in the database itself. Act definately stores files in a directory, but I'm not sure I'd trust it to play well with SVN if you were to restore a previous file.

Do you have Office 2007 yet? There's supposed to be some lightweight CRM stuff in "Outlook 2007 with Business Contact Manager"... I haven't played with it so I don't know if it's any good, but if you already have Office 2007 and just haven't installed the contact manager part, then that might be a place to look too.

Edit: Just watched one of MS's "demo" videos, it doesn't look too bad, would seem to provide approximately the same functionality as Act!/Maximizer. Still no gantt charts, but I wouldn't expect any of the low end CRM products to provide that. Also, it would seem you can get a 60 day trial to see if it works for you.
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Zugg
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PostPosted: Fri Jun 13, 2008 1:32 am   
 
Well, she doesn't need gantt charts, and Microsoft Project is totally overkill for her project needs. So that's ok. But yeah, I don't like the fact that they *really* skimp on the project stuff. I looked at Act! and it hardly has any project management at all, and no way to keep track of billed time. Maximizer claims to have time tracking in their new v10, but it's not in their demo (which is still for v9), so I can't speak about it yet. Same price as Act!, but seems to do more.

However, it does look like Maximizer is storing the document files in it's database, which I don't like at all. I want it to use the normal file system so that I can put version control over it. I *hate* applications that stuff documents into a database...there is absolutely nothing wrong with using the file system for what it was designed for and just store pointers or links to the files in the database.

We only have Office 2003 here, and frankly, I have no plans to ever spend any more money on Office. Not since Microsoft has denied my ability to get a new activation code for it when I tried to install it into a VMware virtual machine. I'm sick of their damn activation system. Also, upgrading Office would be the most expensive of choices for the minimal amount of needed features.

So, I'm still looking. Maximizer looks possible from their demo, but I haven't installed anything yet. I'd like to find some other choices. Given all of the lawyers, accountants, and consultants that need to bill their time and keep good track of clients and projects, I'd be really amazed if there wasn't already some good software out there for this. I *really* do *not* want to write something myself...I have other projects that I'd rather work on (like the mapper).

But there is a *lot* of software out there to look through. Hopefully I'll find a hidden gem eventually.
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Rainchild
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PostPosted: Fri Jun 13, 2008 3:05 am   
 
Yeah, wasn't sure about the whole office thing, I knew you had been buying computer bits off and on, so there was the chance that you decided to get Vista + Office + Antivirus all in one hit at OEM prices when you were doing your upgrades.

Admittedly when I played with Maximizer it was when version 7 was new, but the project management they had at that point was pretty poor, and typically the whole "new version" nonsense for those CRM pacakges usually only contain "we changed the colour of the user interface", or "we made sure it ran under vista"... I don't hold those developers in high regard.

I actually think the reason most CRM's store stuff in a database is so it makes it easier to share with other users. To share the files via Act, it has to create a shared folder on your server with write permission etc, which I think is kinda kludgy - I'd prefer it to store the data in the SQL server for that reason.

There's also a bunch of hosted CRM packages that you can get for $x per user month, salesforce.com comes to mind. There's plusses and minuses to owning software vs subscribing to software, you hafta make your own decisions on that.

Edit: There's also open source CRM's that you could stick on your server too. I played with a few a couple of years back, not sure if they have improved in that time. One was called vTiger, another SugarCRM... they looked OK, but didn't have the features we were looking for. In the end, none of the CRM's did (we wanted CRM for the sales guys, project management for the software guys, and case management for the support guys), so it got put into the too hard basket.

Edit again: It looks like Sugar and vTiger have come a way since I last looked, including a way of pretending still to be "open source" (and offering a free cut down version) but asking you to pay for the "enhanced features" or "annual support". Still means you can get a bunch of CRM functionality for nothing.
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ralgith
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PostPosted: Fri Jun 13, 2008 10:47 am   
 
There used to be a great CRM hosted on SourceForge too, I don't remember the name offhand... but I know a woman in Frisco who used it in her lab with great results.
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ralgith
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PostPosted: Fri Jun 13, 2008 11:00 am   
 
Just a quick search on SourceForge netted a few choices you can look into:

PostBooks
openCRX
OpenInfo3W
Compiere ERP + CRM

Compiere is what my friend used, with excellent results. It is very highly supported, has a LOT of developers, and also a lot of addon packages. It is probably way overkill... but the price is right ;)

Compiere Search on SF, (Ad-Ons)
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Zugg
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PostPosted: Fri Jun 13, 2008 4:41 pm   
 
Compiere *is* complete overkill and way too complicated for Chiara. She doesn't have time to spend weeks learning something new with most of the stuff that she doesn't even need. Also, I don't really want to use a "hosted" solution. I want to keep all of her customer data here locally. Some of it is proprietary and I just don't trust hosted solutions. I want control over my own backups, etc.

Yes, I understand that many of these systems are designed to share files across a large company. But we don't need that. Even I don't need any access to her stuff. This is a single-person consulting business so all she needs it something that integrates nicely with Microsoft Word and Excel. That's why Maximizer is the best solution so far.

And I'm try to get away from these annoying acronyms. I listed her basic requirements in the first post. I didn't actually say that she needed "CRM" software. "CRM" is the description of a particular business process. I suppose it's something you learn in business or accounting school. But neither Chiara nor I ever attended whatever class teaches about CRM and the more I look at it, the more disgusted I am with all of the jargon and stuff. It really doesn't need to be that hard.

I think Chiara's needs are more along "Contact Management", rather than "Customer Management". That is why Maximizer is a possibility. But we aren't just talking about a Calendar or Contact list here.

Think about a lawyer, for example, since I think that is the closest model. The lawyer has multiple clients. He needs to track his billable time for each client. He needs to keep track of phone conversations and emails with the client. He needs to keep documents (case files, letters, proposals, etc) "attached" to that client safe and easily accessible. He needs to schedule meetings with clients, phone calls, court dates, etc. He needs a task list showing the status of each client's case with a list of action items that need to be worked on with some priority order. Now imagine that this lawyer has his own firm and isn't part of a big group. So he needs to keep the documents secure and confidential and doesn't need to share them with anyone.

That's the business model. Those are the requirements. This doesn't require formal CRM, and certainly not ERP...this isn't an "Enterprise".

But this is part of the problem with the entire software industry these days. All we have are huge systems targetted at huge companies (because they have huge budgets). Small Shareware developers can't make money on simple software anymore because nobody wants to pay for it, or because you can get free solutions. So innovation in simple desktop software has disappeared. There are hundreds of old shareware programs in Tucows, but few of them are still actively updated anymore. So finding something that is still actively developed and supported that hasn't been forced to grow into some huge, bloated, "Enterprise" solution is getting more and more difficult.

I actually applaud the Maximizer people for hanging in there and taking on the big "Act!" product that dominated the market for years. That's hard to do these days.
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Fang Xianfu
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Joined: 26 Jan 2004
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PostPosted: Fri Jun 13, 2008 5:14 pm   
 
Zugg wrote:
the more I look at it, the more disgusted I am with all of the jargon and stuff

Yes, the first conclusion I always come to when looking at this sort of thing is that all the jargon is balls. CRM and ERP seem to basically just be acronyms for "it does everything", except most of them don't do everything. There're six different versions of Microsoft Dynamics, for example, all with different feature lists.

It's another of those times where I wish that there was some kind of agreed-upon API and file format for this sort of thing, so you could just buy whatever bits you need from whatever vendors you need and they bolt together perfectly. But pff, like that's ever going to happen.
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Zugg
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PostPosted: Fri Jun 13, 2008 5:27 pm   
 
Yeah, and you know that if I was ever stupid enough to try and write my own "perfect" solution for our specific situation, then if I tried to sell it, nobody would buy it because it didn't have "CRM" in the name, or didn't include some sort of jargon that their managers were looking for. Although it also appears that the more jargon you have on your product web site, the more you can charge for the product.

I tried looking at some of the Microsoft Dynamics sites to try and figure out if it would do anything that I needed. I just got a headache. Couldn't find any *real* information on what the product really did, except that it integrated with Outlook and required an entire IT staff to setup and maintain the backend server stuff. I never did find any prices. I think it's only meant for companies that are already paying the full Microsoft MSDN subscription to get everything included and who already have Microsoft-trained IT staff.

Quickbooks has this same problem. You have to be a trained accountant to really use it. We are forced to use it for our business so that our accountant can grab our data files for tax prep each year. But the rest of the year when we are just trying to balance our various checking accounts, it's complete overkill and a pain to use.

But it's no wonder that many people still just use sticky-notes, paper, and some combination of MS Office products to manage their small consulting business.
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Tech
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PostPosted: Fri Jun 13, 2008 6:17 pm   
 
I've never used Quickbooks or Quicken that much, but I am a huge fan of the Microsoft Money Small Business Edition. I mainly like it because it does what I want with out being to complicated features I don't need I can ignore. It also helps that the first time I used it 10 years ago I found a $500 double to my account within 3 days of installing it.

The software hunt continues.

I think another thing with shareware developers is that many of them now also have full time jobs and or putting those efforts into open source. I think for many in the latter category, doing open source and asking for donations isn't that different from doing shareware or trialware.
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Zugg
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PostPosted: Fri Jun 13, 2008 8:38 pm   
 
Yeah, I used to use MS Money and actually liked it a fair amount. What annoyed me was when Microsoft forced everyone to update if they wanted to keep accessing their bank stuff electronically. If I remember correctly, it only worked for 2 years before you were forced to upgrade again. But the main problem was that our accountant needed the files in Quickbooks format, so we had to switch to save some money on tax prep.

Also, Quickbooks and "Quicken" are completely different. Quicken is very similar to MS Money. Quickbooks is huge, bloated, and full of tons of stuff that I'll never use. Just because they are the same company and both start with "Quick..." they are really unrelated. Although Quickbooks *will* import most of the Quicken file formats (but will also import most MS Money formats).

But that's a whole different subject that I don't really want to sidetrack on.

Doing Open Source and asking for donations is actually completely different than Shareware these days. In the original Shareware beginnings it was more like that. But these days, few Shareware products actually continue to work without you paying for them. They are more like zMUD/CMUD where you get 30-days and after that the software stops working.

I started with the donation model for zMUD, and going to the 30-day trial where it actually stops working was a *huge* difference. I don't see anyone making enough money to actually pay their bills using the donation model. And I wasn't really talking about those "hobbiest" that just did software part-time and still had other full-time jobs. When I was talking about Shareware authors, I was talking about Professionals who actually used to do it for a living fulltime (people like me). It used to be a very viable business, but these days it's getting harder and harder to make a living on writing software yourself.

Many years ago I had predicted that the Open Source movement would kill small developers and only leave the big companies, and I really think that is coming true. Software is becoming more and more of a commodity. It's just become too hard to get your own software noticed amongst all of the crap that shows up in a Google search, and hard to compete with open source stuff that people use just because it's free regardless of quality or support. All that's going to be left are the big software companies selling overly-complex "solutions" to other big companies.

Especially when your average computer user really only uses their computer for email and web browsing. Who even sends paper letters anymore? Just companies. Home users don't even need MS Office anymore because you just send an email instead of writing a letter in Word. You don't even need Outlook when you can just access your GMail account via Firefox. The only other thing home users do on their computers is play MMOs like WoW and *maybe* they use something like Quicken/MSMoney to balance their checking account (although more and more of that is being done via the web browser these days too).

So what's left for a software author to write? Nothing that a home user needs. Only companies are willing to spend real money on real software anymore, and that means getting in deep with some specific business and writing software for their custom needs. Not nearly as much fun as it used to be. And even that is getting harder as software writing gets out-sourced to Russia, India, etc.

I used to use all sorts of software. But even I don't do much anymore. Except for my specific development tools, like Delphi, and the related stuff for writing my own software, the apps that are always running on my computer are Firefox, Thunderbird, and iTunes (well, not counting system stuff and anti-virus).

The concept of non-game "Shrink-wrap" software is dying out. Go to Best Buy/Circuit City and look at the PC software area. Except for MS Office and the dozens of versions of MS Windows, the rest of the software for home users is photo-editing and stuff that I can mostly download for free with some simple Google searching.

How did I get off on this rant? Who knows. Still haven't found the right software for Chiara though.
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Fang Xianfu
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PostPosted: Fri Jun 13, 2008 10:20 pm   
 
I was thinking about this the other day after reading some of the stuff that's been written about releasing books under Creative Commons online and also publishing them in paper. The intention of the free ebook boils down to two things: to make people realise how great an author you are and buy a copy of the real book (whether for themselves, because real books are nicer, or as a gift for someone else) or to make people realise how great an author you are and buy your future books.

But what happens if every author does this? You end up with millions upon millions of free books floating around of wildly varying quality, making it nigh-on impossible to find something that's both interesting and good. Using price as a tool against obscurity only works if your price is lower than everyone else's. And from the sound of it, shareware and open source software is a good precedent for that.

I think Brandon Sanderson (the guy who's finishing the Wheel of Time, and also author of some other excellent books) has it right - he's releasing a book under creative commons and also publishing it, but that's it: just a book, as a kind of "here's a sample for you to see if I'm worth it". It's shareware, but for books. Brilliant :)
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ralgith
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PostPosted: Tue Jul 22, 2008 3:42 pm   
 
Zugg, I'm not sure if you're still looking, or if this will fill your needs... but here is something you can look at. It is modular, and should be fairly easy to code custom modules for if the need ever arises. Anyways, just trying to help ;) I don't actually know much about this system yet, just that I'm going to be working on setting this up for a lab on the west cost.

Joomla

Hope it helps!
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Zugg
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PostPosted: Tue Jul 22, 2008 4:30 pm   
 
Thanks for the link, but Joomla is a "CONTENT Mangement system". That's completely different from a "CLIENT management software" even though it has the same CMS abbreviation (or, more commonly, Customer Relationship Software: CRM). Joomla is for creating a web site where the content can be managed and edited by multiple users, sort of like the MX Portal software we use here on the Zuggsoft site. Client Management Software is about managing customers, contacts, projects, etc and is more like software such as ACT!.
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Seb
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PostPosted: Tue Jul 22, 2008 5:05 pm   
 
If you find something does that nearly everything
...
(and I agree with Rainchild in that I suspect "Outlook 2007 with Business Contact Manager" is worth a look: 60 day free trial, or free on-line trial, $150 RRP, tracks billable time, this is NOT MS Project, easy to see features here... does not seem to have document management version control, but I found this from this search ( the others might be worth a look): FileHold '08),
...
but need something for timing projects, I use ProjectTimer 1.4.1 from time to time (very light weight and simple). There are several programs called ProjectTimer: I also found one that seems to work semi-automatically, called PC Fare Meter but with the SourceForge page called ProjectTimer - it strikes me that this is pretty useful just to figure out how the hell you spent your whole day and got nothing done! ;) But it may be less useful for actually accurately timing work done for clients.

Disclaimer: the only tool I've actually used here is ProjectTimer 1.4.1.
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Seb
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PostPosted: Tue Jul 22, 2008 5:21 pm   
 
Heh, oops, FileHold is rather expensive! Why not use TortoiseSVN or something for version control? Or Jedi VCS? Or use Vista's Previous Versions feature (right-click on file in Explorer, select Properties, Previous Versions tab)? Or some backup tool that automatically backs files when they change like StoreGrid Free Edition (which I've installed but not really used so far)?
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Seb
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PostPosted: Tue Jul 22, 2008 5:35 pm   
 
Version Control Pro, 15 ($30???), integrates with Office, Windows Explorer, or watches for file changes and prompts you for check-in when they change. Seems quite nice. OK, back to work now! *poke me*
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Zugg
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PostPosted: Wed Jul 23, 2008 3:29 am   
 
I'm already using TortoiseSVN for version control. I think I already mentioned this above, but remember that this system was for Chiara, not for me. Chiara has no idea how to use version control, so I was looking for something more automated. I might take a look at Version Control Pro to see how it works with Office, thanks.
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Seb
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PostPosted: Wed Jul 23, 2008 10:24 am   
 
Yeah, I know you use TortoiseSVN for version control, but I figured that means that at least you don't have to learn it, and I consider it quite easy to use for Chiara (and you could show her easily), but Version Control Pro probably fits the bill better.
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Taz
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PostPosted: Wed Jul 23, 2008 11:20 am   
 
Office Accounting Professional 2008

http://www.ideawins.com/Product.aspx

There is a freebie Express version and you can also run a demo and do a test drive. I'm not sure how much of what you need is covered with this but if you've not found a solution yet it it maybe worth a try.
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Zugg
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PostPosted: Wed Jul 23, 2008 4:45 pm   
 
Gee, Microsoft offering a "free Express" version to try and drag customers away from competitor's products, there's a surprise Evil or Very Mad

Looks more like a "QuickBooks Lite" product to me. It's too much accounting...we already use Quickbooks for all of the money/accounting side of the business. It doesn't have the contact-management features that we are looking for...it just uses Outlook for that. Maximizer still looks like the best bet so far.

Looked into Version Control Pro, but that still isn't what I'm looking for. I don't want Chiara to have to mess with checking stuff in or checking stuff out. She isn't working with any other people...it's just her. What I'd prefer is something like the Apple "TimeMachine" software that would just automatically update the repository every night with any changes made to documents on that day for a particular customer. Not "backup" software...I don't want it to save the entire document every night. I just want it to automatically "commit" any changes to the repository each night.

I think I can probably just write a script to do this with SVN and run it each night. I just wanted something simple for her to be able to track changes to important client documents and be able to go back and see what previous versions looked like. But I don't want it to get in the way of her normal work flow. I don't want her to need to "check out" anything to work on it.

But yeah, all of the "professional" products are geared towards team environments where it is important to control who has something checked out and who made changes. We just don't need anything that fancy.

Before this thread gets *too* off-track, I'll remind anyone who wants to post more stuff to it to go back up to the top and read the original requirements. I should also add that we are *not* looking for something that requires Outlook or Office. We are using Thunderbird for our email these days and are trying to get away from Outlook because of Microsoft activation licensing issues.
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