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SmartSheet makes project tracking easy, and now it's free.

In light of two important changes with the product that roll out on Thursday, I thought it would be a good time to take a hands-on look at SmartSheet.

We've covered the Web 2.0 startup SmartSheet a bit over the past two months [see stories on], but we haven't had a hands-on review. In light of two important changes with the product that roll out on Thursday, I thought it would be a good time to take a look at it.

SmartSheet is a tool for tracking group jobs and tasks. It apes the user interface that many people use to track projects--the spreadsheet--but it's got features more like a work flow application. For example, you can highlight a row (usually, a row is a task), and click the "ask for update" button in the toolbar, and SmartSheet will send an e-mail off to the person to whom the task is assigned asking for status. They can put their update directly into the form they get in their e-mail, and the update will show up in the sheet.

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SmartSheet will also send you regular updates for individual tasks. For example, you can ask it to e-mail you a status update on the projects that matter to you, half an hour before your weekly meeting with your boss. Could be useful.

Microsoft Project this isn't, but it's a very solid tool to keep track of all the moving pieces in a project or in a small company. And it doesn't require a radical relearning of project management. In fact, it reinforces the sloppy management practice of using a spreadsheet to track projects and tasks. Almost everybody tracks tasks this way, though, and that makes SmartSheet very easy to learn and use.

SmartSheet was far too expensive when it launched; $75 a month for five users was too much for small businesses to experiment with, and even too much for some middle managers on expense accounts at large companies. On Thursday, SmartSheet will release a free version. It will allow unlimited users into each sheet (project), but only 10 projects per user. In addition, it won't allow attachments.

Paid versions, starting at $25 a month, will allow more projects per user, as well as some attachments. Higher-priced plans will support more storage and even corporate branding.

On Thursday, the system will also let users save projects as "templates" that can be reused by co-workers and made available to other SmartSheet users. A good template may well reflect the best practices of how to run a standard project (such as closing escrow or hiring a new employee), and allowing the reuse and evolution of templates could help a lot of people. Templates will also make it much easier to start using the product.

I did run into a few small snags with SmartSheet. There were many times when it asked me to save the work I was doing. I prefer Google's spreadsheet, which saves your work as you go. There's also no way to format your text to be bold or in color, which is a bit of an oversight. Finally, the service did crash on me once (I had to close my browser tab to recover), although I did not lose any data.

Project management is complex, but SmartSheet is simple. It took me only a few minutes to understand the product and to start using it effectively. I especially like the fact that I can use it to poll other people about tasks, but they don't have to sign up for SmartSheet or use it directly. This is a well thought-out project management system, worth a try by anyone who's ever kept a list of things to do in Excel.