On the back of Teams, Microsoft Lists will become a boon to collaborative project tracking

Microsoft's new task tracker may not have as profound a market impact as its Slack competitor, but its winning functionality will have broad appeal.

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This year's virtual Microsoft Build event was dominated by news about Azure and AI, offered few details on what could be the most significant change to Windows development in years with Project Reunion, and had practically no news on Windows 10X (the now-delayed version of Windows optimized for multi-screen devices like the Surface Neo, originally due before the end of the year). However, it did have a sleeper announcement for those who think of Microsoft as a provider fo productivity tools: Microsoft Lists.

Lists take the grid-based system of columns and rows used for decades in spreadsheets and database and adds capabilities that focus on organization, collaboration, and approachable custom development. It may sound like a cousin of Microsoft To Do, the company's simple task tracker that replaced the popular mobile app Wunderlist. But the two apps diverge. While Microsoft worked to make To Do more similar to Wunderlist prior to discontinuing the original app, it tightened integration with Outlook with a My Day section and eliminated the useful ability to view all tasks regardless of category. In contrast, Lists, which has strong ties to the SharePoint and OneDrive teams, is all about flexibility. The first column acts as a kind of record anchor similar to a frozen pane in a spreadsheet. 

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The web and mobile app join a host of similar tools that combine pick lists, color codes, status updates, tagging, embedding, and other amenities to organize multicolumnar information. I tried several of these as a Wunderlist replacement. Some of the more generalized ones include AirTable, Zenkit (which also offers Zenkit To Do, the most faithful Wunderlist replacement I've seen), and the Inception-like Notion, which allows embedding of pages with lists within lists and recently eliminated a key limitation of its free tier. Some of the more team project-focused products include Asana, ClickUp, and Monday, which offers a free trial but not a free tier for individual use). 

Like Lists, these products allow you to view whatever you're tracking or organizing in multiple views such as Kanban, Pinterest-like gallery cards, calendar and Gantt views. While I found their organizing capabilities beyond a normal to-do list useful, their specialization and depth sometimes made organizing tasks seem like driving a Humvee to pick up the groceries (and so I have settled on Zenkit To Do for now).

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OmniOutliner, exclusive to Apple platforms, offers collapsible rows.

Furthermore, they all lack an incredibly useful feature from a pioneer in the category from the mid-90s that I reviewed back in the day: a classic Mac app called In Control. In Control lacked the view versatility, interface amenities, workgroup savviness, and extensibility of modern products. However, it combined the power of an outline with its multi-column layout, allowing you to expand and collapse "child" rows, a perfect way to examine or hide subtasks. Sheetplanner and OmniOutliner carry forward its legacy on the Mac. But neither has native apps for non-Apple platforms.

Unlike Teams, which people immediately understood in part because of its similarity to the pioneering Slack, Lists doesn't follow in the footsteps of as clear a market leader (although AirTable and Asana have certainly achieved footholds). It will surely lack the maturity of its competitors. ClickUp, for example, ships new features every week and publishes an aggressive roadmap. Nevertheless, like much emanating from Microsoft these days, Lists will integrate tightly with Teams, where it will reach millions of users drawn to the same kind of broad relevance and utility. It stands to join Teams' integrated video communication as a competitive differentiator.

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