Tasktop Finds Path to Profits, Via a More Efficient Interface Inspired by Brain Science

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user interfaces. He went back to graduate school at UBC to do his Ph.D. with Gail Murphy, a professor of computer science and an expert on software development tools. “We have to rethink the way tools work,” Kersten says of his ideas at the time.

So he and Murphy did a series of studies on how software engineers get work done, and how different kinds of interfaces affect their productivity. “We experimented with realigning tools around the way developers work,” Kersten says. “We made tasks the primary unit of interaction, and then made all things related to that task show up automatically…Everything you navigate becomes part of that task.”

This focus on tasks, rather than on files or Web pages, had a big effect on programmers at IBM, where Kersten did his tests. His conclusion was based on comparing how much the workers edit, versus how much they click and search. Kersten made his task-based tool available as open source, and in 2005, about 100 people signed up to try it and report their results. Kersten was thrilled to see a statistically significant increase in their productivity when they used the new tool, which he reported in a series of research papers. “I figured this was the fastest way of getting my Ph.D.,” he says.

Kersten finished his degree at the end of 2006. The day after he got his thesis signed off, in January 2007, he and Gail Murphy founded Tasktop. The company had paying customers right away, and has been able to bootstrap on its revenues without taking outside funding. It sells its software and services to small developers and enterprise customers (mostly software companies). Kersten says the firm has always had positive cash flow and has been profitable from its second year. In the meantime, it has grown to a dozen employees plus contractors.

The next step, Kersten says, is to bring the task-focused interface to big software companies—and then to a broader customer base of project managers and other knowledge workers, by integrating the tools with Gmail and Outlook. “We’ve met our first goal, to integrate all the various sources of tasks and documents for developers,” he says. “The eventual goal is to become the task-focused desktop.”

That will take Tasktop into a more crowded space, as there are lots of companies working on ways to improve project management, collaborative software, desktop search, and e-mail management. Some Seattle-area companies in these areas include Smartsheet, Gist, and LiquidPlanner; and then there are big-company efforts to unify Web-based communications, like Google Wave. But Kersten maintains that his company is truly differentiated because of how it layers its software on top of … Next Page »

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Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Editor in chief. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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