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Startups Task-manager app turns e-mail exchanges into simple to-do lists

Business concept: Email on computer keyboard background

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Developers, on the whole, like simplicity. Omar Qureshi took the idea to a whole new level.

Mr. Qureshi is the founder of Planleaf, a just-launched task-manager app that's so light on the ground, there's no sign-ups and no logins. In fact, there's not even a website to use.

Instead, the whole application runs on e-mail, and e-mail alone. What Planleaf does is take e-mails that you might write to collaborators on a project, and scan them for to-do items – and then keep track of who's supposed to be doing what, and what still needs to be done.

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"You can work with anybody, as long as they have an e-mail address. E-mail is ubiquitous, and now task management is ubiquitous as well," says Mr. Qureshi.

Planleaf works by asking users to copy it on planning e-mails. The e-mails don't have to be written in any special code – having normal conversations I find. But what Planleaf specifically keeps an eye open for lines that start with a dash. Take, for instance, this common workplace e-mail:

Janet, following up on our conversation today, could you please:

-revise the PowerPoint deck
     -update our quote for the Simmons project
     -derive a unified theory of the universe's electromagnetic and gravitational forces

If you were to simply carbon-copy the e-mail to Planleaf, the software will pick out each one of those items, and store them in its database. Then everyone involved in the project will receive a formatted to-do-list e-mail with boxes they can use to tick off completed items. (Clicking the boxes, rather than directing to a website, merely creates an e-mail that sends Planleaf an update.)

The system uses Twitter's system of designating users with @ signs, to keep track of who needs to do what. Every day – or on demand – the system sends collaborators a "Daily Digest" e-mail of which tasks are outstanding, and which have been done.

There's a lot of task-management and to-do list software in the world, both for individuals and for groups, and in the form of web apps, groupware and exceedingly comprehensive standalone software like the cultishly beloved OmniFocus. On the whole, they lean towards become comprehensive and feature rich – sometimes, to the point of being overwhelming.

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Not Planleaf, which handles the basics in the lightest possible manner. One upside to its simplicity is that, with no logins, collaborators outside an organization don't need to be brought into its groupware – especially collaborators on ad-hoc projects.

"It's a solution for working with people who you usually work with entirely over e-mail," says Mr. Qureshi. "Now you've got a thin layer of task management."

Mr. Qureshi is a 31-year-old native of Kitchener-Waterloo, and the firm has been growing through the University of Waterloo's Velocity Garage incubator, which has also fostered success stories like wearables innovators Thalmic Labs and Pebble. Though the first version is live and available on the site, a new layer of features are already in the pipe, including sending e-mail notifications before tasks are due. And the company does plan to add a web-based backend for checking off items. Not that Mr. Qureshi is backing away from e-mail's power as a universal platform, in the slightest.

"E-mail has 2.5 billion users, and no apps," he says. "Everyone's got it. What a great platform to write for."

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