Putting out fires and managing projects. That pretty much sums up the day-to-day life of the average company owner. Most would probably concur with management guru Tom Peters' declaration that in business everything is a project.

All of which helps explain the growing appeal of project management software. These complex systems helped put men on the moon in the 1960s and were later adapted to business challenges like building jetliners, developing new drugs, and coordinating motion picture production.

Lately, with the introduction of powerful but lower-priced versions, small-to-midsize growing companies use product management software to design complicated websites, orchestrate product launches, even supervise the construction of houses. When properly utilized, the programs can enable projects to proceed more quickly, with less waste, higher productivity -- and higher profits.

What can they do for your company? Answering that question requires knowing a little about the discipline on which most of the programs are based. The term "project management" was first used in engineering, architectural, and construction circles during the 1950s. In the intervening years it has evolved from a descriptive term into a recognized profession with a unique set of principles and practices and a language that is indecipherable to most outsiders. If you happen to overhear a conversation in the elevator about balanced matrices, life cycle costing, or variance at completion, you can be sure there's a project nearby. Today, many project managers carry business cards with that title and no other -- a sure sign the profession has arrived. The field even has its own trade group, Project Managers Institute, with more than 100,000 members worldwide.

This is important for this reason: When you embrace project management software -- even many programs designed for non-professionals -- you aren't just buying another computer program. You're entering into a new world that will require you to think and work in certain ways.

Projects break down into component parts, like tasks, resources, and milestones. Relationships among components are expressed visually with strange-sounding charts like Gantts and PERTs that help you track progress. Once you become familiar with these tools you will be able to tell at a glance how one event - - say, a missed deadline - - will affect other events and, ultimately the entire project. You might observe that that Task 4 cannot begin until Task 7 has reached a certain milestone. Or that a seemingly minor missed deadline in Task 9 would likely set the whole project back a week.

In addition to the above charts, many programs have components or modules that keep running track of time and resources used and will provide a running tally of how those costs compare to the projected budget at a particular stage.

The key to your success as novice project manager starts with selecting the right program for the job. If your needs are basic, say, you just want to visualize a few basic tasks, you may be able to accomplish that in a program you already own. Microsoft Outlook (www.microsoft.com/office/outlook) has a few built-in project tracking functions, and several companies, including TrackerOffice (www.trackeroffice.com) and Project Kickstart (www.projectkickstart.com) sell project management add-ins for Outlook.

Freestanding programs typically fall into one of three broad categories based on price and capability:

Generally speaking, higher priced programs have more features and can handle more complex projects. But price doesn't necessarily reflect ease or difficulty of use. Users with the same level of experience often disagree on that point. Fortunately, most vendors have downloadable demo editions that you can experiment with before making a decision.

If you'd rather rent your solution from a Web service, you can do that too. A big plus: Members can log in from anywhere there's an Internet connection. Several companies including AceProject (www.aceproject.com), ProjectInsight (www.projectinsight.com), Replicon (www.replicon.com), TeamHeadquarters (www.entry.com) and XCOLLA (www.axista.com) currently provide such service. And most let you try them out for free.

No software will get rid of your projects. But if you're willing to invest a little energy up front, you can ease the burden -- and maybe even have time to put out a few more fires.