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Backpack by 37signals

Backpack officially launches this morning, but I’ve been using the app from 37signals for a few days now and wanted to record some of my thoughts, so here we go.

What is it?

Jason wrote on Signal vs. Noise about what Backpack actually is, and to be honest, it’s difficult to explain because it can be anything you want. It adapts to how you see it fitting into your life, and it can bend and reshape itself to fit the application you use it for. Personal notes, photo libraries, group organization, business information, scrapbooks. Multiple pages with multiple levels of functionality within each page equate to an application with customizability beyond that of all others. Think of it as a wiki, but overflowing with real-life usefulness and smooth interfacing.

Technical Goodies

It’s from 37signals, so you know it’ll be simple and useful off the bat. But combine traditional 37s stylings with real-time AJAX updates and yellow fade flourishes and you’ve got a web application that is on par with Flickr in terms of useful technical achievements. I can’t wait to start ripping into the source and seeing what there is to see.

Final Thoughts

I could discuss more about the functionality and interface, but it’s better if you just go check it out and roam around for yourself. Backpack is so flexible that describing exactly what it does is impossible, and that’s not a bad thing. Simple software takes the constricting details out and only leaves in the functionality you need, and Backpack’s simplicity shines right through its zippers.

About Mike Rundle

Comments

  1. Michele says:

    I’m waiting for it to launch, but I guess it’ll be a big success just as Basecamp.
    Those guys know how to make great web apps!

  2. It’s good, but duplicates everything Basecamp does. And I already use Basecamp.

    Except I don’t think Basecamp automatically thumbnails images.

  3. Geof Harries says:

    “It’s good, but duplicates everything Basecamp does. And I already use Basecamp.”

    Basecamp is for projects that need a management and communications system – Backpack is its little brother, more of an online file folder than a full-blown PM app.

    geof

  4. Bryce says:

    Awright, this ‘review’ is a bit of a cop-out, dontcha think? I’m a pretty big 37signals fan, but much of the response I’ve read (this entry included) about Backpack generally fall along the lines of .. “It’s hard to explain what it does, but its 37s, so you know it’s beautifully done. Go play with it to find out more.”

    I would encourage you to re-read your review for clarity.. you can’t be bothered to actually explain what Backpack does, yet you assert that it’s “overflowing with real-life usefulness.” (Useful to whom? You? Why?)

    You also hint at its “useful technical achievements” (there’s that pesky ‘useful’ notion again) but never really explain how yellow-fadey stuff and the magic of ajax-pixie dust automatically put the product on a par with Flickr.

    And finally, your Final Thoughts: “I could discuss more about the functionality and interface”? Hell yeah, you could — you haven’t really discussed either yet!

    I could rewrite this review in 20 easy words: “I don’t know what Backpack does, but I like the way it does it. Go check it out. 37signals r0xx0rz!!”

  5. Mike Rundle says:

    Bryce – Thanks for the comment, I’ll try my best to answer your questions.

    This post was written half-a-day before the application launched, and because of this I wasn’t granted permission to dive into the full review of the application for obvious reasons. It wasn’t meant to be a review at all, but merely a general overview to let people know I thought it was useful and that they should try it out.

    The real-life usefulness I was alluding to was indicated in the previous two sentences where I gave multiple uses for the application which tie into many people’s lives on some level. So because of its customizability and flexibility, it is inherently useful to multiple user groups simply because you can make it fit your life the way you see fit. It’s useful to me because I can keep track of bills and leave general notes to myself, but it could be useful to you if you were keeping to-do lists for taking a trip, or making general photo pages for references, or what have you.

    AJAX, if you know what it is and I’m assuming you do, lets users eliminate the time waiting for a page to reload and have instantaneous feedback for their actions. Flickr uses AJAX extensively in their interface (which is why it feels so zippy) and now Backpack does as well. I consider using AJAX to improve the user experience a “useful technical achievement” – wouldn’t you?

  6. Bryce says:

    Mike — thanks for your clarifications. After re-reading my first comment, I realize that I came off sounding like a bit of a grump. My apologies.

    For the reasons you stated, I do believe that there’s much to like about Backpack, and I can appreciate it as part of 37s’s ongoing experiment in richer-experience UIs. The interface niceties, and the very subtley-accomplished streamlining of actions and tasks: these are all examples I can learn from and apply to my own interface work. So for that I thank them. In USABILITY terms, Backpack is beyond reproach.

    But that USEFULNESS notion continues to nag at me — I have to admit, I continue to be a little underwhelmed by Backpack. Perhaps it’s just a shortcoming of vision on my part, but here is where I think the Flickr comparison falls apart: for me, the value proposition of Flickr is evident at first glance (cool! I can store all my photos! and it’s super-easy to share them in multiple contexts!) and — over time — all the secondary benefits reveal themselves: tags are useful as organization, and create adhoc communities; posting by phone is so easy that I’ve become a moblogger, etc etc.

    I would say that the Flickr interface, which is extremely usable, is only one of its tertiary benefits.

    Backpack, for me, wants desperately to present a primary value proposition. It’s a generalized toolkit.. a sandbox to play in. Don’t get me wrong — I love to play in the sand. And the recently announced Backpack API certainly makes the box bigger.

    But Flickr seems to have a different approach — they built a kickass castle, and once all the curious big-headed toddlers stumbled over, they started handing out buckets and shovels.

    Backpack doesn’t have the castle. They’ve got sand — and they’re trying to attract us over with (my metaphor is breaking down here) … the interface. And, to a lesser extent, the technology. (FWIW, I don’t think 37s themselves are touting these things, but its certainly what their community — your review included — seem most excited about.)

    And I realize again that I’m seeming rather curmudgeonly: I should be excited that someone cares enough to give us this cool sandbox to play in. (And I should be interested to see what structures emerge.) And I am.

    But I have this knee-jerk reaction when someone confounds the issues of usability versus utility vs. usefulness. For me, Flickr has all three (in spades.) Backpack? Well, two out of three ain’t bad…

    (Oh gawd, I just quoted Meatloaf. Okay, rant over.)

  7. Bryce says:

    Okay… this is kinda cool:

    http://www.backpackit.com/forum/viewtopic.php?id=424

    Maybe I’m starting to get the Backpack thing…

Trackbacks

  1. Backpack Launches

    I remember playing around with Tadalists a little while ago and being underwhelmed.

  2. A wind of change by new online database applications?

    Mike Rundle covers the launch of Backpack by 37signals. Viewing the newly launched and quite impressive Backpack site made me contemplate on what would be the effects of this new breed of services alongside many other different Wiki products on the cur…

  3. A wind of change by new online database applications?

    Mike Rundle covers the launch of Backpack by 37signals. Viewing the newly launched and quite impressive Backpack site made me contemplate on what would be the effects of this new breed of services alongside many other different Wiki products on the cur…

  4. A wind of change by new online database applications?

    Mike Rundle covers the launch of Backpack by 37signals. Viewing the newly launched and quite impressive Backpack site made me contemplate on what would be the effects of this new breed of services alongside many other different Wiki products on the cur…

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