Tue 03 May
As if you could avoid hearing the news: the prolific 37signals launched their latest online application today and it’s called Backpack. As a beta tester, I took a crack at helping the company craft its messaging for this hard-to-describe product, and the best I could come up with was this: “It’s perhaps the most convincing Web answer yet to the power, flexibility and simplicity of a spiral-bound notebook.” You can tell that I had my little marketing hat on for that particular brainstorming session.
It may be difficult to describe exactly what Backpack is, but it’s not hard to understand when you spend a little time playing around with it. I’m talking about five minutes’ worth of your life. You’ll make lists with it, you’ll make notes with it, you’ll post pictures with it, and then you’ll share your work. Add to that the ability to send reminders to yourself as well as some hints of wiki-like functionality, and it becomes apparent why it’s hard to sum up neatly.
Backpack takes a deceptively simple, task-based approach to online document building. I say “deceptive” because the tools seem exceedingly basic, but taken together, they can produce fairly powerful repositories for personal information. In fact, some users may experience a kind of ‘blank canvas effect,’ momentarily paralyzed by the fact that Backpack lets you create anything you want. Get past that, though, and it will reward you with its emphatic usefulness.
Which isn’t to say that everyone is going to go crazy for Backpack, at least not immediately. It’s gorgeous and friendly in the best 37signals tradition, to be sure, and a first class example of Ruby on Rails and remote scripting. But there’s a spare, Jobs-ian fetish for simplicity at work here, too, that while user-friendly doesn’t exactly play well with others. Had Backpack been an idea originated in Silicon Valley, it would have been born with a thousand hooks into the personal information management tools that users already have installed on their desktops — Microsoft Outlook, to be sure, and maybe your Palm OS device or your RSS aggregator, too.
Backpack does feature some rudimentary iCal integration, but beyond that, it seems defiantly independent, even reductive in its compatibility. It makes little attempt to reach out to a mass audience of information workers with the kind of devout complexity in which technology companies (especially Windows developers) believe so strongly.
In a way, there’s bargaining at work here. The Backpack message entreats you to give up the intricacies of your current reminder systems, note-takers and publishing tools and trade them in for Backpack’s simpler approach. You might call it a leap of faith, which is an approach that will probably endear it to lots of people, but not everyone. I’m still struggling to figure out where it fits into my own information management schema; between iCal, Microsoft Entourage, Hog Bay Notebook and several other ‘information cloud’ utilities, is there a place for Backpack in my life? I don’t know yet, but I’m glad it’s out there.