Mon 03 Oct
37signals released Writeboard today, the latest release in what’s surely shaping up to be 37signals Office — a line of indispensable productivity applications that all happen to be intimately and prohibitively hooked into one another. So, look out Microsoft.
I’m only half kidding about that last bit, but it is true that Writeboard is now open for business and, being 100% free and almost completely great, I’m sure there will be plenty of business to be had.
The product is best described as a collaborative, versioning online text editor, and at first I thought it was the super-elegant wiki creation tool that I’ve been anticipating for a long time. As it turns out, Writeboard purposefully eschews wiki-linking (too “techy,” Jason Fried told me) and instead favors a reductive, straightforward approach to allowing people to jointly create documents.
Even so, Writeboard is probably also the first 37signals tool that I’ll use frequently and to its full potential. As much admiration as I have for its predecessors, I’ve never been able to integrate those products into my working style. Basecamp, for instance, is tempting, but more than anything I want it running on my own server, where I can tweak it to my heart’s content — I’d be very keen to see it offered as a standalone installer similar to Movable Type, but I probably shouldn’t hold my breath.
Backpack, while a lucid and ingenious translation of Basecamp-like features into personal productivity tools, seems limited in its collaborative capabilities, rendering its case for sharing personal documents less compelling for me than it might seem to others. I’ve made a consistent and conscientious effort to make the most of my Backpack account, but it still hasn’T felt completely natural to me the way a desktop note-keeper like Hog Bay Notebook does.
Writeboard, on the other hand, has seemed much more comfortable to me from the very start. The whole reason we put things on the Web is so that others can share them, of course, and so allowing those with whom we share a document to take part in its authorship, too, is a logical progression — it’s the missing ingredient from my Backpack experiences.
Really, there’s no other software solution in the world that will allow me to collaborate on a new document as quickly and painlessly as Writeboard. That includes the more fine-grained Track Changes feature of the ubiquitous Microsoft Word, and the considerably more esoteric but also vastly more robust real-time collaboration of SubEthaEdit — both of which offer more impressive variants on what Writeboard does at its core but that also fall short on getting me started out of the box. Neither of them will allow me to almost instantly get up and running with a brand new document with someone on the other side of the world, perhaps working on a completely different computing platform and with a completely different level of experience than me. Writeboard does this exceedingly well.
If you thought I was being cheeky earlier about the idea of “37signals Office,” consider this: Writeboard is free to use, but to organize and archive your Writeboards, you need a Backpack account. Yes, that’s correct, Writeboard is a “gateway app,’ the kind that’s easy to get started using and harmless enough on its own, but that soon leads to harder, more serious apps. All kidding aside, its inherent usefulness does give Backpack a newer lease on life for me — it remakes Backpack as more than just a collection of the functionality it launched with several months ago, but also as a kind of platform for future ’signals products. This is all conjecture, but watch that space.