Throw It in Your Backpack

BackpackAs 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.

Fear of a Blank Canvas

Below: A Backpack page for an upcoming trip. See it here.

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.

My Backpack Page

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.

No App Is an Island (?)

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.

  1. On the interoperability note, it would actually be kind of hard to imagine *how* to integrate Backpack data into other apps without a lot of interruption by the user. The data put into Backpack is rather unique. However, I do see your point.

    Perhaps a generic XML export would be a step in the right direction.

    Honestly, I’m not sure how much I’ll use Backpack. Its most useful point for me is the reminders function, but that’s built into my computer. For the other stuff, I don’t feel the need to keep what might as well be a directory of files and a text document on another site.

    Setting up pages such as the examples given by 37signals seems kind of fruitless. Most such things can be done faster mentally. For the “little things” Backpack is marketing itself as an organizer for, I feel like I’d take more time setting up my Backpack pages than I would to actually carry out whatever tasks.

    That’s just my analysis. I’m sure the situation is different for other people, especially for collaborative projects.

  2. Khoi, Do you think this is half a product or a half-ass product? I ask only because you and I were there when Jason explained his approach to adding features to products.

  3. Neither. I think it’s a solid product that takes a very independent stance on personal info management. It’s funny though; if you took the sheer number of features and compared that figure against the number of figures in a traditional, full-fledged PIM, it would certainly appear to be a half-assed product. The difference is in the user interface, which helps the whole amount to more than the sum of the parts.

  4. Like you, I’m not sure where Backpack will fit into my routine. I’m generally close to one or other of my computers, and have spent a reasonable amount of time working out how to make sure all the information I’m likely to need is on both machines. What I like about it is the collaborative possibilities it allows – I think it’ll work well for small group projects. But I’m yet to see what I’LL be asking it to do.

  5. I think it fits in well with where Basecamp might be *too* much for a project as Virginia mntioned — small and simple seems to be the goal here.

    There were quite a few things that I thought Basecamp was a bit kludgy with, workflow-wise and Backpack fills the “less is more” workflow that I wanted to see.

    So far, so good.

  6. Perhaps a generic XML export would be a step in the right direction.

    There is an XML export link (at the bottom of the “Account” page) that gives a dump of one’s entire Backpack site. I don’t know that any existing software knows how to read it, but I’m already pondering code to make use of it.

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.