App Review: Backpack From 37Signals

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I have been using the latest creation from 37Signals called Backpack. So far so good, it does a lot of what I need it to do in the way it organizes information and allows you to put all sorts of attachments on pages and get notified in the event of an update and securely share pages with other users of the system.


Backpack Logo

I think I need to make it clear that I’m not using the free version and didn’t even test out the free version because I wanted to be able to test out it’s attachment storage capabilities and store lots of information on each page.

I shouldn’t be surprised but I guess I was just a little bit by how easy the application is to use. Creating pages, tagging those pages and finding the information you’re looking for is all relatively straightforward and simple. 37Signals is right in the middle of this new wave of web app interface enhancements we seem to be seeing a lot of these days. Instead of using super fancy forms to add/edit/delete information, they make editing super easy by allowing you to hover over the text you want to change and then providing an “edit” link. Once you click on the edit link, the text is placed inside a form field and you can then update and save the changes. 37Signals seems to be pioneering this method of making web app gui interfaces easy to use and less cumbersome but in some ways it makes things harder.

One way it makes it harder is that if you’re trying to figure out what text is editable you could be moving your mouse all over just to find the hover hotspot. Until you find that hotspot or find a link to the place where you can make changes you can become very frustrated, as I did when I was trying to edit the tags associated with a page. But I think that portion of the learning curve is well worth the initial frustration because you can make up for that in time savings later on down the line.

There are a lot of good features I like in Backpack. Take a gander.

*Ability to tag pages and create a pseudo hierarchical relationship easily.

*Ability to add notes and attachments to pages to track updates and changes.

*Simple interface void of complex search forms and results pages.

*The fact 37Signals doesn’t link to themselves in the footer of your backpack.

*The fact 37Signals didn’t use an actual backpack for the logo.

*Using a subdomain of “skidmore” for stylesheets and js includes.

*Nice implementation of a new app on top of a blogging system.

*They released an API less than a week after backpack was launched, way cool!

Things I’m Not Too Keen On With Backpack

*Help movies don’t contain audio, found them hard to follow.

*Can’t upload more than one attachment at a time on a page.

*They seed your backpack with fake data and removing it bogged me down.

*Took forever to find the place where I could add/edit tags for a page.

*Linking pages is reciprocal and I only want it to be one way to further emphasize the hierarchical relationships of categories using a combination of tagging pages and linking to specific pages that are part of a category from the parent category pages. Having to remove the links from the child page to the parent page was a hassle and in the end I decided to use notes instead of creating more pages which limits the intended functionality of the app from the get go.

*Inability to create a secure RSS feed from a secured backpack.

*Inability to upload mp3 files as attachments [though I understand why].

*Can’t sort displayed links on the page navigation.

*I know it’s cheesy but I wish I could upload an image and personalize the layout a bit more than simply choosing the colors of the site. I wonder if I’m the only one that wants that feature though.

*Support appears to be pretty comprehensive and the folks at 37Signals set up a forum and a blog to keep everyone posted about what’s going on with the app and how they’re addressing issues. Customer service is key to any successful web based business, even if it is a fairly robust application and not an entire business entity in and of itself. 37Signals is great on the PR side and getting better on the support side and for the $9 bucks a month I’m paying I’m quite satisfied.

*Can’t add a member to my backpack and pay for their membership or purchase multiple licenses at a single time [especially for a bulk discount] and email invites to the folks I want to use the backpack with me.

*Can’t share an entire site [at least I don’t think you can] with someone else, can only share specific pages, need a checkbox in a user mgmt section that allows me to say “share entire site with jdog”.

Backpack Review Summary
I really look forward to the launch of products from 37Signals. I think part of it is the fact they’re big on sharing information and give a lot of information and services away for free via their corporate site and the apps they release. Every service they offer with the exception of consulting has a free level and I think that’s critical in this day and time. It’s hard for small companies to compete with the likes of Yahoo and Google by giving services away for free but when a small company is willing to take that risk in order to make their products better then they earn my respect. Plus, it makes it a lot easier to cough up $9/month when I know the money I spend is only going to further improve an already great company.

I was able to get my backpack up and running in less than 10 minutes and that was without reading all the buzz it had been getting in the blogosphere and relying merely on the word of mouth from a friend that I should try it out. So without knowing much detail about the app before I signed up I felt comfortable enough with the sales literature on their corp site to plop down my credit card. And, being able to get something meaningful accomplished in less than 10 minutes is critically important to me since time is always of the essence and backpack allowed me to do that.

There are a couple points I want to make about the 37Signals team and how this application epitomizes their ideology. First, they’re creative thinkers who apply their wisdom, experience, and intellectual property centered around user interface design and content management systems to solve existing problems. This shows they’re entrepreneurial at heart. The fact they can roll out a fairly robust app in short order and without a major ad budget and without any major glitches shows they’re effecient and effective. Those are two words accountants love to hear. Leveraging existing applications and technology to build an entirely new product shows they’re not only smart but talented. All these attributes are things VC firms and interested investors or acquisition hunters love to see. Add to that the identity branding and 37Signals well respected voice in the web usability community and you’ve got a possible superstar status on your hand. Do I hear a 5x multiple?

Well let me wrap up this review before I get carried away. I think the price is right, the initial features backpack rolled out with do the job and this tool has saved me a lot of time writing code, so I give backpack two thumbs up. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or would like more information on backpack and how it can save you time and money, feel free to drop me an email, I’d be more than happy to offer my input.

Reader Comments…

Jason Dowdell is a technology entrepreneur and operates the Marketing Shift blog.

App Review: Backpack From 37Signals
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