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Petri Wessman's weblog

Backpack revisited

Backpack is a web-based service/app run by 37signals, the same company responsible for unleashing Ruby On Rails on the world. The base/demo version is free, if you pay you get extra functionality – this seems to be a growing trend these days.

So, what is it? That’s a reasonable and simple question, but the answer is a bit more elusive. It’s something like an ultra-simplified wiki with todo (and other) list support. It provides some structure to your data (unlike a traditional wiki which is totally freeform), but doesn’t mandate a strict system or layout. It’s also extremely streamlined and simple, by design – the design idea was to only include the things people really need, and nothing else.

So we’re back to “what is it”?

It’s an sort of freeform, online personal organizer tool, a place to hang all the virtual (or physical) Post-It notes and lists that are always hanging around. It’s a place to store all the general small “stuff” and info that don’t have any proper place, and which you need to refer to often. Todo-lists. Reminder notes (Backpack provides email notifications on those). General “notes to self”. Just… stuff.

I tried it out when it first came out less than a year ago, and was mildly interested by the concept. On the other hand, my gut feel was “I could do all this myself with a wiki and some other stuff”. Which is true… except I never got around to organizing something like that, so the “I could do something like this myself” has been replaced with “well, I could, but why should I when this exists”?

At the time, Backpack was missing any sort of calendar, and that was really the deal-breaker for me – I need some sort of calendar in my organizer tool.

Well, just about a week(?) ago the bastards added a calendar to it. I tried it out, and it works – like everything in Backpack it’s ultra-simplified; there is only one view, and you can’t really configure anything. But it works, and my calendar needs are very simple. As a sneaky move, the calendar is only available in the for-pay accounts, so I was “forced” to move into the $5 per month account scheme. I don’t really mind.

So. With the addition of the calendar feature, Backpack has become a surprisingly useful tool for me. I still find it hard to describe to people exactly what the thing actually is or exactly how I use it, but… “works for me”.

While I’ve come to appreciate 37signal’s “keep it as simple as humanly possible” design method, I still think they take it a bit too far sometimes. There are a lot of things in Backpack I’d like to customize. On the other hand, I suppose everyone has their list of things, and if all were accomodated the whole app would quickly become a confusing, Microsoft-like mess. The zen-like simplicity does have a certain charm, keeping that in mind.

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