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May 4, 2005 / jnolen

37Signals launches Backpack

As previously threatened, 37Signals has launched their newest product: Backpack. If you read my earlier post (while selectively ignoring the parts where I hedged or was flat-out wrong) I so guessed it! Backpack is a wiki! Sort of. Except where it's not. Well, here's the bit that I guessed right.

Unless it were a purely personal wiki. Hmm. That's also the kind of thing that would appeal to 37Signals: Ignore huge sections of a market and focus in on one very narrow use case — but totally nail it.

Of course, 37Signals is really smart about user-centered design, and so they never actually use the word "wiki." The word wiki is still just jargon at this point and they're shooting for a much less technical audience.

They're positioning it as a personal organizer, but watch the introduction movie and tell me that this isn't a wiki underneath. (That movie, by the way, is a excellent introduction to the whole wiki concept. I may use it next time I need to explain it to someone.) And the product is pretty slick.

Of course, I immediately signed up for a free account to check it out. Interestingly, you’re not even allowed to sign up for a paid account or see pricing until you’ve first signed up for a free one. I was a little frustrated by this, but it forced me to go deeper into the site and actually play with the product a little more than I might have otherwise.

The product allows you to create web pages, attach files and images, manage lists and set reminders. And you can do it all in style. But that’s it for now. It’s a highly specific application. As is usual for 37Signals, they built the absolute minimum functionality and released it to the world to see how people would decide to interact with it.

So what kind of impact will 37Signals have on the emerging wiki market? None, really. Firstly, the product is designed to be largely personal. This is not information sharing or groupware. There are some publicity features: i.e., you can make a page totally public, or share it with certain other Backpack users. But there is really no way to manage groups of people. But the wiki market is really an enterprise market. And Backpack doesn’t address that at all.


Secondly, 37Signals views this as a “Basecamp’s little brother.” Basecamp is their project management tool. So they are not building a general-purpose wiki, or even an “application wiki.” They’re building a very specific application that happens to have a lot of wiki features.

Thirdly, 37Signals is completely comfortable building the products that they want to build, and telling the rest of the world to kiss off. I just can’t imagine them deciding to target enterprise sales — they wouldn’t think it was fun. And Jason has said that they don’t want to scale.

So there are some first-rate interface ideas in Backpack, as well as some great copy-writing. If the other guys are paying attention, we might see some of those elements crop up in the true wiki products. Though frankly, I agree with several of the commenters that while the interaction design is killer, the pure aesthetics of the site are below 37Signals’ usual standard. I’m can’t put my finger on anything specific, but it just looks a little, well, boring.

But despite that mild criticism, Backpack is good enough, even in v1.0, to take over the (admittedly smaller) market for personal wikis. But I’m not sure it will happen — 37Signals doesn’t have the resources to do traditional marketing. They rely largely on their blog, their standing in the community and word of mouth. All of which work pretty well for them. They’re definitely going to make some money on this product. I just don’t think it’s going to go huge, and frankly, they may not even want it to.


Russell Beattie nails 37Signals for ignoring modern mobile platforms when building Backpack. I see Russell’s point, but I think that in this case he’s blinded by his own bias. 37Signals really have added some well thought-out, robust, widely-available mobile integrations. They may be using yesterday’s technologies, but they would work for me. Russell’s dream version wouldn’t, at least not yet.

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