The short answer: For most users, Backpack is worth the time and money.
Backpack is an online service offered by 37Signals
that makes organizing your information incredibly easy. Backpack lets you make pages which can contain any combination of notes, to-dos, images, files, etc. You can keep these pages to yourself or share them with colleagues, co-workers, friends, or family.
I first used Backpack last year and, to be honest, I wasn’t impressed. 37Signals made a lot of positive changes since then and I decided to give it a try again. I’m glad I did.
I’m done with DotMac….what now?
One of the reasons that I decided to pick Backpack up again is because I decided to stop paying the Annual Apple Tax for its DotMac services. A review of DotMac is its own blog post series – and since I don’t want to reenter counseling sessions for broken promises – I’ll let it wait until then. Needless to say, I wasn’t getting enough juice for all the squeezin’ I was doing with the service.
But I was getting some functionality. What I lost when I stopped my DotMac service was the online storage for reference files and a shareable calender. I didn’t use the rest of the service, so not having some of the other features didn’t bother me.
Let me briefly touch on the online storage piece. As some of you know, I’m an officer in the Army National Guard. The Department of Defense has some fairly strict security processes in place such that you can’t plug in personal computers into their network. So, even though I kept all of my files on my personal computer, I would constantly have to shuffle them back and forth between the government issued computers and my laptop. That got annoying.
I used my online storage as a good way to still have access to those files without having to transfer from computer to computer. Furthermore, I never was in the position such that, if I forgot my laptop, I didn’t have those files.
(Note that I could have gotten around this with a mobile harddrive. I never got around to buying one because I didn’t need one as long as I had one of my online services, and they proved more functional for me.)
I would also occasionally be somewhere where I needed access to my files for the teaching and research that I do at the University. With DotMac, I had everything synced in my iDisk, so I was never without a file that I needed. I could have just gotten some online storage through another service like Mozy, but I wanted a more integrated solution.
Enter Backpack for all my file and calendar sharing needs…
Calendar sharing is also a huge feature for me. I’m horrible at telling Angela what I’m doing, even though I often put it in a calendar. My old DotMac service automatically updated her computer when I made changes – so when I no longer had that feature, there was considerable tension as my shifting schedule changed and I didn’t tell her. Having your spouse cook a meal because it’s her turn only to tell her way too late that you’re going to stay late for work causes considerable frustration.
Backpack stepped in quite nicely there, as well. Now when I update my Backpack calendar, she gets an RSS notification that I’ve done so.
But I gained more than those two features. I also really started using the Reminder feature in Backpack, as well. I schedule reminders for important things to remember, and I can set it so that it reminds both of us or one of us. For instance, she had surgery last Thursday, and the doctor informed her that was not to take anti-inflammatory meds for one week prior to her surgery. Rather than try to remember that, I just programmed a reminder that emailed us one week prior indicating that from that she wasn’t supposed to take anti-inflammatory meds during that period. Simple and efficient.
I’ve also been continually using their Pages feature in many different ways. One time I used it to keep a rolling ToDo list for things I needed to do during Annual Training. Another time I used it to keep track of the wines that we like. Another use has been as a shared project tracker. It’s really so easy and modular that you can use it for about whatever you need.
Rarely have I used a product that was so easy, and I dare say fun, that it encouraged me to use it more. Backpack does that to me on a daily basis.
Another thing about pages: each one has its own email. So you can set up a page to email all sorts of information, and Backpack diligently adds that information to the page. Combine that with the ability to easily drag the contents from one page to another, and you can hack out Backpack to be your own Capture and Process Center, GTD style.
I also have been using the Writeboard feature more and more. Writeboards are shareable documents that allow different collaborators to make changes to the document. I’ve used them to log meeting notes and to prepare agendas for teleconferences. I could see using them as a Wiki in a Small Business Structure, although it does have some limitations that wouldn’t make it ideal.
Backpack provides a cohesive, integrated solution by allowing you to share documents for collaboration.
To my pleasant surprise, 37 Signals added another feature that I’ve been wanting but haven’t asked for: The Journal. The Journal is just a place where you can write down what you’re working on so that everyone in your Backpack group knows what’s going on. I think it’ll turn out to be a more productive Twitter.
How I think it’s going to be most useful to me, though, is it’ll give me an easy way to write down what I actually did at the end of the day so that I that I don’t have to remember that I fertilized my rosebushes today – I can just search for “rose”, and as long as I put it in to Backpack, it’ll show what I did to my roses on what day. That’s friggin’ handy.
That’s great, but I’ll have to spend time and money to use Backpack…is it worth it?
Switching to any new system like this requires time. You have to learn a new way of thinking and teach yourself how to use the system. Learning Backpack, however, has been insanely easy. It’s probably taken me twenty minutes, all together, to figure out how to use it.
However, you can spend a lot of time tinkering with it to figure out new ways to use the service for your context. This feature is a double-edged sword – being able to tailor the service for your actual needs and wants also makes it so that you can spend a lot of time fidgeting with it – but I’d rather have a more modular service that does what I want it to do than one that’s constrainingly fidgetproof.
I suspect what’ll keep most people from really using Backpack is the cost. Though there is a free service available, you’re really not getting the best of Backpack – as it’s a really handy service for integrating family and group activities and information. And to do that, you have to pay a minimum of $12 per month.
However, it’s worth it for my needs, and I have been paying for the service for several months now. Consider it this way: how much of your time do you spend sharing schedules, information, messages, and trying to remember stuff? It saves me at least an hour a month – and my time is worth far more than $12 an hour. Not to mention the sanity saved from not being curtly reminded that I didn’t tell Angela what I was doing.
The way that Backpack can be tailored to an individual or groups needs is a huge feature that makes it hard for me to limit who I would recommend the service to. Backpack is so flexible and modular that it can serve the needs of anyone who needs an integrated place to share calendars, information, reminders, and (recently added) their status with others.
[Update on July 10, 2008: If you have more than 6 people that need to share information, you’ll probably want to start integrating some of the features of 37Sig’s other services. At that point, it would be more cost-effective to host your own server somewhere and set-up the information exactly the way you need it. However, that would require at least one person who knew how to set up such a service, but an organization of larger than that will need some organic way to help manage information and scale that structure. More on this in the future…]
Right now, the thing that’s most likely to pull me away from using Backpack is not another online service, but rather the likelihood that I’ll be setting up my own home server. If I do that, though, it’ll be because using Backpack has shown me how having my own flexible, tailored intranet can help me and my family’s productivity.
The Changes I’d Like to See in Backpack
Despite the fact that Backpack is already a really good service, I think it could be even better with the addition of the following features:
A daily calendar view with beginning and end times
The ability to attach notes and files to reminders
Time stamps for listed items
The ability to enter status for the past in Journal
Although the Newsroom (the dashboard where Backpack displays your latest activity and what’s coming up) does a great job of showing you the hard landscape of your day, it doesn’t have end times on the activities. For instance, I know that Angela’s physical therapy appointment is at 1pm and her allergy shot is at 3pm. What time does her physical therapy appointment end? To figure that out, I’d have to return to another source of information – which defeats the purpose of me keeping it in Backpack.
This one should be an easy one, as Backpack is already able to understand the syntax of multiple day events.
Backpack’s reminder service is really handy and easy to use, but to take it a step further, we need the ability to attach files or notes to them. Having the ability to have a reminder that tells me to call Bill at 3pm while having the agenda for the conversation included with the reminder saves me a few extra steps. Yes, this is simply the ability to time-delay an email to yourself or your group, but it’s a service that can easily be integrated into Backpack.
It’s very, very easy to make lists within Backpack – so easy, in fact, you’ll probably want to start making lists of a lot of your important data. One thing a lot of people will likely try is to set up some rolling ToDo list – it works pretty well for that, especially because the list items are draggable on the page (you have to do this yourself to see how addictive it can be).
What keeps it from being the end solution for me is that it doesn’t tell me when that item was completed. For what I do, it’s important to know that I completed this portion of that project on this date rather than some other – to do that, I’d have to go back in and edit the list item to say COMPLETED ON MAY 27th. Clearly, Backpack understands timestamps, for it does it on everything else – I want it to do it on list items, as well.
Yes, this is a relatively new feature, but since I’ve been using it, I’ve been slightly frustrated that I can’t quite use it the way I want it. When you put in an item, it puts it in under today’s date – but if you did something yesterday and want to put it in that you did it yesterday, you can’t. You have to put it under today’s date. I know the Journal is designed to be used as a current status board, but being able to back enter status would be really helpful – especially if you want to capture working actions done when you’re away from the internet.
A Systematic Review of Backpack
I’d like to end this review with a more systematic summary using the criteria I set out in A Special Theory of Productivity. As a brief recap, in that post I stated that the three functions of Time Management Systems are to help us plan, execute, and evaluate our actions and that the principles of simplicity, usefulness, aesthetic pleasure, connectedness, and cohesiveness make Time Management Systems better or worse.
Backpack wins high marks in its ability to help us plan and evaluate our actions – it would be even better at it with the features requested above. Its interface is simple and aesthetically pleasing, and it’s so useful that many people will have to discipline themselves to not use Backpack to list out their lives.
Until we get a better daily picture, though, Backpack will not be an end all solution for executing one’s tasks. That being the case, it gets lower marks for connectedness and cohesiveness, since to see how those tasks are connected to anything I’ll have to refer to another system. The features requested above will help with this aspect without breaking the simplicity and usability.
Give Backpack a Try (For Free)
I encourage you to give Backpack a try if you haven’t done so already. The banner below will take you directly there so you can see the tour for yourself. Remember that there is a free trial – if you use it and find that I’m wrong, please come back and call me out.
The links to Backpack in the post are affiliate links and this review falls under my review guidelines. Please sign up for Backpack by using my link if this review helps you make an informed purchase. Thanks!
Sue Massey says
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You should try out Dropbox for file synchronization… it’s the first service I’ve used that worked as I thought it should (I also used to use .mac, and also cancelled it, mainly because I found the file synchronization so slow and buggy). Dropbox also lets you see your synched files in the web browser, if you want, which sounds perfect for your situation.