In praise of Backpack

After my list of minor quibbles with backpack, i think it’s time for a little praise (and not just because of the feeling that someone’s watching over my shoulder). Today i went out with two dear friends, one of whom asked me why i was so enthusiastic about backpack. After all, it doesn’t do much you couldn’t have done with some hand-coded html ten years ago. The difference lies in the how and i like backpack for the same reasons i prefer mac os x over linux: it’s easy to get started, it’s easy to use, it’s hassle-free.
As a web-application, backpack does many things extraordinarily well: it makes better use of ajax than any webapp i’ve seen before, imho even better than everybody’s darling gmail. But besides being an excellent web-application, backpack has some great qualities that more applications in general should take to heart:

  • You can just dive in. Play around with it for a few minutes and you’ll have a pretty good understanding of its capabilities and limits. There’s not much documentation available, at least that i know of, but you’ll get up to speed with backpack so easily and fast that docs aren’t really necessary.
  • Backpack is rather limited in its form. You’ll get non-hierarchical pages, with sections for different purposes in a fixed order. This fixed form, fixed scope encourages you to become creative to get the most out of it. Need to assign tasks to a particular person for a shared project? Better find your own way of handling it, backpack won’t enforce its way on you to do this “properly”. Some might call this a lack of features, i call it making users think where it makes sense. This tip for creating hierarchical structures in todo-lists is a great example of what i’m trying to convey here. There’s no right or wrong in using backpack and it won’t make you feel guilty down the road for not knowing about best practices. It’s just a tool you can facilitate in whichever way you like, which is great for the same reason that makes paper such a tremendous tool for notetaking.
  • Backpack makes great use of the blank slate stage. Off the top of my head, there are two problems with applications devoid of real data. The first problem is that people will judge your application on their first impression. If you don’t win them right away, they’ll never appreciate how great your application could have been, had they been using it for six months. The second problem is, it’ll leave users clueless about how to get started. Getting started is very different from having accustomed to something. Encouraging your users to use your application, showing them how to get started is fundamental to the lasting success of an application, and lasting success is fundamental if you’re using a subscription model for your application because the deal isn’t done when the checks’ been signed.
  • 37signals has announced that they’ll offer an api to interface with backpack. This kinda thing could solve some of my earlier grievances and i’m very fond of this solution as it allows backpack to grow in capability without risking feature-creep. Nonetheless, i consider some of the things in my earlier post to be viable as core features and i really hope they’ll make it in at some point in the future.

Oh and that conference i mentioned briefly before: i’m going to reboot7 june 10-11 and you can track my travel plans @backpack (that page is gone now). Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson of 37signals will be there as well (here’s a full list of participants), so perhaps i’ll even be able to ask a few questions about backpack in person there. So excited!

A few suggestions on how to improve backpack

Backpack launched today. I’ve been using it for a few hours and it looks great. However, a bunch of things come to mind for possible future improvements:

  • Somehow i think the whole thing should be more date/time-aware. Even better: calendars for each page, just as there are already lists, notes, &c. Right now i’m planning a trip to a conference with backpack and i already dread the moment i start with my schedule for the program because there’s just no suitable way to do this right now. Actually, a full-blown calendar isn’t really necessary, but something suitable for basic scheduling, a bunch of entries with date/time-information in chronological order, grouped by day would do nicely.
  • Tighter integration of lists and reminders. Lists aren’t really for generic lists – as i grok it, they’re mainly tailored towards todo-lists (for a plain list, use * for bulleted list items and # for ordered list items in your body, notes and possibly elsewhere). So if i already have a list full of todo-items, i should be able to create a reminder from a list-item. Just another little button next to the edit- and trash-links that’ll take you to your reminders page with the reminder-text preset. Associations between reminders and todo-items could also add deadlines to todo-items, something that’s terribly absent right now. Actually, i really think todo-lists should support deadlines. Would make for a nice auto-reminder thingy as well.
  • Aggregate similar content where it makes sense. As mentioned above lists are basically todo-lists and i think it would make sense to aggregate them onto one page to give an overview of all the stuff you got to do without going through all your pages in backpack. The same would make sense for the schedule-per-page thing suggested above.
  • I’m not sure where backpack leaves tada-list. Some part of me thinks there is no place for tada-list after backpack, another thinks the two should be tightly integrated or perhaps even merged. Just a feeling, not that i actually know, i’ve never really used tada-list because it makes my browser freeze upon adding a new item.
  • I couldn’t find a way to reorder notes. It’s possible to reorder list-items, so why not notes?
  • You can add links like this: “sometext”:http://someplace.com – it would be nice if it’d be possible to add email-links similarly: “someone”:someone@someplace.com
  • There should be more rss feeds, would be useful for public pages. I’d like to have them at least for notes, list-items and images.

Right now i see backpack taking over a lot of the stuff i used voodoopad for. Nonetheless, i really miss some of the features described above, especially the scheduling thingy (as if you couldn’t guess that by now). I’ll stick with a free account for now, let’s see how this turns out over time…

Drifting neighborhoods

Last.fm is one of very few online services that i could motivate some of my friends to actually use over a prolonged period of time. Some time last week my two flatmates and i drifted into the same neighborhood, and quite closely so. It only took a few days to drift apart again. We didn’t just move apart slightly, we totally dropped off each other’s radar and just as easily might get back on. This wasn’t the consequence of switching attention on a whim (internet anxiety disorder, anyone?), but a wee unconscious change of habits in our daily routine. Especially in this setting of meatspace proximity i wonder how these drifting neighborhoods, laid out in plain sight through statistical analysis, reflect tiny day2day changes in our relationships, tastetribeish if you will (so a word!). Are these drifting neighborhoods, virtual proximity in flux, telling of something more? I bet you could plot some pretty interesting network diagrams and do some great research and analysis with last.fm’s datapool.