Testing the trail with Backpack

Earlier I mentioned some interest in the upcoming Backpack application from 37signals. That little bit of interest got me a ticket to give it a try.

[As an aside, that’s a neat, quick demonstration of the use of technorati’s tags system: You put something together that generates some buzz, then monitor the handful of likely keywords that your thing will attract. It’s not a perfect sample, but what you end up with is the ability to take a look at what early adopters are thinking—and in this kind of case, it seems that it’s precisely the early adopters who give you something interesting to work with.]

So I finished up a chunk of my work for the evening and tooled around with Backpack for a while. Here’s what it is, in a nutshell: A really easy-to-use wiki with just enough organizational form draped over it to push it toward being useful, so that rather than being a gigantic blank page, you have some suggested things to do with it right off the bat. You create a page to represent a project, an idea, a meeting, a day of the week, and then fill it up with stuff: Body text, notes, to-do lists, files, images. Your pages can be linked from a master page, and you can link among any of them, as well. This is a fairly standard wiki-type stuff; in fact my first thought was that a lot of Backpack pages (the site includes links to a gallery of sample pages to help strike up your imagination) look like very handsome versions of pages published by the wiki-based planner package for emacs. PlannerMode does several of the things that Backpack does: Tasklists, notes, linking to files of multiple types—and it does them extremely well, right up to and including publishing them as web pages. But, like everything Emacs, it’s not exactly intuitive. Applications like instiki have made wiki organization really useful, as well, with a shallower learning curve than planner/emacs-wiki but without some of the organizing and planning features.

But back to Backpack. It’s way, way cool. It’s a capital Good Thing, I think. Wikis of various forms have made it possible to to what Backpack does, but I haven’t used any that make it nearly as easy or as elegant. The thing is, it looks really good. You can format your page using textile, and all editing is done dynamically, right on the spot—no reloading. Adding new items to a tasklist is lovely: Type the item and hit enter, and the new item slides into view at the bottom of your list. A new add textbox appears automatically for more entries. Mark an item completed, and it dissolves, to reapper in smaller type below the list. Tell Backpack your schedule and it will send you reminders—right to your cell phone, even—before that Big Meeting. Reminders can be shared directly to other software that uses the iCalendar format.

So, Backpack gives you a semi-structured way to tie all sorts of information and tasks together, but the killer for me is that you can send email to it. By default, email sent to any given Backpack page shows up in a little section of its own. You can open these items up and move them around later. But even cooler is that you can specify in the subject line for Backpack to add your emailed content as a note or todo list, and if you attach documents or images, those get sent right into the storage section of the page. This may all sound rather pedestrian, but trust me, sending yourself an email that says “todo: Drop off books at library” and then watching that item appear appended to the bottom of your page’s Tasklist is really very neat. You can send a whole list of tasklist items, in fact, and sending notes is just as slick. I can imagine sending myself quick notes to a “brainstorm” page that I could later visit to re-organize and develop.

The big question is whether I’ll keep using Backpack. Truth be told, I’ve moved away from my electronic doodad organizers lately: I still keep some dissertation notes in planner/emacs-wiki, but I do most of my organizing work in a notebook these days. But Backpack is cool, and it’s just the sort of thing that could supplement other tools, especially for sharing information. The free version of Backpack is pretty limited—only 3 pages and no images or file storage—but it’s absolutely worth checking out, whether you’re just into neat, elegant web tools or really need a super-duper online idea farm/organizer/information sharer. Backpack goes public on Tuesday, according to my new internet best buddies.