I have to admit that I’ve been a spotty user of 37Signals’ Backpack service ever since they unleashed it into the wild. Although I love the ability to setup pages to track all kinds of odds and ends, several annoyances have gotten in the way of me becoming a devoted Backpack user. There are the obvious omissions – no search, not inherently easy to move tasks from list to list, etc. The most overlooked annoyance, however, is that Backpack isn’t really portable. You’d think that a service called Backpack would be, you know, portable?
37Signals addresses this shortcoming by granting outside developers access to a rich API (application programming interface) set, effectively empowering outsiders to craft their own tweaks to the Backpack core. From a portability perspective, most of the API-based development has been relegated to Apple Mac users. There is also a nice Yahoo! Widget available that gives you desktop access to Backpack, although it doesn’t provide true portability. Less has been done, however, for true portability via PDA or smartphone. 37Signals themselves built a spartan mobile interface which allows for the most basic Backpack portability possible (as seen to the left). I’ve never been a fan of this interface. It fails on three fronts. First, while it’s simple – it may be too simple. It just doesn’t feel as intuitive as it should be. I know that designing an interface for mobile devices is extremely difficult, given the wide variety of browsers, screen sizes, etc, but Backpack’s mobile interface doesn’t cut it for me…not to mention that mobile browsers tend to be slow, even if you’re on a wireless broadband network. Second, the mobile interface requires a password to login every time it’s accessed (at least that is the case on a Treo)…not good for rapid entry and access. Finally, this mobile interface doesn’t provide true portability; in other words, you still cannot take your Backpack offline.
All of these factors have kept me from adopting Backpack as a comprehensive task, notes master. I’m also very committed to David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology, so contextual access to my task lists is absolutely critical. To be a true GTD centric application, offline task lists are key to making contextual access possible.
After many stops and starts with Backpack since it’s release (like many GTD’ers I tend to look for different ways to be productive all the time), I finally came across a near perfect implementation of Backpack portability in Satchel. Satchel is a Backpack API dependent application that runs on PalmOS (Access) PDAs and Smartphones that gives you portable access to Backpack’s lists, notes, and reminders functionality while on the go. With Satchel, I am able to synchronize my Backpack task lists and notes onto my Palm Treo 700p, and send back changes in a flash. This is not just wireless access to my data, but a full fledged offline, syncable client on my Palm device. I’m not a heavy user of the Reminders function on Backpack, but Satchel also lets you setup Backpack Reminders – which then are added to both Backpack and the Palm Calendar. Task lists, notes and reminders are by far the most critical features within Backpack and Satchel lets you manage all of them in a simple and elegant manner, without being tied down to a computer. The program is still in beta mode, so there are some rough edges to it, but the beta is active for another two months (up through Mid-March 2007). It is certainly worth a look for anyone who has wireless access on their Palm device and relies on Backpack as a central repository. Standalone makes some of the best applications for the Palm that are available today. I’ve used their Super Names contact manager for years, and also use their Quick News RSS feed reader. Both of those products have evolved quite nicely, so I’m confident that Satchel will continue to get better and better.
Now if we could just figure out a way to get 37Signals to freshen up Backpack with some badly needed upgrades….