37Signals’ Backpack gets an update

There are few web 2.0 companies that get as much positive buzz as 37Signals does. For the uninitiated, 37Signals is the company behind some of the more practical web applications and productivity tools available today. One of their most popular applications, Backpack, was recently updated. Essentially, backpack is a light wiki-type application that allows you to create task lists, manage notes, and store files all within a simple/elegant web interface. When first launched a couple of years ago, Backpack received enormous amount of buzz, and helped catapult 37Signals into the web 2.0 mainstream. In recent times, however, Backpack had fallen behind in updates, and quite a few users openly wondered if 37Signals had abandoned the project. While the company might have put Backpack on the back burner, it has re-assumed center stage with some nice tweaks and enhancements to the interface. A complete list of updates can be seen here.

Search, finally

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I’ve used Backpack, on and off, since it’s inception. The application is deceptively simple, but can also be very frustrating. One of the major frustrations that drove me away from daily Backpack use was the lack of a search capability. Well, as you can see on the right, that has been corrected. Can you imagine having a central repository of notes, ideas, or tasks that didn’t have any ability to search? Just by adding a search capability, 37Signals has substantially enhanced the usability of Backpack. Search is not perfect, as it only presents back the page on which a searched term resides.

Move stuff around

Another major complaint about Backpack was the inability to move sections (lists, notes, attachments, etc.) from page to page. 37Signals had already incorporated a slick drag-drop capability to move stuff around within a page, but not to other pages. This has now been fixed. Sections can be dragged onto other pages, and sections can be moved about anywhere on a given page. This is really, really nice. One big miss here is that individual list items can’t be moved from page to page. I’d certainly like to see that sometime soon.

There are a bunch of other tweaks worth checking out. Overall, this is a worthy upgrade to Backpack, not a huge improvement, but they’ve addressed many shortcomings in this iteration.

By the way, Satchel users will be happy to hear that the upgrade only caused minor hiccups in the ability to synchronize Backpack with the PalmOS based Satchel.

Is Palm about to introduce a web browsing tablet?

Despite all the recent punditry and pronouncements of Palm’s impending sale, the company continues to chug along on the smartphone front, while preparing to unveil a new product line. Could this new product be like the ‘Firefox Computer’ that I wrote about earlier this year? Will it compete with the Nokia N800 that I wasn’t overly enthused about? Jeff Hawkins, the brains behind Palm, has been dropping not-so subtle hints over the last few months about ‘a third line of business’ – traditional PDAs and smartphones being the other. Combined with the introduction of a new Linux based operating system (supposedly PalmOS retro-compatible) and the recent Opera announcement, it looks like Palm is poised to move up the productivity device chain from smartphone to some sort of ‘smart tablet’. Ed Colligan, Palm’s CEO, stated that this new device would not be dependent on wireless carriers, but have wi-fi connectivity. All of these factors point to a device that will compete head to head with the N800.

Palm has much to gain at this mid-tier, the spot between a cramped smartphone and a bulky laptop. Microsoft’s UMPC (Origami) devices haven’t yet lived up to the hype of being portable laptop replacements, but Palm may be able to drive the space. Building up from a the architecturally restrictive environment of PDAs and smartphones, one would hope that Palm’s engineers know how to keep bloat out of this type of product line. Third party developers for the PalmOS have already shown how powerful the decade old operating system can be, despite tight memory and performance restrictions. Palm has also learned that, even in the smallest devices (like smartphones), there really isn’t a replacement for a real keyboard. As I said in my review of the N800, the on screen keyboard is an inelegant solution for real productive use. Hopefully these realizations have inspired the engineers of the new product line.

Obviously price-point, battery life, and ubiquitous connectivity will play a key factor it this product line’s success as well. I could put another dozen or so things I’d like to see from this product line, but for starters I just hope that the operating system is open enough that Firefox can be readily installed on it (unlike the N800). Maybe then I’ll have my ultimate portable Firefox computer!