January 4, 2006
Is 37signals the new Google?
What am I, a psychic? How the heck should I know? I don't know whether 37signals will grow from the plucky little startup it is today to become a multi-billion-dollar world-shaking powerhouse. But 37signals does have the zesty, refreshing, flavor of a little company called Google, ca. 1998. 37signals demonstrates its spunkiness in its application suite available on the company home page, and further described in this podcast interview with co-founder Jason Fried.37signals currently offers four Web-based applications for individuals and small workgroups. Backpack is personal organizer software, allowing individual users to post notes, to-do lists, photos and files, and share that information with others. BackPack will also send you reminders, either by e-mail or text messaging. Basecamp extends Backpack, providing simple project management for small workgroups. Writeboard is a word processor that lives entirely on the Web, allowing users to create and collaborate on documents, and export documents to their desktop. And Ta-da List allows users to create to-do lists and share them online. Both Writeboard and Ta-da List are incorporated into Backpack and Basecamp. The applications are built using Ruby On Rails, which is a software platform invented at 37signals, then open-sourced. Ruby On Rails is gaining popularity for Web applications. The applications are all built in AJAX, meaning that they're almost as lively, in your browser, as desktop applications. Elegance and simplicity are among the main qualities 37signals shares with Google in its early days. The company's philosophy is to avoid software bloat; each of its applications can be learned in just a few minutes. Asked how the company competes with big vendors such as Microsoft, Fried responded that 37signals tells its customers that it does less than the competition. Take Ta-da List for example. Here's what you can do with it: Make a text list of stuff. Each item in the list has a checkbox next to it. Click the checkbox, and the item is grayed out and moved to the bottom of the list. And that's it. Unlike Microsoft Outlook, you can't categorize items, set due dates, set recurrence schedules, give yourself reminders, link to contacts in your address book or meetings. You can make the list, share the list, check the little boxes, and that's pretty much it. Because the apps live on the 37signals server, you don't have to mess around with installing and maintaining the softwaree, on your PC, and backing it up. You can share the apps with other people more easily. And you can access the apps from multiple PCs--at home, at work, at an Internet cafe. Of course, because the applications live on the server, you're at the mercy of 37signals, which means if they go out of business, you're dead. And if their servers go down a while, you can't access your data. That's why I, personally, don't use those applications, even though I've certainly enjoyed playing with them. Still, 37signals' applications have attracted a growing cult of followers. And applications on your PC aren't exactly invulnerable either--PCs get stolen, they get damaged, they have hard disk crashes and--since many people don't back up their data--their users lose their work. 37signals has something in common with another dotcom success story: Like Amazon.com, they don't have an ad or marketing budget. News about their apps is spread by word-of-mouth and blogs. The company has two more products in development, due out this quarter, which Fried hints about in the podcast. "Campfire" (he says) is designed to do for group communications what instant messaging did for individuals. Also, the company plans a product Fried describes as "CRM-like" for small businesses; Fried says that products like Salesforce.com and SugarCRM are too heavyweight for small businesses. And, like Google, 37signals has a cool name. Fried explains that one of his colleagues was watching a Nova documentary about the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). The documentary explained that the SETI project has analyzed millions and millions of radio signals from space, and, of these, found a total of 37 which can't be explained using known astronomy, and which might be extraterrestrial in origin. Fried said he and his colleagues decided that 37signals would be a good name for the company, but that the name has no meaning beyond the reference to the Nova episode.
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