Home When The Browser Doesn’t Cut it: Basecamp’s Lack of Mobility

When The Browser Doesn’t Cut it: Basecamp’s Lack of Mobility

We at ReadWriteWeb are huge Basecamp fans. It raises the productivity of small, physically dispersed teams (like ours) to a level that enables new virtual companies to be be viable. Basecamp changes the traditional answer to the question: “can we operate virtually from around the world, or do we all need to live in the same place?” ReadWriteWeb, for example, lives on Basecamp; it is our office.

But there is one problem. Basecamp is browser native. I want mobile native. And ReadWriteWeb’s VP of Content Dev Marshall Kirkpatrick tweeted today that he wants a Basecamp AIR app. Either way, it’s clear that browser-only doesn’t cut it anymore for Basecamp.

Why Lack of Mobile Version is Such a Pain

Let’s focus on the mobile issue in this post. Like many people, I don’t live at my desk. I am up and about, meeting people. I like it that way. So I rely on my Blackberry to stay in touch. But here is the problem. I get an email notification of a post within Basecamp. I can read it fine, no problem. But when I want to reply, I have to use the Blackberry browser to log into Basecamp. That is kludgy to say the least. So I open an email thread, annoying everybody else on the team.

Sure I could switch to an iPhone with a better browser. But that still relies on good connectivity all the time and I don’t want to be forced to make that switch. I want something like Twitterberry, a native Blackberry interface to Basecamp.

But when you look at the world through mobile eyes, you see that this is not an incremental change. It is as fundamental as moving from Client Server to browser-native. Browsers on small mobile screens are talking heads on early TV.

This Is a Hard Problem to Solve

Some problems are totally easy to define, such as a cure for cancer, longer lasting batteries or really cheap solar energy – but much, much, much harder to implement. So I am going to do the easy bit – define the problem – and hope that somebody comes up with the solution.

The needs are in 3 “buckets”:

1. Mobile Native user interface

2. User centric, not project centric

3. Collaborative list building

Start With Mobile

My short-hand description is “like Basecamp but mobile native”. That is easy to say, but tough to implement for 4 reasons:

1. Mobile native user interface. Ideally 90% of my actions are on a mobile device with a tiny screen and keyboard. I will do the more complex configuration and housekeeping type work on a browser in the 10% of my time when I am working on a fully fledged laptop/desktop. Most developers spend 90% of their time creating on a laptop/desktop and only 10% communicating in the “real world”. For most of us, that ratio is different.

2. Offline syncing. Much of the time my mobile device is “off air”. Those are opportunities to catch up on To Do Lists, Objectives, Milestones and the other planning type activities. You can do these sitting on an airplane, train or waiting in line at Starbucks. Syncing your personal planning to your group communication tool (Basecamp or whatever) is an annoying extra step that is a time sink.

3. Any mobile device. I use a Blackberry. I like it, but I may get seduced by the iPhone or may have something totally different in the future. More to the point, I cannot possibly predict what devices my collaborators will have and the vast majority of mobile devices are neither Blackberry nor iPhone. Communication has to work at the lowest common denominator but the user interface has to be native. As a Blackberry user, I don’t care a hoot about the compromises the developer faces having to design for Blackberry, iPhone, Nokia, etc. The same is true for people with other devices, iPhone users being the most vehement about native user interfaces.

The SMS Lowest Common Denominator?

SMS without the interrupt or cost issues. “Lowest common denominator for communication” makes one think of SMS. But SMS has major costs – both time and money. Services that generate lots of email messages are bad enough, but lots of SMS messages are way worse.

Individual Centric, Not Project Centric

This may be even hard to solve than mobile native, but the issues are linked.

Like many people I multi-task across multiple projects, working with different teams in different companies. This is an increasingly common experience for many people, even if multiple projects/teams within one company is still more common. “Dipping in and out of” multiple Basecamp projects is a pain. My To Do List may be tagged by Project, but I want only one To Do List, that syncs with individual Projects To Do Lists.

Collaborative List Building

Many people use Excel for building lists – marketing lists, to do lists, feature lists and so on. It may be a hammer to crack a nut, not what it was designed for, but people do this. As list building requires collaboration we start using “web office” type spreadsheets such as Google Apps or Zoho. This is classic “hammer to crack a nut”. Excel is still better than any web office competitor for heavy duty spreadsheet work, such as building a financial model for a venture, but relatively weak on collaboration. List building needs very simple features but needs to be very collaboration intensive. A slightly more sophisticated version of Tasks on a Blackberry that is collaborative might be close.

The Solution: a User Interface Maestro!

This may come as an extension to Basecamp or a totally different service that can use services such as Basecamp. Or even an alternative to Basecamp, much as I love them.

These problems cannot be solved at the technical level only. I am sure the architecture issues are important, but this is primarily a user interface challenge. This requires inspiration, a real user interface maestro.

Using Twitterberry shows some of the issues. It is a lot better than using SMS and the browser directly, but it is still sorely lacking (as 4 days of TweetPorting from Web 2.0 Expo made very clear). And Twittering is one simple task/feature. Doing this for the richness of tasks in Basecamp is an order of magnitude harder.

A short term fix for me could be a native Blackberry interface to Basecamp. If 37 Signals offered this I would be happier and if they also did iPhone and Symbian for Nokia and others they could crack the “mobile native” issue. but I suspect it would not solve my “individual centric, not project centric” issue.

Also Basecamp was “born on” the browser. I suspect that something “born on” the mobile phone could be the next generation.

Does this need resonate with you and have you seen anything like this in the wild? Or in Beta? Finally, is Basecamp really the best project management solution now in this increasingly mobile-based work world? We’d love to hear your suggestions for alternatives.

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The ReadWrite Editorial policy involves closely monitoring the tech industry for major developments, new product launches, AI breakthroughs, video game releases and other newsworthy events. Editors assign relevant stories to staff writers or freelance contributors with expertise in each particular topic area. Before publication, articles go through a rigorous round of editing for accuracy, clarity, and to ensure adherence to ReadWrite's style guidelines.

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