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Backpack: The Best Alternatives for Project Collaboration
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Editor’s Note: This article was updated 9/2017.
Although 2014 may not seem like that long ago, web application development moves at such a quick pace that it feels like cloud-based project management tool Backpack was popular in the Stone Age. 37signals decided to stop developing Backpack in 2014, focusing instead on its Basecamp product.
From the lowly likes of Backpack sprung a huge boom in project and information management apps like Wrike and Slack.
Our Comparison Criteria
In the wake of Backpack’s demise, many businesses started looking for a replacement app. We’ve assembled some promising alternatives and compared them for you along these criteria:
- Features: Backpack’s mission was to help “keep life’s loose ends together” in one place online. Backpack stored files, calendars, documents, task lists, and reminders in one central place.
- Organization and collaboration: You could create one page per project and invite those working on it to keep their notes, documents, and deadlines together.
- App integration, synchronization, and device compatibility: Backpack was a strictly online tool. It flourished in the days before the mobile web device boom and, as such, it didn’t offer any compatibility outside of the browser app.
- Storage, security, and encryption: Although access to each page/project via Backpack was controllable at the user level, the app would be seen as out-dated today when it comes to storage and security in a world of regular hacker breaches.
- Alerts: Backpack generated automatic notifications via email or text message.
- Price: After a free 30-day trial, Backpack cost $24 – $149 per month.
Basecamp: A Next-Gen Collaboration Tool
Naturally, when we went looking for alternatives to Backpack, we first checked out the replacement app from 37signals, Basecamp. Without putting too fine a point on it, Basecamp is superior to Backpack in every way. Although 37signals might have you believe that Basecamp will replace all the other project and communication apps in your arsenal, even if it isn’t true, Basecamp is still worth looking at.
One of Basecamp’s unique features is “automatic check-ins.” This feature seeks to replace status reports and staff meetings. Check-ins are based on questions you devise, packaged as a form for your employees to fill out. You can send out check-ins for any project and for any time interval you choose.
- Features: Basecamp includes project spaces, team spaces, tasks, message boards, chats, document centralization, schedules/calendars, and automatic check-ins.
- Organization and collaboration: Basecamp’s big thing is that it wants to replace the disparate systems you currently use like Google Drive and Dropbox and house it all under their app.
- App integration, synchronization, and device compatibility: Basecamp works across all your devices, in some cases requiring a mobile app. It will also sync with some external apps like Google Calendar and iCal.
- Storage, security, and encryption: Basecamp doesn’t provide specifics on the security or encryption they use. You get unlimited projects and users.
- Alerts: You have a high degree of control over which notifications you want to see, how often you see them, when you see them, and on which devices/platforms you see them.
- Price: After a free 30-day trial, Basecamp costs $99 per month but teachers and students can get it for free while nonprofits can get a 50% discount.
Wrike: Automated Workflows
One of Wrike’s unique features is project creation automation. Automation amounts to creating project templates for projects you do often.
For example, if you regularly design brochures for a client, you can automate this project by sending an online form for your client to fill out. Once the client submits the form, Wrike automatically creates a project using the information the client entered and assigns the appropriate people, per your previous instructions.
Another spiffy feature of the paid Wrike plans is allowing for the creation of custom fields for your projects. You can create all types of fields and add them to any form or other element, anywhere you like.
- Features: Wrike calls itself a project manager, but it can also work for collaboration. It features automated workflows, approval workflows, chat and SMS messaging, user groups, custom fields, templates, and the ability to share tasks outside of your company.
- Organization and collaboration: Wrike is organized by projects and user groups.
- App integration, synchronization, and device compatibility: You can get iOS or Android apps for your mobile devices, and Wrike integrates with other business tools like Gmail, Box, and Zapier.
- Storage, security, and encryption: Communications, files, and storage are encrypted.
- Alerts: Wrike has very little alert functionality except for reporting notifications.
- Price: Wrike’s pricing is based on the number of users you have. It has a free version for up to 5 users and paid plans from $9.80 – $34.60 per user per month as well as an enterprise plan.
Slack: Get Organized Without Email
Slack positions itself as an alternative for email and file directories, operating on the fairly obvious premise that email is not a good communication tool for collaboration. Instead, Slack embraces the chaos by making everything searchable (both within Slack interactions as well as internal document searching).
- Features: Slack uses channels for access control, and it also has direct messaging, voice and video calls, internal search for all files, and organization-wide search.
- Organization and collaboration: Slack uses a unique concept for organizing: it doesn’t organize at all. Instead, it indexes everything, including what’s in your documents, so naming conventions, as well as directory trees, don’t matter.
- App integration, synchronization, and device compatibility: Slack has native apps for iOS and Android. It also integrates with many other tools like Google Drive, Dropbox, and Twitter.
- Storage, security, and encryption: Slack incorporates two-factor authentication to protect against password theft. The free version has an upper limit on message archives and app integrations, and storage space.
- Alerts: Slack allows complete control over the notifications you receive.
- Price: Slack is free for 3 – 1000 users. Other tiers go from $6.67 to $12.50 per month. They also have an enterprise plan.
Trello: Your Digital Index Cards
Trello is unlike every other tool on this list. It’s a bit like having a stack of index cards broken out by project (or anything category you like) except you have visibility to all the cards at once. Trello’s unique interface does take a little getting used to if you’re moving from a system with a stricter definition of project management.
Trello is organized by boards which can be broken down into lists which can be further broken down with cards. Since Trello’s interface is fairly lightweight, it’s extremely flexible. There’s no one way to use Trello, and once you get the hang of it you’ll probably be hooked.
- Features: Trello features project boards, reusable checklists, labels, threaded discussions, attachments, scheduling, task assignment, stickers, task creation via email, voting via polls, and personalized backgrounds.
- Organization and collaboration: Trello can be sliced up many different ways. You can tag people with “@” mentions, add labels to cards and columns, and color-code items.
- App integration, synchronization, and device compatibility: Trello syncs with both Android and iOS. In the premium version, you can sync its native calendar with an iCal compatible calendar.
- Storage, security, and encryption: You can grant access to each Trello board individually, and data is swapped via an SSL/HTTPS connection.
- Alerts: Trello’s notifications can come through on any device and in various formats including email, browser notifications, or mobile alerts.
- Price: Trello offers a free version, a Business class plan for $9.99 per user per month, and Enterprise plans going for $20.83 or less.
Evernote: Your Brain in the Cloud
You probably already know that Evernote is a nifty way to clip content from the Web or store notes and images. You might even know that you can share your Evernote notes with others. But what you might not know is how useful Evernote is at organizing projects and events where collaboration is crucial.
- Features: Evernote lives up to its name by offering many different ways to take notes like voice notes but it’s also a web clipper, and it can search for text inside of images.
- Organization and collaboration: Evernote allows you to create notebooks, but otherwise, it relies heavily on its powerful search engine.
- App integration, synchronization, and device compatibility: Evernote has mobile apps for every device, but it doesn’t integrate with third-party apps.
- Storage, security, and encryption: Evernote has an unusual take on storage limits. Instead of server space, the measuring stick is upload volume. For example, the free version comes with 60 MB of uploads per month. If you hit your limit, you won’t be able to sync across your devices until the month rolls over.
- Alerts: Evernote doesn’t support notifications outside of its applications, but you can subscribe to get email alerts.
- Price: Evernote’s pricing starts with a free version. Premium versions go from $34.99 – $69.99 per year. A business version is also available for a per-user price.
Although there’s no shame in pining for or continuing to use Backpack, plenty of more sophisticated products are now available. Many of these apps offer free plans (if only for a month in some cases), so you can tinker with them before making a financial commitment.
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