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Old Dog with New Tricks: Our B review of the new Basecamp

*Update: Jason Fried, founder of 37Signals, has informed us that their API will be rolled out soon. Stay tuned folks!

Basecamp, the gorilla of web-based project management software, has had a makeover. Originally launched in 2004, the project management giant has rolled out massive updates to their bestselling software, including a sexy new user interface, innovative new features, and (naturally) a spanking new product for us to review. Geeks we are, we couldn’t be happier. :)

We were lucky enough to attend a launch webinar that guided us through the new Basecamp and all of its fresh features, and we’ve given it a solid test-run. Here’s our full review…

Quick and Dirty Verdict

37signals, the company behind both old and new Basecamp, has done something extraordinary. They’ve reinvented their core product and, we think, drastically improved it. Compare that with, say, Microsoft’s frustrating iterations of Microsoft Word, and it’s quite the achievement. The new  Basecamp is innovative, a delight to use, and very, very promising. Well done.

For all its promise though, the new Basecamp isn’t business-ready yet, at least not for businesses of any size or scope. That seems a strange thing to say for a product that’s nearly 10 years old, but the new Basecamp very much feels, acts, and functions like young software. With no integrations, no API, no custom configuration, and a myriad of other shortcomings, it’s simply not a realistic option for most companies (yet).

Despite its drawbacks, the new Basecamp’s core innovations and awesome user-interface make it a product to watch. We are giving it a 75/100, a B on our rating scale. With the right integrations and enhancements, we’re confident we’ll be giving the new Basecamp our seal of approval in no time!

Functionality = 25 Points

Project management is the bread and butter of Basecamp, and the new Basecamp doesn’t disappoint. It includes (most of) the functions you’d expect, as well as some new ones; collaborate on projects via an ongoing discussion board (hello live chat functionality!), assign tasks to team members, and even “loop in” outsiders (they are simply responding to an email, but the reply gets auto-posted onto the discussion board).

Generally, the Discussions feature is pretty awesome; it aggregates all comments from across tasks, documents, and files into one stream of dialogue, which we haven’t seen before. No more sifting through tons of stuff to see where the action is.

Additionally, daily and weekly updates can get sent out to all project collaborators so that everyone (whether they are in the office or away on a business or personal trip) remains in the loop on new discussions, tasks completed, and upcoming initiatives in the project. This lends itself to mobile and remote access, the bread and butter of SaaS, and simplifies managing projects with large numbers of stakeholders.

On the downside, there’s no obvious way of linking projects together – what if two projects are related and you want them to always be connected? Also, there doesn’t appear to be any horizontal view of all your projects – no way to judge the state of everything with just one glance.

Better dashboarding and reporting – well, any reporting – would be great. Finally, the new version lacks many (most?) of the features that made the old Basecamp so popular, including time-tracking and templating. It’s a new, young product, this Basecamp: for better or worse, don’t expect the old one.

25/30 for functionality.

Usability = 19 Points

Basecamp’s new user interface is extremely simple, clean and FAST. We love it. It exudes freshness and, in defiant contrast with the old Basecamp, it’s a joy to use. Fantastic.

Everything is based off “sheets,” which work like sheets of paper: no more reloading new pages, just turn the page to where you’d like it. It’s intuitive and unlike anything we’ve seen. There’s also some slick keyboard shortcuts, something lacking in most SaaS products. ‘Enter’ automatically inserts a new task to a Task List, and you can pre-define other shortcuts for your personal navigation (i.e. ‘F1’ to go to homepage, ‘F2’ to go to project page). You can also double-click at the top or bottom-third of the page to quickly scroll there. Seems straightforward, but it makes other systems feel clunky.

Importantly, the Google Docs-like live updating functionality is a breakthrough in the project management space; no need to refresh the page to see your colleague’s activity, ‘cuz Basecamp updates the page’s content for you. Awesome.com/finally.

We’re knocking a single point because the cleanness of everything paradoxically makes things difficult to find. With no clear delineation between sections, information ends up looking scrambled – something we’d like addressed.

All in all though, it’s a great feeling product. 19/20 for usability.

Security = 18 Points

Basecamp hasn’t always been the most secure platform – check out this site for an explanation of how simply knowing a user’s Basecamp address could lead to complete compromise of their account. Scary stuff.

That’s all old news now. The new Basecamp *seems* to have addressed any remaining security concerns through industry standard data replication, encryption, and sound programming architecture. Their security page doesn’t offer many specifics though, which takes 2 points off what should be 20.

Integrations = 0 Points

Currently, Basecamp has no native integrations. It has become pretty standard for new SaaS options to come with native Google integrations at the very least, so it’s clear that the new Basecamp is currently an incomplete product. We expect Google and other native system integrations to become available in the next few months.

Also, without an API currently available the new Basecamp is a stand alone product. We also expect this to change. Till then… no points.

Price = 6

The new Basecamp is sexy but sex ain’t cheap. Pricing starts at 10 simultaneous projects at $20/month and goes up to unlimited projects at $150/month. That means a one-man business with 11 projects is paying more than a 50 person company with 10.

As a service solely dedicated to internal project management (and currently without any integration possibilities), we feel the pricing structure is fairly steep. Not many companies will opt for the 10 projects at a time option, since it seems restrictive to growing organizations (new projects have to wait if the threshold is reached?)

The 45 day free trial does “one-up’ the rest of the industry, where 30 day free trials have become commonplace. They really want you to try their product!

6 out of 10 for pricing.

Support = 9 Points

37signals are currently offering free webinars to walk you through the updated system (which you can sign up for here: http://basecamp.com/classes), a great sign they take support seriously. Their track record isn’t bad either – the popularity of Basecamp Classic is testament to a dedicated team.

We do wish they would start a forum for users to share feedback, insights, best practices and offer guidance to one another. We have found these to be extremely valuable in some of the other products we have reviewed. 9 out of 10 for support.

Concluding Thoughts

The new Basecamp has made major inroads into cloud-based project management. Innovative features, a sexy UI, and the company’s solid track record make it a very, very exciting product. We’re happy.

That said, the new Basecamp is a young product. If Basecamp classic was Microsoft Word 2003, then the new Basecamp isn’t Microsoft Word 2007. It’s something completely new and different, and it needs time to grow. Till then it’s probably not business ready.

VM Associates is a New York City cloud computing consulting firm. We help companies transition into newer, better, smarter software. Contact us to talk about your business, the cloud, and how we might help!

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Chris Bliss works at VM Associates, an end-user consultancy for businesses looking to move to the cloud from pre-existing legacy systems.