Right after I posted my Q&A with Morfunk’s David Kaneda a couple of months ago (I’m still a big Outpost fan!), I received a great outreach email from Overcommitted, telling me about Ember. Ember brings Campfire (the 37signals group chat application) to the iPhone – and fills a huge gap in my own productivity needs. I’ve been using the new version of Ember for about a week (in fact, a lot of the follow-up questions were discussed in Campfire), and I have to say it’s a noticeable improvement over V.1 in speed and feature set.
Ember features include:
• Streamlined user interface
• Multiple accounts: access all your Campfire accounts from one client
• Chat transcripts
• Inline browser
• Infinite scroll back to view previous messages in room
• Live image previews right within the chat room
• Inline viewing of popular file formats, Excel, Word, Powerpoint…
• Unlimited chat rooms: access to all your Campfire rooms
• Take and upload photos directly into Ember using the iPhone built-in camera
• SSL accounts are fully supported
Overcommitted is three guys who completely personify the Getting Real philosophy. Like Morfunk, these three guys, Phil Cohen, Jonathan Younger and Harold Emsheimer, hold down day jobs and build their own business (remotely, they all live in different states/places) by working 6 days a week on what they love. In fact, they built Ember by working from 5:30 to 7am Mondays thru Saturdays for 6 weeks. I was really impressed by the way they initially contacted me and continued to talk to me about Ember and it’s growth. Also – any company that uses Abbott and Costello to illustrate how their app works absolutely gets my money.
> Tell me a bit about Overcommitted (best name ever, btw)- how did you start?
Overcommitted started with the simple desire to create applications for the iPhone that we wanted to use ourselves. The three of us have worked together for several years as part of a Rails development team in the Biotech sector. We made the decision earlier this year to finally jump into development for the iPhone and the rest is pretty much history. As far as the name goes, all three of us tend to be overcommitted in anything we do. Knowing this, my wife Brigit suggested we go with the name Overcommitted.
> Pricing apps has been extremely controversial – How did you decide what to price Ember?
It’s going to sound pretty simplistic, but we looked at what we would pay for it and priced it accordingly. Ember isn’t a one-off game or an app that people will use for 30 days and never again. The people that use Ember use it quite a bit, including us, so we priced based on that.
> The reviews for Ember have been pretty much fantastic – and I was impressed by your outreach efforts prior to Ember’s release. How difficult is it getting Ember noticed on the AppStore? And did having sale pricing for a week work?
It’s pretty difficult. Most people hear about Ember through non-AppStore channels, things like the Signal vs. Noise blog, Twitter and word of mouth recommendations. Ember’s sales seem to happen in chunks. We have a theory that this might be due to small teams that end up purchasing Ember all at once as they sign up for Campfire. Having the sale price brought an expected bump in number of purchasers, but the overall revenue was pretty much on par with our normal weekly sales.
> How do you guys use Campfire and why was that the app you wanted to focus on first?
None of us live in the same city and rarely get the chance to work together face to face. Campfire has been invaluable for helping us keep in touch across time zones and work schedules. We use it to discuss iterations for the various apps we’re working on, show sketches and talk through code. We developed Ember first because we knew we could get immediate use for it and felt other iPhone development teams could benefit.
> Tell me a bit about the development process – How closely were you able to work with the 37signals team? Was everything you needed in the API?
Once we decided to develop a Campfire client, we looked at the existing unofficial Campfire client API to see what was available and what would be involved in communicating with Campfire. Being an unofficial API, it’s not so much an API as it is a reverse engineering of what the browser client is using to communicate with Campfire. It’s mostly regular expression matching of HTML tags and other text. That being said, it hasn’t been terrible to work with. We’ve had a couple issues where the content we were expecting to get back from the service has been different because some cellular carriers reformat the content before sending it to the client, and because of that, it was breaking our regular expression matching. Overall, it has worked out really well. Wanting to come in under the radar, we decided to keep all development of Ember under wraps until it was just about completed. We didn’t work with the 37signals team at all until the product was pretty much completed.
> Any plans to take advantage of some of the iPhone 3.0 features, like Push Notifications?
In Ember 2.0, we’re using a lot of the new iPhone 3.0 APIs under the hood which has saved us quite a bit of time over what we were doing in Ember 1.0. The biggest feature by far that we’re taking advantage of is Core Data. Without Core Data, we would not have attempted to add Transcripts or loading previous messages. Obviously push notifications would be a big feature to take advantage of but we are not yet ready to comment on those yet.
> One of the big challenges I’ve seen on the AppStore has been supporting applications – we covered this with Morfunk – how is Overcommitted dealing with support issues?
Support is pretty manageable for us at the moment. We actually enjoy when someone contacts us through support because it gives us the opportunity to hear directly from our users. Like many developers, we’ve gone the route of using Get Satisfaction and email as our support system, which has worked pretty well for us so far.
> You just submitted a pretty substantial update to the AppStore -what’s included? Any new features?
We’re really excited about this release of Ember. It has been completely rebuilt under the hood to take advantage of Core Data. This provides better overall performance, and has laid the ground work for some additional features. The biggest feature in this release is multiple account support. We’ve planned to release this from day one, and we’re happy to have it out in Ember 2.0. Along with multiple accounts, we’ve also included support for Transcripts. Other notable changes in this release include a streamlined interface based on feedback from our users as well as inline browsing.
> What’s next for Overcommitted?
We have several applications in the works at different stages. Nothing we can comment on directly but we can say they won’t be in the productivity category of application.
Ember works on iPhones/iPod Touches running version 3.0 software or above and is available on the iTunes AppStore here.
It was love at first to-do list. Not only did the system make complete sense to me, it allowed me to delegate and followup easily with people, and focus on just getting stuff done. GTD before GTD. They had great seminars and consultants who held workshops onsite and off to train – I worked for (at least) 3 companies who brought teams of FC consultants in – and bought tons of supporting material each year for their entire staff. And – for the total girl in me – there was shopping. I could go into there free-standing stores and buy themed planning pages (like Monticello, Compass or Millennium, which came in a keepsake tin), planners in different materials (I bought a Italian leather planner in Apple green at the height of my obsession) and all kinds of accessories that allowed me to make this system personal. Which I did for over 10 years and a bunch of different jobs. They were certainly the company that defined “Balanced Living” and “Productivity in the Workplace”.
Then things started to get less easy as more of my life ported to the Web (that would be Web 1.0 for those in the kiddie seats). The planner software FC released was buggy and expensive and didn’t print that well – as we were all still killing trees. My “book” started to be a point of teasing from my design/developer team and I started looking at other solutions, reluctantly, that would allow all of us to collaborate together and keep the team/projects on track as a whole. I found 43Folders, GTD and Merlin Mann as enablers of my productivity application/workflow addiction. Once Basecamp came out, my team (and I) never looked back.
Today, I use Field Notes to capture any idea or to-do, etc. before I enter it all in the appropriate 37signals product. Easy – and it works for all of my needs, work projects, personal projects, online/offline and mobile.
I still keep my old FC planners and pages – more of a record of who I was at that time than for any real work value. And I do check in on the website from time to time and am tempted by all of the fun new toys. But I’m over the new and different now – I’m totally focused on what just works and getting things done – a system that’s working for my life today – online. offline and on my iPhone.
Anyone who has read this blog knows that I use and love 37signal’s applications (almost 5 years and many accounts, personal and professional, later…) and that I’m also addicted to my iPhone. It’s been really interesting to watch the 3rd-party iPhone apps supporting the 37s products emerge in the last 6 months – I’ve tried most of them and have been challenged by the differing quality of the applications.
Outpost, by Morfunk, was really the first application that was announced (on a 37signals post) in the summer, but wasn’t released until November – in fact, after many of the others had already hit the AppStore. What immediately made a difference to me what less that actual app – although to me it was a clear winner – than the accessibility of the developers. They had set up a GetSatisfaction page and seemed to be monitoring it 24/7 (at first). Which was even more impressive when I learned that both of the developers hold down day jobs – building a business in a really smart (especially in this economy) way. David Kaneda Morfunk’s Interface Designer/Developer, was kind enough to answer some questions emailed to him about the company, Outpost and what else they’re working on (Tote!).
> 1. Can you tell me a bit about Morfunk? Where and how you started – and what’s with the name
I started the company last July in partnership with Jim Dovey, a Mac developer. We were planning Outpost at the time, and wanted to leave room for doing more apps which integrate with 37signals products. Jim handles the heavy lifting with Cocoa development and I design user interface, the website, and manage the community, for the most part. The word “Morfunk” has been a working moniker I’ve had for some time — it represents the combination of form and function, via the Latin “Morphos” and Greek “Funktios”. It seemed particularly fitting for the partnership.
> 2. Out of the many Basecamp apps in the AppStore, Outpost seems to have the clear lead – featured on the 37signal’s Basecamp site, mentioned on the live show and many positive reviews from the community – what do you think sets the app apart from the competition?
I think the two biggest things that make Outpost different are the user interface and its offline capabilities. I was pretty pushy in terms of design and look, and thankfully Jim was very patient and tremendous in implementing the designs. The offline capability quickly became the most challenging aspect of building the app, but ultimately I’m glad we have it — this is something that sets us apart, and I’m not too fearful of someone else attempting it.
> 3. One of the things that has set Outpost apart from me is the interaction with your team, especially with the GetSatisfaction support page – why did you decide on GS and what’s the support process from your end? It seems like your team is constantly monitoring and available.
We knew from the beginning that we wanted the company to be transparent and I wanted to give GetSatisfaction a try. It’s pretty easy to keep up with via email and we try hard to reply when we can. We both have day jobs, so it can be difficult, but I think the system helps.
> 4. On the last live show, the 37signal’s guys discussed that they wanted to beef up the API’s this year. In terms of Outpost – how many of the feature requests (like Writeboards and Time Tracking) have to do with things that need to be added to the API? And have you been able to work with the 37s team on any additions?
We get a fair amount of requests for file support — not as much Writeboards, but people have asked. I personally think the lack of copy and paste takes away from the usefulness of Writeboards. We haven’t worked directly with 37signals on the additions, though they’ve kindly asked our opinion and we gave it. Our biggest requests didn’t involve the mainstream feature requests above, but rather functional improvements, like adding modified dates to all objects to improve sync times. Another big downfall is that non-admin Basecamp users have way less access than they should.
> 5. Outpost first came to many peoples attention last summer in a 37signal’s post, but didn’t actually get released until winter – what took so long?
A lot of this had to do with the syncing ability of Outpost, and countless tests to maximize sync speed, without sacrificing the apps performance or stability. Unfortunately, a lot of people still experienced problems with the early versions, as it was difficult to know how people used their Basecamp accounts.
> 6. I’m a big believer in charging for quality applications, which not only enable consistent updates, but product support also. One of the challenges in the AppStore right now seems to be in determining pricing. How did you determine what to charge for Outpost and what considerations did you make?
I personally agree, and think that products should charge based on value and audience. With Outpost, we knew we were working within a specific, professional niche and the app provides real value to those users. We thought about what we would pay for it. In fact, we originally decided on a $14.99 price point, but brought it down after seeing competitors release with much lower prices. We believe we put a fair amount more time into our app, which reflects in its usability and feature set, but didn’t want to rule ourselves out of the market.
> 7. Any word on Tote – or anything else, 37s or not, that you’re working on?
Tote, our web app for Backpack, is still in the works and will hopefully release soon. While developing Tote, I found a need in the market for a jQuery-based iPhone web framework, so I created and released jQTouch. We are also currently in the process of planning a native app for Highrise. Expect a few updates to the blog over the next month.
Thanks for your time David. Looking forward to watching what’s next for Morfunk!
37signals started a Facebook Group on Sunday – if you use their products, join and participate. I started a discussion on iPhone apps for Basecamp and would love to get some other feedback (currently – I like Outpost). Or start a new discussion.
It’s been almost 2 1/2 months since Apple’s AppStore debuted (and I upgraded my first gen to a 3G) and I’ve been testing out and using a number of different applications. The Productivity section of the AppStore easily had the most applications the first day and it has continued to grow steadily.
I had been a part of the OmniFocus beta test group and it was one of the best testing experiences I’ve had. A great group of people, starting with Ken Case and the whole development team – all of whom were really responsive and excited to be working on the application. So I was excited to see that OmniFocus would be available for the iPhone the first day. The iPhone version is great – especially as it used the 3G location services so effectively. Put together a shopping list and OF shows you the closest store to your current location. It still has the same capture features as the desktop app and you can take pictures, enter text and make voice notes quickly. And it syncs with the desktop version. Very intuitive and comprehensive – also a bit too much for me. But I truly love this company and it’s products.
Another iPhone application I use frequently is Jott. I’ve been a Jott user for awhile and they finally exited their beta period and have a number of tiered pricing options to choose from. And a well-featured free account, which works well with the iPhone app. I use Jott to quickly call in notes to myself (I loved when these would go to Backpack, but that seems to be not working anymore) and now the iPhone app makes it easy to do this and sync to all of the services I have associated with the account. It definitely helps me remember things when I’m traveling or just need a quick reminder.
I also hear some great things about, well, Things (which also has a desktop version).
But what do I actually use, day in and day out? I still use the web versions of my 37signals apps – Basecamp, Backpack, Campfire (which is iPhone optimized) and Highrise – and am hoping for iPhone versions to come along soon (And so not holding my breath…). My system, which I’ll update about soon, works really well for me and I love that I can have these icons on my iPhone homepage and are a tap away.
Having said that – it was the biggest disappointment that the AppStore didn’t open with any 37s apps.
Just an FYI – I have given in to putting my 37signals Affiliate Banners on here (you’ll see them on the right). These are definitely product endorsements over participation in the program. I love their products – we use them at crayon, and I have had my own accounts for years. So – feel free to use these links, I just love the company.
(Aside – I originally wrote this post over a week ago on the WordPress iPhone app, which saved it locally and then lost it. Shows that I have a post saved in Local Drafts, but nothing when you open the folder. Ouch. Also, MORE IMPORTANTLY!!! this week Apple decided that iPhone developers couldn’t talk about AppStore rejected – for any reason – applications because they are covered under the still-existing NDA. Ugly Apple. How could they treat their incredible independent developer community like this? These developers and companies are amazingly collaborative, generous and creative – Apple is should feel privileged to have the like of Daniel Jalkut, Wil Shipley, Craig Hockenberry and Brent Simmons developing for them. I’m continually impressed by the level of work and commitment all of the Apple Dev Community show and shame on Apple for not appreciating what they bring to the brand experience. Apple is just really nice hardware without them. They make Macs sing.)
In the last few months, my life has changed significantly. My company was acquired in December and our corporate structure is significantly different. I have a number of accounts assigned to me as well as being part of the senior strategy team on many of the others. It’s exciting but exhausting – and I need to be able to organize everything and hopefully share among the necessary teams. All of whom I work with remotely.
So I’ve been using OmniFocus since last May – I adore this app and the Omni team. The effort and enthusiasm that went into building this application was infectious, the whole beta process was an incredibly collaborative and enjoyable experience. I very much love this application.
But with my new world order, I needed to shake this up a bit.
I was at SXSWi and saw Jason Fried’s keynote on “What We’ve Learned at 37Signals” (side note – who at SXSWi thought it was smart to schedule JF’s keynote at the same time of John Gruber’s panel? Bad, bad scheduling!). It was the best panel of the day (for me – the whole conference) and it reminded me how much I love their products and how much I enjoy using them.
Backpack is a particular favorite. I have used Backpack when it was really just a great personal organizer – all of the bit and pieces of my life went in it. In fact, my friend Patrick Rhone and I met through our shared love of this product (and his Productivity White Paper – where Backpack is a major factor). In the last few months, Backpack has gone through a significant upgrade and it was time to look at the product again.
Backpack is now a multiuser solution – great for small team collaboration (which is what I do – many small teams, much collaboration).
* Multiuser – All team members can log into a single account
* Calendar – Users can log into a single calendar with additional controls as to who can see what
* Reminders – messages can be sent by email or text to many users as well as yourself (love this feature!)
* Messages – People can post messages and can also receive comments
* Newsroom – (my favorite new feature) gives you an update on all recent activity in your Backpack.
So I’ve been using it for a couple of weeks and really enjoying it. But for a couple of projects I need a bit more control. So I upgraded my Basecamp account and have started to use that for some larger projects.
I’ve used Basecamp for about 3 years – first with my prior company and now with Zeta. What I love about Basecamp is that I can set milestones for my projects, assign to do’s, messages and use the system to email all appropriate team members.
What’s great also is that there’s a Open bar at the top where I can switch from Basecamp to Backpack (and to Highrise – but that’s another post). So according what I’m working on, I can switch between the accounts I’m using to track those projects.
But there was one more thing that I was missing – I’m traveling a lot, in a ton of meetings and pitches and also need the ability to shut everything and everyone out when I can to get some stuff done. But I don’t want to miss anything or give people the impression that I can’t be reached.
So a couple of days ago I added Campfire – and as the website says, it’s iPhone compatible!
Campfire lets me set up “rooms” according to need – projects, conversations, etc. I use these to chat with my teams, share links and screenshots on projects, etc. It also integrates with Basecamp – so I can set up these rooms for each of those projects. It also allows me to participate when I want to – not always immediately.
So for the first time in a few months I feel like I’m more in control – not just organized, but working with my teams more efficiently. And my teams have been very supportive in trying these tools out and participating. While I don’t have the ability to block off time each day to get work done (too many meetings – grrr) without interruption, I can track what needs to be done and get things done before and after the “workday”.
I’ll track our success (hopefully!) and our challenges and will report on them here. BTW – I’m not the only person struggling with these issues right now – see the related link below.