Setting Contexts

Interview: Overcommitted on Ember (Campfire for the iPhone)

Posted in 37signals, Campfire, iPhone, Online Productivity by jquig99 on July 6, 2009

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.

How Backpack is Saving My Sanity

Posted in 37signals, Backpack, Basecamp, Campfire, Online Productivity by jquig99 on March 30, 2008

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).

New Features:

* 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.

Offices and the Creativity Zone – Dan Benjamin (found via. Daring Fireball)