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Why the New Basecamp Refresh Is a Sign of Things to Come (Why That’s Good)

We reviewed it last week and found it super promising

So, the new Basecamp is out, released with much applause (and yes, a few groans). We reviewed it last week and found it super promising. Exciting stuff.

What’s more exciting than the sexy new project management tool, though, is how it was released. 37signals, the company behind Basecamp, basically rewrote the rules of software releases. They’ve re-invented their core product, which is pretty unprecedented for software companies, and married two models of software development, old and new. Now that’s exciting :)

To really understand what we’re talking about, a little history is required…

The old model
In the olden days, when cloud computing was a pipe dream and software was operated by tiny dwarves in your mainframe, software releases were infrequent but (in theory) methodical. Development teams carefully, methodically planned out new releases before they went to market, then patched the software as users bitched about how bad the product was. Actual new releases came out ever 3 years or so: think Word 2003, Word 2007, and Word 2010.

What’s nice about the old model is it allowed for wholesale product refreshes, though in truth refreshes were less common than recycled code. What’s not so nice about the old model is that vendors didn’t know what users thought until after the fact (well, that plus a whole lotta other stuff).

The new model

These days, software moves wayyy quicker, at least in the cloud. Development teams go to market as soon as possible, usually with a “minimum viable product” (MVP) that does one or two things really well. Features are added on as their use-cases develop, and updates are released continuously – like every 2 weeks, continuously. The idea is to grow a fully-featured product over time, jumping between features to find the ones that stick. Think of Google: what began as a search engine is now email, calendar, documents, contacts, social network…

What’s great about the new model (roughly, “agile development”) is the fast feedback cycle between user and developer. Sick of a bug? Report it and watch it get fixed by the weekend. Need a new feature? Make enough noise, show a use case, and you might just get it. The product is improved based on usage, not design.

In with the old and out with the new

So how does the new Basecamp fit into all this? The old Basecamp was released in 2004 as a simple project management tool. Over time, it grew to include CRM integration, time tracking, templating, and all the other features that users clamoured for. A perfect case study for cloud-based agility.

Thing is, as Basecamp grew older, it also grew bloated. What once was a revolutionary tool ironically became, like so many Microsoft products, kinda shitty. Even 37signals saw it:

The Basecamp business is booming.

But too much good news is a formula for complacency. And honestly, we have grown a bit complacent.

That’s about to end.

We’ve gone back to the basics and made them better, faster, clearer, easier, and smarter.

Ergo, the new Basecamp.

And this is our point: 37signals used the new model to build a great product, but it only went so far. Once the product felt dated (after ~8 years, or roughly 3 cycles in the old model) they built a brand new product from the ground up. They combined the best of both worlds: the quick feedback loop of the new model with the “ground up” approach of the old model. Brilliant.

So what?

What 37signals has done with the new Basecamp is nothing short of revolutionary – at least in terms of production. Agile is great, but it can and does result in bloated, dated, or otherwise unusable software – it’s just a question of time.

Cloud based or not, software gets old, and old software sucks. It makes sense that 37signals is one of the first cloud companies to totally refresh their products (they’re 8 years old! that’s retirement age in cloud years!), and we expect to see more vendors follow suit. That’s a good thing. We’re happy. Sure, there’s risk – alienating core users, changing too fast – but in general we think it’s a positive development. Viva la revolution. Or whatever.

What do you think? Is the new Basecamp a beacon of things to come, or are we crying wolf?

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.