37 Signals is named after the number of radio waves we’ve received from space that scientists consider potential signals of intelligent life. Its creators build the kind of applications you didn’t know you needed until you use them for the first time, at which point you wonder how you ever did without. Last year the company created Basecamp, a Web-based project-management tool unlike any project-management tool before it. If you’ve got a many-person task to do — any big project, from redecorating your house to redesigning your home page, planning your wedding to planning your wake — Basecamp gives all participants a central spot on the Web in which to plan and discuss the endeavor. The software has been adopted by hundreds of advertising firms, law firms, Web designers and book publishers.
More recently, 37 Signals launched Backpack, a program that does just what its name suggests — it gives users an easy, casual storage location on the Web, a place to scratch down important notes, draw up to-do lists, and store important files organized around specific tasks (say, all the stuff you need for a business trip). The Wall Street Journal has praised Backpack as the best tool of its kind, and perhaps more important, bloggers have been jumping for joy over it. Lifehacker, a blog that offers tips to help keep your life in order, calls the software “a perfect online replacement (or supplement) to that fancy notebook you’ve been scribbling in.”
Basecamp and Backpack represent the future of software on the Web not just because they’re elegant, easy-to-use programs that will likely make your life better. The two applications are also interesting because they were created in a novel way, using a new programming model that allowed 37 Signals to build each program very quickly, and with very few people. Indeed, this method of creating applications — doing it fast and on a tight budget — might well be called 37 Signal’s animating philosophy, its central mission.