Yesterday, a co-worker mentioned that there are several popular iPhone applications that interact with the 37 Signals Basecamp Project Management web application. Since we’ve recently started using Basecamp, I realized that I was missing the boat by not having some functionality available from my iPhone. Several apps are recommended by Basecamp HQ (http://basecamphq.com/extras). I wouldn’t say that I made an informed decision to start with. I like camping, so the apps that had a tent on their icon seemed to catch my attention.
I started with Outpost (http://www.outpostapp.com). The download was less than a megabyte which was nice. I had it installed and running in several minutes, and the initial setup screen simply prompted me for my Basecamp credentials. Once logged in, it started syncing 17 projects, which took quite some time. Like 30 minutes or so actually. That seemed a bit excessive to me, but I remembered all of the attachments and other information that we have in some of our projects. The thought of having instant access to all of that from my iPhone was pretty exciting. I actually wound up getting impatient with the project sync, mostly because I needed to make a strategic play on a game of Words with Friends. Later, on the treadmill at the gym, I let it run it’s full course of syncing projects. I started looking through the projects, milestones, and to-dos. Outpost uses a pretty standard iPhone interface for navigating the hierarchy of data. I found that on several screens I was wanting more information about the items in the view. For instance, on the Milestones screen, I can’t tell who the milestones are assigned to. It does, however, highlight the milestones that are assigned to me. I guess I should quit snooping through everyone’s milestones anyhow. I was relatively pleased with the access that the app was providing, but I wanted to see another option.
My next choice was Chieftent (http://readdle.com/products/chieftent). The feature that interested me was the similar layout to the Basecamp web application. It uses a very similar navigation style with tabs at the top of the page. Again, it was a very quick download and install. Project syncing wasn’t fast by any means, but it was faster than Outpost. It took approximately the same amount of time that it took me to wolf down a turkey club sandwich after I left the gym. I felt more comfortable with the interface immediately. I found some similar problems to Outpost, in that some screens left me wanting more data. A good example is the dashboard. The milestones, todos, messages, and other items are grouped by project. But the name of the client is missing. I have several projects that are named “Website Development”, but I have no way of knowing which client they are attached to. Pretty big oversight for the first page of the app. I was left feeling like Chieftent might be only slightly better than Outpost, but only because I liked using an interface that I was familiar with, i.e. the web application.
On my way to sleep I was reflecting on the day and I made a mental note to write this comparison. I also remembered that I hadn’t heard back from a client that I had emailed about a project, and I started getting concerned that maybe they responded later in the evening and I just hadn’t seen the notification. Again my trusty iPhone sprang to the rescue in the form of the default mail app that comes with the device. Email checked. No response. BUT I noticed that I had a Basecamp notification for another project that I was pretty interested in. I was never going to get to sleep. Interworks recently hired another designer, Kim Butcher, and she has been doing some really nice work. On one design, she had stylized up some flies, and they had particularly amused me earlier in the day. So the Basecamp email notification in question was a message from Kim saying that she had updated the design of the flies, and I was eager for another round of amusement.
Sure, the email provided a link to the PDF that Kim uploaded, but I have iPhone apps now. I don’t need no web browser. I started with Outpost, found the project in question, and opened Kim’s message. Nothing. An option to leave comments. Oh yeah, I have comments, but not about her design. How do I leave some comments for the app developers? Never fear, I thought. I’ll just try Chieftent. Again I was able to easily navigate to Kim’s message, and while the interface made it more apparent that there was no text associated with the message post, there was no file attachment for me to view either. I was dismayed. Surely I just missed it somewhere. So I spent about 10 more minutes flipping back and forth between the two apps looking for file attachments. There’s still a possibility that I’m overlooking them, but I’m pretty sure they’re just not there.
Ultimately, I went back to my mail app and opened the PDF just fine by clicking on the link and getting it directly from the web app. I guess the question I’m left with about the iPhone apps is this: what took so long in the sync process if attachements and files aren’t involved? I feel pretty ‘meh’ about the apps now. It will still be handy to have the message posts and milestones in the palm of my hand, but being a highly visual person, it’s really going to be a pain to leave the app if I want to see those. I’m sure that the apps will improve as time goes on. Until then, I guess I’ll just use baling wire and duct tape to pull a couple iPhone apps together to suit my mobile Basecamp needs.