All in the <head> – Ponderings and code by Drew McLellan –

Moving from Basecamp to ActiveCollab

At we do most of our work without meeting, and for a lot of the time without out physically talking to our clients. Certainly once a project’s underway, day to day interaction occurs online. With multiple projects in some stage of active development at any one time, and lots of messages being fired off between multiple team members, if we tried to do this by email it would quickly become unmanageable.

Enter Basecamp

As a solution to this we use Basecamp as a project management and collaboration tool between us and the client. There are pretty much just two things it does well for us: keeping conversations organised and archived, and maintaining a centralised collection of project files (such as design files, specs, and so on).

Just recently we hit up against our account limit for active projects and so have been faced with the option to close down some projects (which isn’t really an option) or upgrade the account. We use Basecamp pretty much all day every day, so we’re quite happy to pay for that, but it did cause us to stop a look to see if we’re really happy with the way it’s working for us.

As an aside, from a business perspective, account limits like Basecamp has for the number of active projects can be a double-edged sword. On one hand it’s an opportunity to upgrade customers and have them pay you more money each month. On the other hand, it forces customers to revise their position, and if you’re not doing a really great job, it can prompt them to question the value of an account they may have otherwise carried on using for years.

Feeling the neglect

Basecamp was the first product from 37signals, and I’ve been using it in one capacity or another pretty much since launch. Following Basecamp, 37signals have gone on to launch Backpack, Ta-da lists, Writeboard, Campfire, Highrise, a job board, and recently Sortfolio, and it doesn’t take much to see that this is a small company spread pretty thin. Unfortunately, this really shows in the products – at least in Basecamp. Updates of any significance only really seem to show up in the form of features from other products clumsily bolted on.

The 37signals mantra is “less software”, and so I’m sure they’d argue that Basecamp has the features needed to do want most people want and they don’t want to bloat the product with loads of features. There’s sense it that, but also if this is a tool designed to help you manage projects and there are things it could be doing to help you manage projects better, then if it’s not doing them you have to question the its usefulness as a tool.

As it stands, Basecamp feels neglected. From the little annoyances like treating winmail.dat as a valid file attachment on incoming emails, to major issues like the search never returning useful results (or content which you’ve know is there) and the painfully, painfully slow response times once the US comes online, we’ve begun to feel that Basecamp could be doing a better job. It’s going an okay job, but it could be lots better.

Time to shop around

So we began to look around at alternatives. There are dozens of online project management tools, but one which quickly stood out was ActiveCollab. I can’t comment on how it works yet, as we’ve only just got it up and running, and aren’t planning on moving client projects away from Basecamp until we’re really settled with it (we want to be 100% sure before messing clients around with a change of software). However, here’s what has attracted us to it.

It’s self hosted. Rather than pay a monthly fee, there’s a one off license fee plus an optional support fee from Year 2 onwards. The key thing here is not about paying less money – although that’s always a bonus – it’s that we’re back in control of our data and crucially in control of the hosting. If the site’s running slow we can do something about it. That lack of ability to do something is a big frustration with Basecamp. Online services like to pitch the self-hosted competition as being a big hassle, but installing and configuring ActiveCollab was easy and took about 10 minutes. I don’t see it really demanding anything from me in term of maintenance – it should just run.

It has subversion integration. This is a great feature for us, as all our source code is stored in subversion, and having our project management tool and source control integrated makes a lot of sense. Being able to include something like “Completes Task #1234” in a commit message and have it not only create a link between the two but also mark the task complete is a real timesaver.

It has tickets. We’ve been through a few different bug tracking systems over the years, including one of our own. One thing we’ve found is that we don’t really need anything fancy – having a simple ticket system integrated with our projects and source control sounds about perfect to me.

It’s PHP and MySQL and has a plugin architecture and an API. As a web development company working primarily in PHP and MySQL, we’ve got all the skills we need to extend this to do what we like in the future.

It’s a slow process

We’re going to start using ActiveCollab on our internal projects (like Perch) initially until we find our feet with it. If all goes well, chances are we’ll start putting new client projects there rather than on Basecamp and slowly transition away. I’m quite looking forward to it.