For the past several years I’ve been involved in a variety of projects ranging from education to startups. All have involved collaboration, and in most cases the people involved were not in a single location.

One tool has risen above the others for helping keep projects running smoothly. It’s called Basecamp, an online collaborative-organizing system, and it’s gaining adherents all the time.

Basecamp was created by the team at 37signals, a company that offers a suite of Web-based applications aimed at helping you get things done. 37signals is also the crew behind Ruby on Rails, an open-source Web development framework that has a growing and passionate user base.

The philosophy at 37signals is to do a few things — the ones that users truly want and need most — really well, and skip the rest. Basecamp exemplifies this notion. It’s not nearly as powerful as some other project-management tools, but it’s proved to be indispensible.

I’ve used Basecamp in a number of things ranging from a class project, where we worked on creating a website for the new Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship (alpha site here); planning and operating a nonprofit center; and organizing and operating the development of a for-profit startup.

There’s enough flexibility in the service for lots of different uses. I’ve found the messaging; to-do lists; and milestone planning especially valuable.

You can create RSS feeds of almost everything, and there’s a nifty email method for handling message. Recently, Basecamp added the ability to respond to an emailed (via Basecamp) message in an email reply.

There’s also access to “Writeboards” — where you post documents you’re sharing. This is modestly useful, but doesn’t come close to matching Google’s online document collaboration system; if several people in a small organization are tweaking a spreadsheet, for example, Google or a round-robin email is far superior to the Basecamp method.

The system has its flaws. One that drives me nuts is the inability to add new people to projects in “batch mode” — that is, more than one at a time — forcing me to do each one separately, a time-consuming process. I asked the company in a support email about adding the feature and got the kind of non-committal response that I took to mean, “We’re not interested in doing that, so don’t hold your breath.”

More problematically for me and others who are offline (typically in airplanes) a lot: There’s no offline mode. By this I mean there’s no way to suck down the entire project to your personal computer, make changes and then have them reflected back to the online project when you reconnect. Admittedly, this is difficult, and can cause versioning problems, not to mention oddities in online conversations where the thread can get confused. But it’s not impossible, and I’d be much happier if Basecamp had this capability.

Overall, however, Basecamp has proved to be a great tool for small-team collaboration, and expecially so when people are distant geographically as they are in several of my projects. There’s a free, limited-feature version. Monthly charges for the more extensive features range from $24 to $149; I pay $49 a month for capabilities that include SSL encryption security and as many as 35 active projects at once.

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