Let's Get This Straight: Personal information mismanagement

Why hasn't the software industry given us more tools to get our lives in order?

Published March 5, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

I need a software program that works the way I do. If I said that in a TV commercial, my wish would be miraculously fulfilled. But the software industry hasn't yet answered my need.

I've got all the programs I could ever want for writing, for browsing the Web, for crunching numbers, for moving files around. What I need is a product that can store, sort, retrieve and organize all the myriad bits of data that course through my typical day -- from the details of a contract with a writer to the notes from a phone conversation with a reader to the plans for a dinner with a friend. Of course, there are lots of programs available to help organize your life -- but most of them are hopelessly inflexible. Rather than adapting to your needs, they demand that you change your habits to fit their formats.

Creating programs that "work the way you do" has long been a grail for the software industry. Yet, 20 years into the personal computer revolution, we are all still prisoners of the product categories that emerged in the industry's infancy.

Want to structure your own information in your own unique way? You can figure out how to make it work in a spreadsheet, word processor or database, which is usually a square-peg-in-round-hole sort of operation; or if you've got the programming chops, you can build your own custom application. But if you're like most people, you get yourself a PIM -- which sounds like an old-fashioned drink but actually stands for "personal information management" program.

The software industry has had as hard a time designing and marketing PIMs as it has naming them. Most of these programs take their cue from the granddaddy in the category, the old DOS program Sidekick: They offer calendars, address books and to-do lists.

Today, programs like Lotus Organizer provide such functions -- sometimes, as with Microsoft Outlook, integrated with an e-mail program. Increasingly, people who like this approach use a PalmPilot to extend the reach of their PIM so that they can carry their information with them in their pockets. Finally, a new category of Web-based PIM services is trying to get people to transfer their PIM information onto the Net -- but, as Wall Street Journal columnist Walt Mossberg points out, the last thing you want to do is wait for a Web site connection just to jot a note on your calendar.

The trouble with all these personal information managers is that none of them is truly personal. They all follow rigid structures that you can't adapt to your own uses. If you want to do much besides storing names, addresses and appointments, too bad.

There is an alternative tradition in the software world of innovative, unique programs that offer creative takes on the problem of information management. These tools serve as flexible environments for data that you can organize and arrange according to your needs and whims, rather than some programmer's preconceived idea of how you should be working. They're not just for storing names and addresses -- they're for organizing research, grouping bits of related information and tracking details.

Writers, obviously, love these programs, but they are potentially invaluable to anyone who works on a computer. Alas, the best offerings in this category have been discontinued, and those remaining are labors of love or products of shoestring operations unable to make noise in the crowded software marketplace.

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The classic free-form PIM is Lotus Agenda, a DOS-based program first issued in 1988. Agenda let you build, organize and connect big heaps of information by entering items according to category, date and priority and then sorting them dynamically, as needed, into different groupings. Though it's long since been abandoned by Lotus, there are still devotees who use it and swear by it (Jimmy Guterman's four-part opus on Agenda in the Chicago Tribune is a good introduction).

Around the same time Agenda emerged, an inventive little program called Tornado came along and allowed users to jot down notes in individual windows, build vast piles of notes and then retrieve them from the trove -- singly or in related groups -- with a speedy "find" command. In the Windows era, Tornado evolved into a more elaborate and structured product called Info Select that provides calendar and address-book functions within the old note-pile design.

Ecco is the PIM program I fell in love with back in 1994, and I'm still using it today to organize the notes for this article. Ecco is an outliner on steroids: It keeps your calendar, addresses and to-dos just like all the other PIMs, but it does so in outline form -- you can annotate down to any level of depth you want, then "collapse" the outline into more compact form as needed. More important, Ecco lets you design your own outlines, as simple or complex as you need, with spreadsheet-like "columns" of additional data.

Ecco is a smartly designed program that works fast and saves tons of data in trim files. You can put your entire life into it; I have. Which is why I, like legions of other fans, was distraught to learn last fall that NetManage, its owner, was discontinuing it.

There seem to be a number of explanations for Ecco's demise: Now that Microsoft is giving away a "lite" version of its Outlook program for free, a lot of software companies are backing away from the PIM market as fast as they can. Ecco enthusiasts also point the finger at what they see as mismanagement and missed opportunities on NetManage's part.

The real problem here may lie in the software industry's obsession with "creating standards." Each PIM producer may dream that it might someday achieve Microsoft-like dominance of its niche (as Microsoft itself plainly does), but by their nature PIMS tend toward a fragmented market: Some people like outliners, others like databases; some like structure, some like free-form approaches. So "creating a standard" is nearly impossible; a program like Ecco may develop a loyal and significant following, but it's unlikely to appeal to everyone. And in today's software business, companies run away from markets that don't offer at least the hope of some kind of standard-setting monopoly. (Limited as the PIM options are for Windows users, they're practically nonexistent for Mac users.)

In an ideal world, there'd be a whole spectrum of unique PIM programs -- one for every user, even. But we'll never get anything like that from the conventional software business. Perhaps the free software/open source model -- once it begins to reach out from the hardcore hacker enthusiasts to more general users -- will begin to fill this vacuum; since it's built around individual programmers' contributing useful modifications and tweaks, it might turn into a wellspring of new ideas and tools for organizing our data and lives.

In the meantime, Ecco still works, but sooner or later it will yellow around the edges, and I'm still hunting for the perfect PIM to replace it. I've looked at Zoot, which lets you build "libraries" of associated information, Web addresses and notes; and I've checked out Enfish Tracker, which builds a searchable index of your e-mail and files and "tracks" categories you choose.

They're interesting, and I'll probably keep using them. But they just don't work the way I do.

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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