Let's Get This Straight: From Agenda to Zoot

Readers fill us in on personal information software -- the good, the bad and the discontinued.

Published March 23, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

The first thing I learned from the e-mail response to my column on "Personal information mismanagement" was that people are deeply passionate about their "personal information manager" (PIM) software. That column -- a lament over the state of software development in this important but under-recognized area -- provoked even more e-mail than my rundown of tech-industry buzzwords or my deliberately provocative call for Microsoft to free its Windows source code (though, to be sure, not nearly as much as my critique of the iMac).

I learned that many of you are as irate as I am about the paucity of choices the commercial marketplace provides in the field of PIMs; that many of you still use old, outdated programs to organize your lives, as I do, because you love them even though their publishers don't; and that many of you still yearn to find software that adapts to the way we work instead of straitjacketing us in preordained templates and routines. But I learned a lot more: Readers also shared with me a vast range of thoughts, tips and suggestions on how they keep their lives and ideas organized with the software currently available.

Having read all that e-mail, I have to admit that there are a lot more options out there than I realized -- or than a perusal of the software catalogs or the trade magazines would ever turn up. Some of these programs are shareware or labors of love; others are commercial products flying low under the radar of the industry players; still others are old, semi-discontinued products from big companies that dedicated bands of users still cling to and swear by.

What's missing is any kind of central repository of information. (Yahoo's listing is a start, but it's woefully inadequate.) I'd like to at least begin to remedy that here, by pooling readers' ideas with links to software sites for personal information management junkies. But before getting to that good stuff, here are some of the observations and bits of advice I received on the general topic.

Get a PalmPilot, some of you insisted. Others suggested, pityingly, that I should get a life: "If you have that much information, simplify," wrote Marc Plaisant. I think these readers misunderstood my point. The software industry defines PIMs as address-book-calendar-and-notes software; if addresses and appointments are what you want to track, you are reasonably well-served today by a variety of products. My complaint was that these programs aren't nearly flexible enough to help you track other kinds of information that may be unique to your needs.

As an editor, I track story ideas and assignments in my favorite PIM, Ecco, now a discontinued product. Cheryl Fuller, a psychotherapist, wrote to tell me that she uses a now defunct Mac outliner program called ThinkTank to build a "searchable database of dreams." Why, I wondered, do the free-form PIMs -- the programs that I and so many of you still find so valuable and keep using long after their producers have orphaned them -- seem to fail in the commercial marketplace?

There are two main theories: It's either programmers' fault, or it's our fault. Daniel Reinhold, a programmer himself, takes the former view: "The tools the programmer must use get in the way of creating good tools for the user ... What we need is a new programming model that takes the design out of the hands of the gearheads and puts it into the hands of non-technical but creative people. When the process of creating applications is more about expressing fluid and rich forms of interaction with the user and less about how to reduce a series of tasks into a series of bits, we will unleash the tremendous creative impulses out there waiting to be tapped."

Gregory Tetrault, however, believes the trouble lies not with our programmers but with ourselves: "Applications that don't force the users into a rigid, predefined structure don't do well. Most users don't want to think about how to organize their contacts or notes or outlines or spreadsheets. They would rather follow someone else's conception of the best way. Users don't even customize the templates distributed with their word processors, PIMs, fax software, etc. People say they want software to work the way they want, but most users will not spend time personalizing an application."

Ah, but not Salon readers! You are, it seems, PIM-addicted. Herewith, your suggestions for the PIM-deprived.

This list is not intended as a guide to traditional,
PIMs like Lotus Organizer, Outlook and Ascend (now the Franklin Planner) --
programs for keeping track of addresses, appointments and simple notes. Nor
is it a list of business-contact management software, of which there is a
plethora -- including Consultant, Act!, Goldmine, Commence, SharkWare,
Maximizer, ContactPlus and Time & Chaos. These are more unusual,
idiosyncratic products that offer a variety of approaches to organizing
free-form information, sometimes in loose structures, sometimes in more
well-defined outlines. Nearly all are available for demo or download from
the sites below.

  • Ecco
    remains my personal favorite in this class -- it's got a good calendar and
    address book, but the superb outliner is where it really shines. Netmanage
    has discontinued Ecco, but there have been sporadic efforts to purchase it
    and revive it as a commercial product.

  • Info Select is
    another leader in this category with a long heritage; it uses a free-form
    database rather than outlines for storage of random information bits.

  • InfoGenie from Casady & Greene is similar to Info Select, for Mac users.

  • Vault is a
    shareware program that parallels some of Info Select's features.

  • Zoot, shareware
    from Zoot Software in Vermont, lets you build libraries of related notes
    into easily searchable databases, and contains some cool automation
    features that sort information you've grabbed from the Web or other

  • AskSam is a venerable
    free-form database that lets you dump in all sorts of information and then
    search it quickly. One strength is an ability to handle a wide range of
    proprietary file formats.

  • Lifestreams
    isn't yet available, but is worth mentioning in this roundup:
    Inspired by the work of David Gelernter, Lifestreams organizes and filters
    "streams" of documents using time as the central principle. Right now
    Mirrorworlds, the company behind Lifestreams, seems to be positioning its
    first product, now being beta-tested as Lifestreams Office, as a workgroup
    management tool.

  • Userland
    is the brainchild of Dave Winer, who created one of the
    pioneering outliner programs in the 1980s, ThinkTank, which evolved into
    Symantec's now defunct More. Though Frontier is primarily a content
    management tool for Web developers, it's built around a powerful outlining
    concept that can be used for many purposes.

  • Brainforest,
    from Aportis, is a free-form outliner for PC, Mac and PalmPilot use.

  • Inspiration is a
    "visual thinking and learning tool" for concept mapping and brainstorming,
    if you prefer flowcharts to outlines.

  • Lotus
    the granddaddy of the free-form PIM, is still available for
    download, though the creaky DOS program may be more of an inspiration at
    this point than a usable product.

  • The Brain, from
    Natrificial, is probably the snazziest-looking product here, and received
    the most e-mail recommendations -- many along the lines of "this may not be
    that useful, but it's so cool you must check it out." The Brain -- which
    lets you organize notes and information in pulsating star chartlike maps
    that rearrange themselves at your every click -- is indeed cool, and a lot
    of fun to play with. For me, its promise to "work the way you think"
    remains unfulfilled; but for those who find outliners too darn linear, it
    could be just the thing.

Is the quest for good personal information management just a form of
digital navel-gazing, as my "get-a-life" correspondents imply? I don't
think so. Several readers pointed out that the medium via which you are now
reading these words was itself the byproduct of one scientist's quest for a
better personal-information scheme. If you read the original 1989
for the World Wide Web from Tim Berners-Lee of CERN, you'll
find his account of an early predecessor named Enquire: "It allowed one to
store snippets of information, and to link related pieces together in any
way. To find information, one progressed via the links from one sheet to
another, rather like in the old computer game 'Adventure.' I used this for
my personal record of people and [software] modules."

That's often the way progress happens in software: A programmer solves a
personal problem, and then finds that the solution has wider applications.
And so a couple of readers pointed me toward a proposal by Jamie Zawinski,
Netscape's programming guru, for a kind of super e-mail organizer called "Intertwingle." Zawinski, who now heads up Netscape's open-source software
project, Mozilla.org, calls it a hypothetical, "blue sky" project. But a
lot of great software began that way.

Programmers in the free
software/open source
world are used to tweaking their computing
environment until it perfectly suits their needs -- a few wrote in to tell
me they don't need PIMs at all because they've transformed the all-purpose
Unix text editor called Emacs into a personalized digital servant. If
these programmers turn their energy from building operating systems and
software languages to building applications like "Intertwingle" intended
for the general user, the roster of PIMs I've begun to assemble here could
grow a lot fuller and richer.

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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