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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Personal Information Management

Computers are meant to store, process and organize information. Yet, many people don't use computers to store day-to-day information. In fact, organizing day to day information is a pain area in the modern life---thanks to information overload we are suffering from.

Yet, deep down, software developers believe that there is efficient, easy to use way of storing things-to-do, appointments, contact numbers, and other important pieces of information such as recipes, web clippings, etc. Several attempts have been made, the earliest traces going back as far as 1992, to create the killer app for personal information management but almost all failed miserably. The most astonishing effort is Chandler (from Mitch Kapoor, Lotus 123 fame), which I have reviewed here.

All is not bleak; several nice tools do exist; some promoting the ideas behind "Getting Things Done" while others just helping you in brainstorming, consider Free Mind and Mind Meister (both having excellent usability features).

But when it comes to comparison, the Five Best Note Taking Tools at LifeHacker.com tells us that plain-old "pen and paper" wins hands-down. Why is that? Why can't we use software for the simple purpose of taking notes and storing day-to-day information?

Perhaps, one of the reasons is usability. If it takes several mouse clicks just to write down a phone number, I might not bother at all. With time, software is improving in usability. OneNote 2007 from MS, for example, has some very nice features:
  • Instead of providing a tree like structure to arrange notes, OneNote gets its inspiration of notes-taking from regular notebooks---there are "sections" within one notebook, each having a different color and having a collection of pages inside it.
  • Again, like a piece of paper, it lets you write anywhere you want on the screen.
  • It even provides handwriting recognition---something not for me but who knows.
  • There are some pretty good shortcuts: e.g., while typing if you press "TAB" key, it puts the information in a table and creates a new column for you to write more---it doesn't require you to first think about how many rows and columns you need---the software adjusts the page as you go.

In 1992, Mitch Kapoor proposed "Lotus Agenda" to the world. It's ground breaking features included support for mentioning dates in the form of now, today and sunday, next year, etc. In fact, this feature is available in MS Outlook 2003 and later versions as well. Next time you are scheduling an appoint, try writing "tomorrow" in the date box.

Ubiquitous Computing
The other one is the time it takes to load the app---if I have to "start my PC" just to write things to do (or even if I have to start an app for this purpose), I might lose interest. Remember the Milk (for things-to-do) and Ever Note (for note-taking) are web 2.0 apps which handle this aspect to some extent by providing a web based and a hand-held interface simultaneously.

But I still believe we need to more in this area. Something that we can carry with ourselves, and is easy to use, is very important. Something on the lines of Pattie Maes demo of the Sixth Sense is required here.

So, the killer app will have to have a mobile phone based interface/ client as well, which can synch itself with the main application as and when required. The killer app also has lots and lots of usability; in short, Don't Make Me Think. When can we have that killer app? Who knows. For now, I am settling with OneNote 2007; it's the most suitable for me. Too bad that there is no opensource competitor.