Technology July/August 2006

The Electric Mind Meld

Two new elegantly conceived programs help you unjam your digital life
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What makes some software “interesting,” as opposed to merely usable? For one, software seems interesting when it allows you to see or consider information in new ways. With utilities like DevonThink Professional, for the Macintosh, or dtSearch, for PCs, you can run “semantic searches” for e-mails or files on your own computer and find passages whose themes are related even if they don’t share specific key words. (When you are doing key-word searches of files on your own PC, nothing beats the old standby X1, which costs $74.95 and up from X1.com or comes in a slightly different free version from Yahoo, at desktop.yahoo.com.)

Interesting software also tends to be extendable, or customizable. Personalized touches can be as simple as refining a set of bookmarks for a Web browser, or as complex as assigning long command sequences to a few keystrokes with the very handy PC program ActiveWords.

And, as I am shown by previews of two extremely interesting new programs, software can even be intriguing on an aesthetic level, by virtue of the creative choices that go into its design.

The two programs I have in mind are OneNote, from Microsoft, and Chandler, from the Open Source Applications Foundation, in San Francisco. In all the conspicuous ways, the programs are each other’s opposites. One is from the world’s biggest and most successful software company; the other, from a shoestring operation funded mainly by one man—Mitchell Kapor, the founder of Lotus. OneNote sells for about $100 on its own and is offered, like Word and Outlook, as part of the “suite” of Office products that is generally regarded as Microsoft’s cash cow. Chandler will be free, as will several related utilities and programming tools now being developed by Kapor’s organization. OneNote runs only on PCs or tablet computers with Windows software. Chandler is being designed to run on PCs, Macs, Linux machines, and about any other plausible system. The first release of OneNote went on sale three years ago, and a significantly improved version, OneNote 2007, will be available late this year. Chandler has been in the works since 2001, but won’t be ready for mainstream use for at least another year or two. At the moment, it exists in a limited version that mainly serves a “dog food” function—that is, its own designers use it for their daily tasks as a forced exposure to its strengths and limitations, a practice known as “eating your own dog food.”

But the programs share a fundamental goal, which is to keep lowering the barrier between the way computers work and the way people naturally think. The tech world has come miles in this direction since the days when you had to learn obscure commands to make a computer do anything at all. The barrier OneNote aims to surmount is one created by Microsoft’s own success in establishing Word and Outlook, plus the overall Windows file system, as the dominant standards for writing, calendar keeping, and workplace communication.

By Microsoft logic, specific programs are “right” for specific purposes: Word if you are writing something down, Outlook’s Tasks list if you have a to-do item. Chris Pratley, OneNote’s chief designer, saw it differently. “The key insight I had,” he wrote in 2004 in his OneNote Blog, “ … was that [the program] had to let you capture the thought or piece of info as you had it, without forcing you to deal with any software goo up front.” It is a sign of the charming breeziness of his blog that he refers to his company’s mainstay offerings as “goo.” (Disclosure: I worked on the Word design team at Microsoft in 1999, and when I did, Pratley was a friend and supervisor.)

“Properly” capturing and recording in the Office system the information coming at you all day long, Pratley wrote, can be more trouble than it’s worth. For a new phone number, you have to switch to Outlook’s Contacts view and fill out a form. If you jot down something in Word, you have to create and name a new file to store it, eventually littering your hard drive with zillions of confusingly named files.

The response to this problem, via OneNote, is a kind of all-purpose magic clipboard, or “notebook.” It runs while you are doing other work, and whenever you want you can pull into it information from another program. It will store whole Web pages or selected passages; Web links; e-mail messages; text or graphic files, either embedded like attached files in an e-mail or with their contents shown; video or audio clips; handwritten entries or hand-marked documents from tablet computers; and other forms of data I’m forgetting now. You can sort or name this information as it comes in, if you want—with special notebooks for phone numbers, research about Ecuador, meeting notes, etc.—or you can just dump it all in one place and find it later on. You do this subsequent finding in a variety of ways: through labels, tags, or other identifying information you have supplied yourself; through notebooks or folders you have created for special topics; or through the new indexed search feature in OneNote 2007, which retrieves relevant entries almost as soon as you type what you’re looking for.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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