Technology November 2006

Making Haystacks, Finding Needles

New programs let you easily categorize anything you come across on the Web or in your own files—and, more important, let you find it all again
Also see:

Searches, Backups, Soul of a New Program"
James Fallows recommends some search engines that "cluster" or classify the pages they have found. Also, his tech-literature picks for this month.

It’s time for another look at one of the software world’s longest-running and potentially most important sagas: the attempt to create effective data- management programs.

Computer users are always coming across little bits of information—from e-mails, from conversations, and from blogs, RSS feeds, and other Web sites. Often we’d like to do something with this information, rather than letting it whiz by into oblivion. As the systems that present information have evolved, so have the means for storing and keeping track of data we might like to use later on. Starting twenty-five years ago, when almost the only data that flowed into a computer came via early e-mail or bulletin-board systems, I’ve tried about 200 different data-management programs, including two I mentioned several months ago in this space. These are Microsoft’s OneNote, which looks sleeker and more Mac-like than other Microsoft Office applications and, while predictably well integrated with Microsoft’s Outlook and Word, also works very well with non-Microsoft products like the Firefox Web browser; and Chandler, from Mitch Kapor’s Open Source Applications Foundation, a still-emerging effort to create a free, all-platform information manager.

Good data managers do three things. They let you bring information into the program easily, from textual sources like e-mail or from Web sites. They let you classify, or “tag,” incoming information, if you already know what you’d like to do with it: for example, you might want to save a certain Web clip for information about next summer’s vacation or for a work project you have under way. Other information you might want to dump into a general storage bin without a specific purpose but on the chance you might want to look at it again. And the programs let you later retrieve the information you’ve stored, whether you’ve classified it or not, by means ranging from simple keyword searches to elaborate ways of detecting relationships among data.

All the programs I’ll mention meet three crucial tests. They allow effortless data collection, tagged and untagged storage, and flexible retrieval options. They differ in where they’ve placed their emphasis, and in whether they’re aimed at users who like structure and outlines or those who prefer looser organizational schemes. Compared with OneNote and even Chandler, they are generally less ambitious in their aims and come from smaller (and sometimes shakier) enterprises. In wine terms, these are mainly garagiste offerings rather than from the main châteaus. But each excels in a certain way, and all are worth at least experimenting with, since they’re available for free trial periods. Unless otherwise noted, each program can be found at a Web site of the same name or via a simple Web search. With a few exceptions, these programs are for PCs only. The two programs for Macs, though, are particularly elegant.

Although not necessarily the most powerful of these programs, EverNote will probably feel the most natural to most users. It’s the one I recommend as a starting point for people first trying this kind of program. EverNote comes from a company in California, most of whose founders were computer experts in the old Soviet Union.

After you install EverNote, it places a stylized “E” logo on your browser’s tool bar. If you click on the E while visiting a Web page, the whole contents of the page go into EverNote’s storage, along with URL information so you can visit the page again. You can also select text or images from the Web page and store those selections with a click of the E—or drag material to the E from Word or most other programs. The basic version, which can do all this, is free. An advanced version, for $34.95, can import handwritten notes from tablet computers and, in many cases, convert them to searchable text.

The program’s most distinctive feature is its “Time Band,” which runs along the right edge of the screen. Each note is assigned a place on the band, based on the instant when it was created. The band serves as an endless reel on which all the notes are stored, from oldest to newest. The concept sounds trivial, but it is surprisingly interesting to use—it reminds you of the huge roll of paper on which Jack Kerouac supposedly wrote On the Road, so he wouldn’t be distracted when coming to the end of a page.

When looking for a note, you can jump to the time when it was created, or quickly scroll through the contents until you find a picture or layout that looks familiar; or, of course, you can also use familiar keyword-search tools. EverNote auto-categorizes notes according to types (Web clips, to-do items, pure text, pictures, and so on) and lets you manually assign categories of your own. You can also create “keyword categories—every item with the word Tahiti will automatically go into the “Next Year’s Vacation” category—and do Boolean searches involving those categories. (For instance, all items that are assigned to the “Next Year’s Vacation” category but not assigned to the “Prohibitively Expensive” category.) Unlike OneNote, EverNote cannot store audio or video clips. It is also less convenient than OneNote as a way to type in new information (as opposed to clipping or capturing it). Still, many people will find that it does most of what they want.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent of The Atlantic. 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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