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

Net Snippets, from a small company in Israel, is not as pretty as EverNote but is very quick and effective, especially for text-based research projects. After installation it displays a thumbnail-size box in one corner of the screen. You drag whatever you want to store over to that box, and the program saves it for later retrieval. The basic version is free and easy to learn. More-advanced versions cost up to $129.95 and include features for producing bibliographies or other academic reports based on the captured data.

A relatively new entry, Surfulater, created by a veteran developer in Australia, differs from most of the others in the elaborate ways it allows you to comment on, classify, and even edit the material you have collected. For instance, if you’ve copied and stored a blog entry or a passage from a Web site, you can enter notes of your own—“There he goes again!” “This detail is interesting—right alongside the clip, and search for those comments later on. It also has a variety of special categorization tools. Surf‑ ulater costs $35; its creator, Neville Franks, chronicles the program’s ongoing evolution at www.blog.surfulater.com.

Until this spring, Onfolio was a strong stand-alone competitor to the likes of EverNote and Net Snippets in allowing the simple capture and categorization of text and images. Its edge was the elegant way it handled RSS feeds, and its unique system for dealing with very long Web postings. Newspapers, magazines, and some other sites often break lengthy articles into a series of separate pages. When you get to the bottom of each page, you have to click “Next” to keep reading. On some sites you can get around this by clicking on a “Print-Friendly Version” button, which usually opens up a separate window with the article’s entire contents. Onfolio can spare you this process by itself amassing and storing material from a multipage site. Last March Microsoft acquired Onfolio and made the program part of its Windows Live Toolbar, which is free (from www.ideas.live.com) but runs only in Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (and Outlook), not in Firefox or any other browser.

Google has a free data manager called Google Notebook, which will run in most browsers. But it is bare-bones and far more limited than anything else mentioned here. Some of Google’s new utilities, like its Calendar and Spreadsheet programs, can do almost everything that a “real” desktop program like Outlook or Excel can. Google’s Notebook has not yet reached that level.

For more than twenty years, the AskSam company, of Perry, Florida, has offered very powerful “free-form database” programs. You enter e-mail, research notes, and other textual or numeric data into AskSam, and then you can retrieve it according to precise, structured queries. (“Show me all notes from June 2001 that belong to the following two categories and contain these three keywords.”) These searches can sometimes reveal relationships that would not otherwise be obvious. The company’s SurfSaver product is slightly more cumbersome than EverNote or Onfolio when it comes to storing information, but it is much more powerful in retrieval.

Every month or two since 2001, a small, multinational team of designers based in Beijing has issued successive releases of its Advanced Data Management program, or ADM. (I visited the team in Beijing recently and will have more to say about its work another time.) Like other programs mentioned here, ADM allows users to collect a variety of data in one place. It will be more attractive to those who (like me) naturally think, organize, and even create in the outline form familiar from term-paper days.

Now, the promised Mac programs. One is DevonThink, created in Germany, which was mentioned previously in these pages but can’t be mentioned often enough. It is only so-so in collecting data, but it is superb at organizing and searching what you have amassed. It has an exceptional “semantic search” utility, which like a good Web search engine can often find what you’re looking for even if that is not exactly what you typed in. (The only comparable PC program I’m aware of is dtSearch.) The other is Tinderbox, from Eastgate Systems, of Watertown, Massachusetts. Its Web-clipping utilities are primitive at best, but it is a wonderful tool for arranging ideas, seeing, and changing the relationships among them, and generally doing creative work.

Each user’s taste will vary. Some PC users will want to move past EverNote, and some Mac users will find Tinderbox too tricky to be worthwhile. But those two programs are good places to start.

James Fallows is a national correspondent of The Atlantic.
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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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