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By Charles Haddad My hard drive is a snarl of info tidbits. It's easy -- too easy -- to snatch addresses, telephone numbers, and facts and figures from e-mail and the Internet. But having spun this giant hairball of information, how do I find the one piece I need right now?
Therein, my friends, lies the real challenge of the Internet. How can we make sense of the tons of information we gather off the Net, organizing it so it's easy to retrieve and reuse? The person who figures out a surefire solution will become the Bill Gates of the early 21st century.
On the Mac platform, the race is well under way for the title of ultimate info gleaner and organizer. As you might suspect, Microsoft, with its new Entourage personal information manager, is among the contestants. But Entourage has hardly become the standard -- at least not yet -- and that has left the field open to scores of smaller contestants, most of which you've probably never heard of.
CLIPPING SERVICE. Each has developed a slightly different system, and each is incompatible with the others. It's a competitive landscape, not unlike the Internet itself before the rise of Netscape's Navigator in the late 1990s. I recently looked at three new entrants, InfoManager, StickyBrain, and Boswell. I picked these three because each is representative of a different approach to dealing with info overload.
InfoManager, developed by Mac shareware developer Steve Becker, is my favorite of the trio. What appeals to me about InfoManager is that it's small, always on, unobtrusive, and easy to figure out and use. It works like a digital clipping service, in effect supercharging the Mac's built-in clipboard feature and letting it save many different items at the same time.
What you see on the screen is a small window, which you can reduce to a simple bar on top of the screen with the click of a button. You grab and save information by highlighting it and dragging it atop the InfoManager window or assigning keyboard commands to do the same thing. Information is saved in a text file. The default word processing program is SimpleText, which comes installed on every Mac, but you can easily use Microsoft Word or Nisus Writer.
THE OTHER HALF. Storing information, of course, is only half the battle. Organizing it in a meaningful way is the other -- tougher -- half. With InfoManager, you can store information in a generic file called storageboard that works as a digital bulletin board. Or you can create your own files and store them away in your own folder system. And when you've forgotten where you've filed away that critical name, you can use InfoManager's powerful search feature to find it, checking by keywords, strings, or dates, for instance.
InfoManager also lets you date, index, and annotate saved information. I find this last feature is especially useful since I always forget why I saved something in the first place. The program also has powerful editing tools that let you capitalize sentences or remove funky e-mail symbols.
StickyBrain, a rival program published by Chronos, offers some features InfoManager lacks -- notably templates to create a Rolodex or to-do list. Loaded with features, StickyBrain uses the metaphor of Apple's stickies for its system of organization. It's really a standard personal information manager -- minus the datebook. It also uses a fairly powerful built-in word processor.
But StickyBrain isn't for me. Its search feature is adequate, but it isn't as good as either InfoManager's or Boswell's. Also, StickyBrain clutters your screen with lots of different windows. I don't want to assign alarms to my saved information, and I don't care about changing its fonts or background coloring. All I want to do is find the right piece of data -- fast.
PhD NEEDED. If that's your aim, too, you might like Boswell, the most powerful and ambitious of the three programs. Published by Copernican Technologies Inc., it's also the most daunting. Take heed when the developer warns you not to try his program without first studying the manual. So much for intuitive ease of use. But the developer is right. This is one program you can't figure out through trial and error. That's not to say Boswell doesn't do the job and work well. You just need a PhD in library science to figure out how to use it.
Indeed, Boswell is organized like a library, tracking saved information with an electronic card catalog. Letting you cross-reference material, especially in a search, is the program's real strength. You can, for example, find every e-mail you sent a particular person about a specific project last month.
Will Boswell, StickyBrain, or InfoManager become the standard for storing and organizing information off the Net? I doubt it. All are too small and unknown, lacking the marketing budgets to get their names in lights. But my bet is that the way InfoManager works -- its speed, small footprint, and ease of use -- will become the template for any future winner. Haddad, Atlanta correspondent for BusinessWeek and a Mac aficionado, offer his views every Wednesday in his Byte of the Apple column, only on BW Online