Organizing Random Information

LAWRENCE J. MAGID is a Silicon Valley-based computer analyst and writer

Every couple of years, a new software category comes along. This year it's the "personal information manager."

There are many variations on the new theme, but the basic purpose is to help organize ideas, notes, facts, phone numbers, messages, reminders and lots of other pieces of information.

The concept of having computers sort through and arrange text is nothing new. Database management programs have performed that role for years. Most database software requires you to create and stick to a specific format for entering your information, but that's fine for organizing such things as inventory control data and mailing lists.

People run into trouble, however, when they have to deal with information that comes in random order. For example, the phone rings and Harry tells you about a sales order, next week's staff meeting and an upcoming party. A customer calls up and wants to know the status of his order. Then, quick, you need the phone number of the Boston office. A structured database program would be hard-pressed to perform such a variety of tasks.

That's where personal information managers come in. Many are free-form databases. They generally allow you to enter information as you get it, and they give you the opportunity later on to organize your material into a suitable structure. Another hallmark of such programs is their ability to provide information quickly and easily on the screen. Unlike traditional database software, they are not designed principally for formal reports.

The most recent addition to this new genre is Agenda from Lotus Development, the publisher of 1-2-3, the best-selling spreadsheet program for performing financial calculations. In the words of one Lotus official: "Agenda does for text what 1-2-3 does for numbers."

Like a traditional database management program, Agenda can be used to categorize, sort data and locate information. But it does not force you to impose any kind of structure on your data. Instead, it allows you to create categories of information at any time and gives you an opportunity to view your data in various ways.

Suppose you are the manager of a used auto parts store and you need a way to monitor inventory. When a part comes in, you would use Agenda to enter the name of the part and the model and year of the car that it is for. A sample entry might be "Distributor for '78 Volvo." The next part that came in might be a "slightly scratched left door for a blue '84 Honda Accord."

If this were a structured database, you'd be in trouble because not all of the entries fall into the same kinds of categories. For the door, you've added information about the part's condition and its color. But Agenda doesn't care. You can later retrieve it by whatever categories you select.

Agenda doesn't know anything about cars, but it's willing to learn. The first time you enter the world "Volvo," you have to tell Agenda that it's a car. From then on, it knows to put every occurrence of the word "Volvo" in the appropriate column.

You could use the same database to enter the comment "Jim needs a carburetor by next Tuesday." From then on, you would see that notation when you ask to view "needs." Or you could check your database by date. Agenda will automatically translate the words "next Tuesday" into the correct date.

The program has an almost unlimited number of uses. A library could use Agenda to keep track of books by author, subject, publication date or anything else. It could even include lengthy descriptions or reviews by using the program's Note function to annotate an item with up to 10 pages of text. Data can be entered from the keyboard, imported from other programs or brought into Agenda from an electronic information service or electronic mail system.

Software publishers also have come up with a cross between standard database programs and new software such as Agenda: computerized outline programs. These programs allow you to move headings in an outline or to rearrange their order. Although they are more flexible than standard database software, they provide more structure than free-form programs.

The Living Videotext division of Cupertino, Calif.-based Symantec Corp. publishes several outlining programs for both IBM PCs and compatible computers, as well as the Apple Macintosh. GrandView, its newest program, runs on the IBM PC and compatibles.

GrandView organizes information under headings and subheadings. A section called "Cars," for example, could be followed by such subheadings as Fords, Pontiacs and Volvos. And each subheading could have sections for model numbers, years and the like.

The structure can be modified as you go. You can create headings and subheadings on the fly and move those around as needed.

GrandView also includes a word processor and spell checker. Most important, the program provides just enough structure to help you get organized without locking you into rigidly defined fields.

If you like to work in outline mode, the program may well be for you. But if you're someone who likes to create structure after the fact, you might be better off with Agenda.

Symantec also publishes More for Apple Macintosh computers. It, too, resembles an outline and, like GrandView, offers built-in word processing features. The newest version of the program, More II, takes advantage of the Mac's graphic tools by adding drawing features as well as the ability to turn your data into attractive charts and presentation slides.

Computer File welcomes readers' comments but regrets that the authors cannot respond individually to letters. Write to Lawrence J. Magid, 3235 Kifer Road, Suite 100, Santa Clara, Calif. 95051, or contact the L. Magid account on the MCI electronic mail system.

PERSONAL INFORMATION MANAGERS

Agenda

Features: A database program that allows users to enter information in any order, to add categories as needed and to view data in a variety of formats.

Requirements: An IBM PC or compatible computer; a hard disk with 640K of RAM; an MS-DOS 2.0 or higher operating system.

Publisher: Lotus Development Corp.; 55 Cambridge Parkway; Cambridge, Mass. 02142. Phone: (617) 577-8500. Suggested retail price: $399.

Grandview

Features: A sophisticated outline processor that serves as a personal information manager or database. Data is entered in a hierarchical outline format but can be reorganized into category groupings. Has a built-in word processor with spell checking. Allows users to filter data so that they see only the information they want.

Requirements: IBM-style personal computer; 256K of RAM; hard disk or two floppy drives.

Publisher: Symantec Corp., 10201 Torre Ave., Cupertino, Calif. 95014. Telephone: (408) 253-9600. Suggested retail price: $295.

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