Electronic Organizer Helps Sort It All Out

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Personal information managers - PIMs - are rookie software with great potential.

At their best, they answer a busy person's basic quandaries: ``What should I do? When should I do it?'' At their worst, PIMs mimic organizers, except that writing down each appointment means running to the computer.

Don't buy a PIM unless you're juggling half a dozen projects. Even then, consider an organizer. You will be amazed how much quicker it is to pick an address out of a book than to turn on a computer and call up a program. Says Charles Olsen, a computer consultant and longtime PIM user: ``I have friends who say: If you need a PIM, your life is too complicated.''

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OK, maybe your life is too complicated and prospects are exceedingly dim that anything will change soon. Then a lifesaver (even an electronic one) may be just the thing.

Most people seem to prefer low-end PIMs because they're easy to master. Lotus replaced its excellent but low-selling Agenda program with the much less powerful Organizer. Presumably, sales shot up. Arabesque, a small start-up company, decided it needed a simpler version of its hot PIM called Ecco Professional. It disabled some of the advanced functions and called the new program Ecco Simplicity.

This strategy makes no sense to me. To simplify software, you don't dumb-down its functions; you smarten up its interface. PIMs are still young, so maybe this will happen in time.

Longtime readers will recall I'm a big fan of Lotus's discontinued Agenda. It can ``understand'' text and automatically categorize it. But because of increasing problems running Agenda in Microsoft Windows, I began looking for a replacement last fall.

I tried the Lotus Organizer. It wasn't powerful enough. I dabbled with a powerful PIM called Commence, but it didn't click with me. Ecco Professional clicked. It is the best Windows-based PIM I've seen.

Ecco uses two powerful paradigms: outlines and folders. An item can have subitems, which can have other subitems, and so on. My contacts for this article are items. My notes of their interviews are their subitems. All these items are lumped into a folder called ``Column,'' just as though I had stuffed handwritten notes into a paper folder.

What makes Ecco better than paper is cross-referencing. If an interview covers more than one story, I can add the notes to a new story folder with the click of a mouse. If an interviewee wants a copy of the article, I click them into my ``Send Stories'' folder.

Ecco's calendar lets me set alarms for scheduled appointments and phone calls. It also has a nifty little device called a ``Shooter,'' which lets me transfer excerpts from my Ecco notes to my Windows word-processor. That's how all the quotes for this story got into the document. No retyping. No misquotes.

Ecco still has glitches. It's not good at printing and its filtering and sorting capabilities could be stronger. A new release is planned for later this year. Also, Ecco doesn't equal Agenda (which I still use to store random ideas). ``Until Ecco takes on the capacity Agenda has or some far-sighted business person buys the rights to the Agenda code ... I'm sticking to Agenda,'' says writer James Fallows, who devoted an article in The Atlantic to the PIM. But even he has begun using Ecco to outline his articles.

Computer experts, meanwhile, are raving about the product. ``I found my PIM,'' writes Steve Gibson, a well-known software developer and former Infoworld columnist.

Curiously, the success of PIMs may depend on hardware rather than software. Maybe everyone will want one someday if computers more powerful than today's desktops fit into the palms of our hands. Then, maybe people will dictate appointments to a smart machine rather than scratch them in a Day Runner.

* Send your comments on this column to CompuServe (70541,3654) or Prodigy (BXGN44A).

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