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Boswell: A Text Motel

Remember the Roach Motel? "Roaches check in, but they don't check out." Now Boswell, from Copernican Technologies, Inc., wants to do the same for your text documents. It's a text archiver; you put text snippets into it, and afterwards you access these snippets through lists that combine them in various ways, but you can never delete them, accidentally or otherwise.


Why is this program called "Boswell?" Copernican says it's because it's easier to spell than "Amanuensis" (one who takes dictation or copies manuscripts). But James Boswell, who wrote the celebrated Life of Samuel Johnson, perhaps one of the greatest biographies of all time, was no one's amanuensis; he was a traveller, man-about-town, essayist, lawyer, laird, and ardent lover of intellectual and artistic achievement in that most intellectual and artistic of times and places, 18th century England. Through his frank and vivid journal, he is also one of the few historical figures one feels one understands intimately. Both the biography and the journal testify to the virtues of keeping good notes; Boswell the program wants to help you do the same.

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Knowledge of the Second Kind -- "Knowledge is of two kinds: we know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it." - Samuel Johnson

Boswell creates a storage file on your hard disk, in 1 MB increments; into this file you will be placing snippets of text. A snippet can begin life within Boswell itself; you can type or paste text into the new snippet, and this text can be styled. Alternatively, you can import a text file, individually or by the folder.

Newly created or newly imported snippets reside in a kind of staging area. Here you can modify three fields: the body; the title; and a "comments" field. What you do at this point can be important, because later you'll be using keywords to search for snippets. The comments field is a particularly good place to enter these.

From the staging area, a snippet is placed into storage. At that point you are no longer able to edit it (although you can copy it, making a new editable snippet in the staging area). You also can't delete snippets from storage. There is no built-in way to browse the storage as a whole. Rather, you proceed to create lists of snippets.

These lists are just ways of viewing your data. A list may consist of any subset of your snippets, which can appear in any number of lists. Deleting a snippet from a list, or deleting an entire list, has no effect upon any snippets. But although they are just views, lists are not mere ephemera; they are the backbone of your work with Boswell. They persist until you explicitly delete them, and you are expected to give them useful names. At any time, you can see a list of all your lists, and open any of them. Clearly, the important question is: how does a snippet get into a list?

There are several ways. If you can see a snippet, a dialog lets you manage which lists should include it, or you can add it to one or more lists using drag & drop. A dialog lets you populate a list using search criteria. Also, you can associate certain keywords with certain lists and then tell Boswell to add a snippet automatically to any list that has any keywords contained in that snippet.

That's all there is to it. You make lists, and using them, you view your snippets. You can also copy and paste (or drag & drop) text from a snippet into another program; and you can export an entire list, meaning all the fields of all its snippets, as a single text file.

Paved with Good Intentions -- I disagree with the developers' assumptions and design decisions with regard to several aspects of Boswell:

  • Boswell stores only text. However, most of the documents in my life are not text; they're PDFs, Internet Explorer Web archives, or Word documents. Why can't Boswell store aliases, or entire documents? It might not be able to search them, but at least it could archive them and organize them through keywords and lists.

  • You can't delete a stored snippet. (In fact, you can't even delete an imported snippet from the staging area; it goes into storage eventually, willy nilly.) The developers seem to have a fixed idea that this is somehow one of Boswell's major attractions; their stubborn resistance to all efforts by the public to disabuse them of it has been most impressive. The trouble isn't just that your storage file keeps growing, but that it takes more work to avoid irrelevant material in a search. Other concerns that surfaced in TidBITS Talk include the worry of what happens if you accidentally feed Boswell a very large file, or what happens if some of the information in your Boswell file turns out to be highly sensitive.

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  • Keywords aren't really keywords. They aren't a feature attached to a snippet; they are just some of a snippet's text. For example, you can't distinguish "Adam" as a keyword from "Adam" as content, and a snippet containing "Adamant" would be seen as containing the keyword "Adam." Most important, this means that, since you can't edit a stored snippet, you can't set keywords for a stored snippet. Yet, while the snippet is still in the staging area, and editable, how can you be prescient enough to know what keywords you'll eventually want? Keyword decisions emerge from experience of usage and evolving needs, and you can get that experience only after storing the snippet, when it can't be modified.

  • You can't add fields. This makes effective searching difficult. Without fields, for example, you can't distinguish readily between messages that mention Adam and messages from Adam.

Here's a miscellany of further flaws. When importing a file, styling is lost. A snippet must be less then 32K characters; there's nothing wrong with that, but when you import a folder of files, long files are truncated, not split, and you are not told which ones. There is no way to learn all the keywords associated with a given list - a serious oversight. Automatic keyword-based addition of a snippet to lists is too automatic: you can't "lock" a list, and there's no intermediate confirmation dialog, so Boswell can easily clutter your existing lists. Search criteria aren't saved, so there's no telling how a list was derived, and no way to reconstruct it if it gets messed up.

Finally, Boswell's interface is fairly non-standard. That's no crime; personally, I love an original interface, and Boswell's is quite pleasant, with some interesting use of drag & drop. But Boswell ignores even some of the most basic Mac conventions, such as the notion that you select things, then act upon them all; so, for example, you can't select just certain snippets and give them a particular tag or add a certain keyword to their comments. That's unnecessarily frustrating and inconvenient. The manual intimates that Boswell's developers are well aware that this is an unusual design decision, and implies that they gave it some thought. Well then, as with so much else about this program, they thought a lot, but they thought wrong.

The Butt End -- To James Boswell we owe our knowledge of Oliver Goldsmith's assessment of Samuel Johnson: you couldn't argue with him, because "when his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt end of it." In the case of Boswell the program, the "butt end" that knocks you down is the manual. Much have I travelled in the realms of jargon, but I never before saw so much misappropriation of terminology crowded into one place: "journal", "archive", "notebook", "entry", "library", "fluid", "frozen", "browser", "hub", "zip", "zap", "zip-zap", and more. It's all quite mind-numbing, rather unbelievable, and thoroughly unnecessary, since Boswell is a very simple program.

TidBITS readers know that I'm hugely sympathetic to, and practically obsessed with, information storage and retrieval utilities. And as a way of organizing data, Boswell's persistent lists are a brilliant and exciting device. Yet I can't quite envision what I'd use Boswell for. I wouldn't import my Eudora mail messages into it because Eudora itself is better at searching archived messages. I wouldn't use it as a contact or bibliography manager because it lacks fields. I wouldn't use it as a writing tool because snippets are unordered. I can imagine using Boswell to get a grip on miscellaneous notes, but I feel put off by the inability to delete - I wish I could use it to organize without also being forced to archive. On the whole, I still prefer a true database such as Helix, an outliner such as MORE, a field-based outliner such as IN Control or Web Arranger, a dedicated snippet organizer such as Idea Keeper, or even just good old HyperCard (doesn't anyone remember Mark Zimmerman's FreeText?). Still, if what it does is what you want done, Boswell has the inviting virtues of ease and simplicity; you'll have to decide for yourself whether the price tag cancels the invitation.


Boswell costs $130, and requires a PowerPC-based Macintosh running System 7.1.1 or higher. A demo is available as a 1.6 MB download.



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