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Curing Clutter with Curio

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The world is not a tidy place. That's why I'm constantly discovering new and interesting ways to store and retrieve information on my computer. Typically, those ways involve imposing order through hierarchical arrangement, or retrieval through sophisticated searching: I'm drawn to outlines, databases, keywords, indexes. This approach, however, doesn't work for everything or for everybody. The mind, after all, is not a tidy place either. Perhaps there is no hierarchy to impose, no keywords to assign, nothing clear to search for. Perhaps you just need to make it up as you go along. Perhaps all you have, and all you need, is a vague mental picture of what you've got and how it goes together. Perhaps there is just the cloudy soup of stuff in your mind (ideas and purposes) and stuff on your computer (documents and URLs).

Curio, from Zengobi, wants to help you slice through the soup, not with left-brained devices such as outlines, databases, and keywords, but with a more right-brained device - pictures. The program describes itself as an "idea development environment," but it could lend itself to all sorts of uses. I'll quickly describe the interface, and then proceed to an assessment of Curio's peculiar strengths.


Cover Your Assets -- A Curio document consists of one or more pages, called "idea spaces." An idea space is rather like a simple drawing document; you might think of it as a whiteboard, or perhaps as a surface you're going to stick Colorforms onto. The objects you can stick onto this surface are called "figures." A figure can be a line (possibly with an arrow), a geometric shape, or a block of text; actually, the latter two are the same, since text can appear inside a geometric shape. Figures can be resized and rotated; multiple figures can be aligned and grouped. A figure can have a checkbox; it can be marked with a "flag" (a little icon such as a question mark); it can be assigned a "rating" (a number of stars from zero to five). You can also scribble on top of everything.

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A figure can also represent an "asset." This is where things start to get interesting. An asset is a document on your hard disk; double-click the figure in Curio, and the document opens in whatever application owns it. Or, an asset can be a URL; double-click it in Curio, and it opens in your Web browser. If an asset is something with a ready preview, like an image file, that preview appears as its Curio representation; otherwise, you might just see a document icon and a title. In fact, if you drag an image from your browser into a Curio document, the image is shown as a preview and you can double-click it to go to the Web page it came from.

A Curio document is thus not just a bunch of drawings; it's a bunch of drawings whose objects can refer to the outside world. Indeed, they can refer to the inside world instead: a Curio document is a package, and an asset can be copied to live inside it, where it remains viewable and editable by the program that created it. What's more, a single asset can be represented by as many figures as you like; in other words, a document on your hard disk can appear in several places at once within a Curio document.

So now you see how Curio can bring creative clarity to chaos. Given fifty documents on your hard disk, a single Curio document can make them available in various combinations within multiple idea spaces, accompanied by text, pictures, URLs, and scribbles.

Analysis and Synthesis -- Curio proudly boasts a second-place finish in O'Reilly's 2004 Mac OS X Innovators contest. Yet, if one takes a deliberately critical view and scrutinizes Curio closely, one may start to wonder what the fuss is all about. After all, lots of snippet keepers and organizers that I've reviewed can store links to files on disk (iData 2, Tinderbox, and TAO, for instance), and several can optionally store files inside their own documents (NoteTaker and DEVONthink). Furthermore, looking at any other individual aspect of Curio, it's hard to avoid concluding that the implementation is relatively half-baked: Curio doesn't do any one thing as well as some other program does it. Had the O'Reilly folks, one wonders, ever seen a full-fledged outliner, mind-mapper, diagrammer, or asset manager?


For example, idea spaces in Curio can be arranged hierarchically; and within an idea space, figures can be combined within special figures called "lists" that display a hierarchical arrangement. But Curio can in no sense be used as a real outliner; it lacks anything like the hierarchic organizational and navigational power of a TAO or a NoteTaker.

Curio's drawing abilities are cute, but you couldn't use them to do any serious drawing. It's nice to be able to draw shapes and arrows, but the arrow endpoints don't magically stay attached to the shapes, so you can't create true diagrams as in ConceptDraw or OmniGraffle, nor can you generate and connect ideas efficiently as in a dedicated mind-mapping program like Pyramid or even Inspiration.

Curio has a search feature, but it simply searches on text blocks you've created and notes you've attached to assets; it can't search inside the content of the assets - it can't even search on whether or not something is checked or has a certain flag. And its idea of displaying what you've found is not to collect the results, but simply to dim what wasn't found - you still have to go scrolling by eye through all your idea spaces looking for the found figures. Contrast this with the powerful keywording and indexing of Tinderbox or DEVONthink, or the searching of NoteTaker or TAO.

A figure can be a "jump target," meaning that double-clicking an arrow image in one idea space reveals that figure in a different idea space. But this doesn't work between Curio documents, and is a far cry from true hyperlinks as in Tinderbox or NoteTaker.

Curio provides a Web-searching tool called "Sleuth," but it's merely a preconfigured front end to existing search engines and other sites. It doesn't search more than one engine at once or provide a compact interface, like Sherlock, nor does it collect your results for you, like DEVONagent. In fact, it really isn't a search tool at all; it's just a Web browser, offering no tangible advantage over using a real Web browser. Plus, there are no Services for instantly plopping a document or a Web page into Curio without leaving the Finder or your browser; contrast NoteTaker and DEVONthink.

TAO: <>
Pyramid: <>
iData: <>
DEVONthink: <>
NoteTaker: <>
Tinderbox: <>
ConceptDraw: <>
Inspiration: <>

If, on the other hand, you keep your attention on the notion of Curio managing and presenting your assets, some of these reservations may fall away. Curio, after all, doesn't need to be a super drawing tool, because if you want to include a super drawing in your Curio document, you can - and you can edit it with some super drawing application. It doesn't need to be a great word processor or a great outliner, either, because you can embed a word processing or outlining document from some other application inside a Curio document. In fact, you can create a new document of any kind from within a Curio document: hand Curio an empty document once, and you can then duplicate that as an embedded asset and represent it in an idea space, ready for editing, in a single move.

To appreciate Curio's strengths, therefore, concentrate on assets that you have, or you are thinking of collecting or creating - pictures, URLs, PDFs, spreadsheets, Word files, documents of any kind. Imagine presenting those assets arranged on whiteboards, and imagine those whiteboards clumped together in a single document. You might present them to yourself as a way of simply organizing them; you might use Curio for its intended purpose of "idea development," collecting and presenting the assets as part of some research or brainstorming project. You can also present them to others; Curio has amazingly good HTML export (with assets accessible through file protocol URLs), and you can export the whiteboard appearance of your idea spaces as PDFs or image files.

Conclusions -- If you can imagine slicing through the soup of chaos - the chaos of your hard disk or the chaos of your mind - with a few bright, simple drawings, then Curio beckons like a lighthouse in the darkness. The program costs $130, which seems a bit high given the inchoate nature of its feature set (I was honestly expecting something more in the realm of $30), but potential users can decide for themselves, because a 30-day demo is available as a 5.6 MB download. Curio comes with decent online help, and is accompanied by a tutorial which, while useful, sometimes reads startlingly like one of AltaVista's Babel Fish translations ("Get on the good foot with Dossiers!"). It requires Mac OS X 10.2.8 or above.


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