Computers are marvelous at storage and retrieval of information, so why are some things so hard to keep track of? You probably know where you put the draft of your novel, or that letter to your congressman. I’m talking here about bits of information, like the list of things to do before your kid’s birthday party, the patentable idea you thought of last week, or the questions you plan to ask your boss at tomorrow’s meeting. You may have hundreds, even thousands of miscellaneous "snippets" or "nuggets" like this; what you need is a virtual shoe box into which to toss them as they arise, and somehow retrieve them later in an orderly fashion.
As a fan of computer-based organizational devices, I’m often asked to recommend a "snippet keeper" of this sort. When the question arose recently on TidBITS Talk, a clamor of recommendations resulted, showing how great the need is. Apart from the obvious outliners and databases such as I’ve discussed here in the past, people use a vast range of solutions: text-based low-tech utilities, dedicated snippet organizers, and even programs intended for something else, such as email. My own current favorite is Idea Keeper, by Glenn Berntson of Plum Island Software.
What It Is — Idea Keeper rests upon a brilliantly simple framework. The basis of organization is a folder on your hard disk; you can have many such folders, and you can easily switch among them, but only one can be open in Idea Keeper at any moment. The current folder’s contents are displayed in Idea Keeper’s Organizer Window as a two-level list: a column of "topics" and a column showing the "ideas" within the currently selected topic. Double-click an idea listing, and you see a word-processing window corresponding to it. Thus, your granular data (your snippets) consist of individual text windows; the three-level hierarchy of folder, topic, and idea which categorizes them; this organization is sufficient to give every snippet a meaningful place, but shallow enough to ensure convenience.
What You Can Store — Ideas are text windows. But mere text isn’t the only thing these windows can contain. You can style the text, and you can also save common style settings such as "Palatino 12 blue underlined" as templates that you can instantly apply to any text. For each paragraph, you can adjust line spacing, margins, indent, and alignment, and these settings can be saved as templates too. The text can contain inline pictures, and even sounds (indicated by an icon that you click to play the sound).
An idea can contain checkboxes, which you click to toggle their state; and you can have "alarm objects" that cause an alert to appear at a given date and time if Idea Keeper is running. Thus, a text window can become a to-do list, possibly with live reminders.
An idea can contain Web, FTP, and mail URLs; clicking one does the expected thing in the expected helper program (as determined by your Internet Config settings), so Idea Keeper can work as a bookmark program as well.
An idea can contain file references (aliases): click the reference to open the file from the Finder. Thus, Idea Keeper can help organize files on disk, and (more important) it needn’t store something internally in order to contain it – a PDF, or a QuickTime movie file, can be a snippet, because an idea can hold a live reference to that file.
Finally, you can display any idea window as an outline. Idea Keeper’s notion of outlining is rather primitive, reminding me of the rhinoceros depicted by Dürer, who has obviously never seen a real one (for example, reorganizing is clumsy and navigation is nonexistent); but it’s improving and adds a valuable further level of hierarchical organization for the text, to-do items, URLs, or file references that the idea may contain.
How You Can Store It — Even the most capacious shoe box is useless if you can’t find it, or if you can’t get the lid off. Fortunately, you can enter information into Idea Keeper easily, and in many different ways.
Obviously, if an idea is open, you can type into it, or copy from another application, switch to Idea Keeper, and paste. Also, working within Idea Keeper, you can import a text file as an idea, or all the text files in a folder (each becomes an idea); you can also copy an entire topic from one folder into another. Idea Keeper can import Palm Database files as ideas, or as topics broken up into ideas according to their bookmarks. Pictures can be imported with automatic format conversion via QuickTime.
But you don’t have to switch to Idea Keeper to move information into it; as long as Idea Keeper is running, a key-combination lets you grab the clipboard contents, or you can drag or paste into a tiny floating palette, without leaving the application in which you’re working. Idea Keeper captures the material as a new idea. A dialog can appear asking what topic of the current folder to put the idea in, or you can just have the idea go into Idea Keeper’s Clippings Window, a sort of global topic belonging to no folder – the point being that you can move the clippings window’s ideas into actual topics later.
When text arrives into Idea Keeper, you may want some extra munging performed. You can strip extra spaces, extra return characters, linefeed characters, and email quote characters; Idea Keeper can perform any of these transformations automatically as the text arrives, or you can invoke them later to operate on selected text within an idea. Also, Idea Keeper can convert URLs to URL objects as the text arrives; this simplifies importing a browser bookmark file, or the results of a Sherlock search, as a series of live URLs.
How You Can Retrieve It — Once material is in your shoe box, you obviously want to be able to get it back out again. If you’re fairly conscientious in your organization, the folder/topic/idea hierarchy may well lead you directly to the desired snippet. But Idea Keeper also provides several ways of cutting through this hierarchy.
First, you can maintain a set of keywords, and apply one or more of them to any idea. Unfortunately, the entire keyword mechanism is disappointingly primitive: keywords are global, not specific to each folder; they are applied or inspected through a pop-up menu, which is a dreadful interface; and you can’t do a boolean search – you can open those ideas to which some one keyword is applied, and that’s all. Still, it’s better than nothing.
Second, you can do a text search. You can either do a successive find or a global search; the latter displays a single window listing all ideas and objects (such as URLs) whose text matches your search. Unfortunately, there is no whole-word matching, so the results usually include a lot of undesired matches.
Finally, there’s hypertext. This is one of Idea Keeper’s best features. Within Idea 1, to make a link to Idea 2, drag Idea 2’s listing from the organizer window into Idea 1. Or, to make a link to a specific locus within Idea 2, create an "anchor" at that point, and drag the anchor into Idea 1. Now you have a link in Idea 1 which, when clicked, jumps you to Idea 2. Furthermore, there is a "Back" command, so you can navigate via links and return, as in a Web browser. Thus, Idea Keeper encourages hypertextual organization and navigation. Unfortunately, these links work only within a folder. There is a device for linking between ideas in different folders: you can export an idea to the Finder as an alias file which you later drag into another idea. The result behaves like an idea link, but is actually a file link, and will break if the alias file is lost.
To share your snippets with others, you can export an idea as a text file, or a topic as a folder of text files, or multiple ideas as a single text file. For example, I wrote this review in Idea Keeper, then exported the whole folder as a single text file and opened it with Nisus Writer for final editing. (Unfortunately, some information was needlessly lost in this process; in particular, I had to go back and copy across the URLs individually.) Also, ideas or entire topics can be exported as Doc-formatted Palm files.
You can also export a document as a stand-alone application. What results is a folder of ideas embedded into a sort of read-only version of Idea Keeper; navigation by topic and by idea still works, as do hyperlinks and URLs. Thus, Idea Keeper becomes a tool for creating online documentation, rather like DOCMaker.
Finally, Idea Keeper is sufficiently scriptable that Apple events can query it and extract the text of ideas. This might be useful, for example, as a way to move Idea Keeper data directly into HyperCard or FileMaker while preserving the topic/idea structure.
Worth Trying — Idea Keeper is a tremendously original program – so original that its unusual interface and non-standard behavior may create a bad initial impression. My advice: persist! Interface and behavior can be heavily customized to suit your expectations and needs, and after you’ve used Idea Keeper for a while, and have absorbed its paradigm and its quirks, you may come to see it, as I do, as proof that the Macintosh interface, so far from being exhausted, is capable of something new, refreshing, and powerful.
There are many aspects of this originality that I haven’t even touched on in this review. There are brilliant toolbars, ingenious dialogs, extensive use of drag & drop, and immense online help (in the form of two Idea Keeper folders). This is a program that reflects deep concern for the needs of the user, and deep thought as to how best to meet them.
That’s not to say that Idea Keeper is perfect. It is clearly the work of an amateur – a gifted, dedicated amateur, but an amateur nonetheless. In the course of preparing this review, I experienced crashes, freezes, and numerous interface misbehaviors. However, Glenn Berntson is extremely responsive and was quick to fix problems as I reported them. Indeed, it is partly for this reason that I suggest you try Idea Keeper: the more users it finds, the more testing it receives, the more suggestions are sent to its author, the better it will become. But of course the main reason I recommend Idea Keeper is that you just might like it enough to make it your snippet keeper. I certainly do.
Idea Keeper is a 2.6 MB download and requires 7 MB for installation; it prefers 12 MB of RAM. The program costs $30 shareware; the download is not disabled in any way.