What’s in your digital shoebox? You know, the place where you stash those pesky snippets of pure text, be they a few words or many paragraphs, snippets that you know you’ll need later but you just can’t categorize. A database would be overkill; an outliner’s hierarchy would be useless. So you just toss them into a virtual pile, a deliberate mass of miscellaneous clutter – a digital shoebox.
Here’s some of what’s in mine: Tips on what certain Mac OS X keyboard commands do; some Unix phrases I need to utter in the Terminal now and then; someone’s opinion of what router to buy, copied from a Usenet newsgroup; directions to my house, fit for emailing to visitors; the URL of something I’m selling on eBay; and my vacuum cleaner model number. How miscellaneous can you get? Yet I can lay my hands on any of them instantly.
Now, I am, as you know, hopelessly obsessed with storage and retrieval of information. I like hierarchies, hyperlinks, keywords, and categories. A digital shoebox is the opposite of all those things! Nevertheless, there are times when simpler is better; and the excellence of a true digital shoebox is to be really, really simple. In fact, there seem to be just two main requirements for good shoebox-hood: a very plain interface and a very fast Find.
My digital shoebox is currently iData Pro, from Casady & Greene. This program has a venerable lineage, having appeared under such previous names as InfoGenie and QuickDex. How venerable? Well, QuickDex was a desk accessory, if you remember what those were, and my research trail, which shows that it had a vociferous cult following, turned up the fact that it was first released in 1987. Let’s just say that iData Pro is a Mac OS X incarnation of a very old favorite.
The main reason iData Pro meets the requirements for shoebox excellence is that its files are just text, nothing more. One font, size, and style apply to each file when it displays. The only unusual feature of the file is the ASCII 06 control character used to separate entries. If iData Pro went on the fritz tomorrow, all my data would still be sitting there, plain as day, perfectly legible in BBEdit or Microsoft Word. And when a file opens, the whole thing loads into memory, so searching for specific text is extremely fast.
Free-form Files — iData Pro can make two kinds of files; you specify which you want when you create a file. The first, and most shoebox-like, is the free-form file. What you see when you look at a free-form file is the text of one entry, and that’s all – the entry has no title, no keywords, no identifying marks of any kind other than its content. There is also a Find field at the top of the window. The entry content area is a decent text editor. Keyboard navigation and selection, and drag & drop, all work as expected. Option-Tab jumps between the Find field and the entry content area.
In this window, you can add a new entry, or delete the current entry. You can navigate to the next or previous entry, or the first or last entry; but mostly you won’t do that except to get an overall sense of what’s in the file. Instead you’ll navigate by finding: In the Find field, you’ll type a word and hit Return to jump to its next occurrence in the file, in the same or another entry. One is reminded (and I’m not the first to make this comparison) of navigation and finding in HyperCard.
That’s basically all there is to it. You add an entry, enter some text, and return to it later by remembering some word within that text. In practice you’ll probably use your knowledge of your own mental processes to make sure the text contains words you’re likely to think of when seeking it later. For example, when I pasted in the opinion about a good router, I deliberately typed "opinion about good router" at the start of the entry, because the word "router," which I would expect to search on later, didn’t occur in the pasted material.
The fact that you see just one entry at a time, by the way, is not generally problematic. You can open a second (read-only) copy of a file, letting you see two entries at once. Also, instead of finding successively, you can winnow the set of currently available entries (called "selecting"); subsequent selecting can be from the currently selected set of entries or from its inverse. Thus, one way or another, you’ll have a pretty good sense of what’s in a file, and you can narrow in on the entry or entries you’re looking for quickly and easily.
Field-Based File — A field-based file looks a little different from a free-form file: every entry consists of several named fields. When you create a field-based file, you declare these field names. (Don’t worry; the names and order of the fields can be changed later, fields can be added and removed, and so forth.) There is thus some superficial similarity to a flat file database, but this similarity really is superficial, since ultimately there’s no difference between iData Pro’s two file types. The difference lies in how you’re shown the text of the file; in a field-based file, each paragraph is portrayed as a separate field. Thus, no field can consist of multiple paragraphs except the last one.
How does a field-based file’s window, and what you can do there, differ from a free-form file? First of all, the field names appear down the left side of the window. You can tab from field to field, entering or modifying text. Also, you can switch the window to a "list view," a grid of cells with each row representing one entry and each column representing one field; you can specify that certain fields shouldn’t appear in list view. You can do a Find or Select that looks in just one particular field. And you can sort on one or two fields; you can sort a free-form file too, but less powerfully, and you’re less likely to want to. (Actually, even in a free-form file, if entries have a consistent structure, you can use that structure to some extent when sorting and selecting.)
What are some candidates for a field-based file? An address book (last name, first name, address, address line 2, phone number, and so on) is an obvious example. The first field-based file I actually made was a holiday gift list; the fields were the person, the gift, whether I’d bought it yet, whether I’d sent it yet, and a notes field (a common use for the last field, because it can have multiple paragraphs). It would have been possible to use a more powerful program for this purpose – a database, or a spreadsheet – but for something so basic, iData Pro’s simplicity was perfect.
Other Features — If all your files live in the same place, they all appear in a special menu (the Datafiles menu), from which you can open any of them. Files thus become a level of categorization within the total mass of your data. Also, particular files can be set to open automatically whenever you start up iData Pro, so that your most commonly needed data is always accessible.
You can export and import data. Mostly you’ll use tab-delimited format, but iData Pro also knows about the format of some common email programs and can import entire mailboxes. Also, iData Pro has a built-in notion of extracting an address, so that if you have, say, a field-based address book file, you can dictate how to assemble the various fields to make an address. Even more important, iData Pro is scriptable, so this behavior, as well as other tasks, can be even more precisely customized.
iData Pro can dial a selected phone number, through your modem, in various ways that you can configure; indeed, the program turns out to be extraordinarily good at this. You can print labels and envelopes, using templates that you can configure. Email addresses and Web URLs can be live links, so that clicking them creates an email message or goes to a Web page in your preferred helper application. There’s also hot-syncing to your PDA, but I don’t have a Palm to test this.
Conclusions — iData Pro does have some irksome shortcomings, having mostly to do with how it has been ported to Mac OS X. For example, its windows don’t respond to my mouse’s scroll wheel, making it just about my only remaining program with this problem. Also, iData Pro’s notion of text is unnecessarily primitive; it knows nothing whatever of the rich Unicode world that surrounds it, and can’t access more than the first 230-odd characters of whatever font is used to display a file. To rewrite so simple a program in Cocoa, as a true Mac OS X native application, wouldn’t be difficult, and I hope that Casady & Greene will eventually do so. At least the program is actively supported; there’s a good bulletin board hosted at the developer’s site, and bug fix releases appear quite regularly.
iData Pro costs $40, with competitive upgrades from various other organizer and database programs for $30. A free demo version is available for download.
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