Column: search software

Loose Wire — Organize Me: Give us some software that really makes the information age meaningful

 
By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 3 April 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Every time I visit a computer shop I get nostalgic for the dotcom boom. In those days people with money were throwing their cash at people with ideas, however silly, with interesting results. Sure, most of the ideas were so dumb they never saw the harsh light of day — or the harsh light of a business model — but at least some new stuff was appearing.

As I gaze over the software shelves nowadays, empty but for yet another minor update of word processors or system utilities and (admittedly rather cool) games, I wonder: What happened to software innovation? Where are all those great promises of what we could do with our computer beyond using it as a glorified typewriter or calculator?

Sure, folks can now do some interesting stuff with video, pictures and music, but is that what the information revolution was all about? I’ve got a tonne of stuff on my computer — letters, novels, memos, Chairman Mao-type thoughts, mortgage calculations — but what good is it if it just sits there, hidden behind arcane file names I’ll never remember, even under threat of torture? I fear the information revolution — at least on a personal level — has come and gone.

This is all very disappointing. I’d love to see our data made accessible for all sorts of imaginative things that make use of the power of our PCs. A program, say, that goes through all your e-mails and tells you, based on some fancy algorithm, how many Christmas cards you should send this year and to whom. A program that looks at your finances and, while you’re shopping for furniture, works out whether you need a second mortgage and finds the best one for you.

OK, I’m getting ahead of myself here. That we still can find something more easily on the Internet — or in the attic — than we can on our computer is a depressing reminder of how far we have to go. Indeed, in 1999 a small California start-up called Enfish produced the most revolutionary piece of software I’d seen in years — a search program called Tracker that allowed you to search rapidly and easily through everything on your computer. It was magical in its simplicity, elegant in its design, and suddenly made having a hard disk full of all your stuff a sensible idea.

If you could check in a flash what and when you last wrote to Aunt Edith, all the previous litigious letters to your tenants, the last time your country declared war on another country, life really suddenly could get a lot easier. The index would update itself while you were asleep, so you didn’t have to do anything beyond installing it. You could save complex searches with simple names, so that you could exclude letters about Aunt Edith from nosy Cousin Connie, or include only those that referred to her pet poodle Alfie but not to Phoebe the cat. It was fab. And as with all things fab, it didn’t last (the software, not the cat).

Well, that’s not strictly true. Enfish is still going, doing its best to convince a sceptical public that this kind of thing is actually useful. But in the meantime their subsequent software has never approached the quality of Tracker, which sadly won’t work with Microsoft’s most recent version of Windows XP, and that effectively renders it useless. But at least Enfish is hanging in there: Version six of its software ($100 for the basic product, from www.enfish.com) is released this week and to me it’s the closest the company has got to its old Tracker.

I can only guess why such a great idea hasn’t caught on. There’s no great learning curve involved: Once you’ve explained to users that Enfish is essentially a Google search engine for your computer, there’s not much more to say. Sadly Enfish is not yet a household word. But Enfish does have competition, and perhaps they’ll be more lucky.

One is the Australian company 80-20 Software, which has this month released version 3.0 of its 80-20 Retriever software ($50 from www.80-20.com). While previous versions of 80-20 Retriever will do pretty much what Enfish does — index your documents, e-mails and whatnot, let you search quickly through them — only this version lets you view the documents without having to launch the program you created them in (say, launching Microsoft Word to view a Word document). This is a vital feature, since you can quickly scroll through documents retrieved by your search, all in one place.

In fact, Retriever does a fine job but falls down, in my view, by trying too hard to integrate itself into Outlook, Microsoft’s calendar, contact and e-mail behemoth. My advice to 80-20: You’re nearly there, but drop the Outlook interface and just be yourself. It should be a stand-alone program.

Both are worth trying (Enfish Find and 80-20 Retriever can be downloaded and used for a month free). For the heavy lifters, I’d recommend dtSearch Desktop. Although a pricey $200 from dtSearch (www.dtsearch.com), this is a super-fast, super-reliable program that tells you a lot about what’s on your computer. By launching your search from a viewable index of words, you can see how many misspelled words you are missing in normal searches. The interface isn’t particularly friendly, but it’s a workhorse for the serious searcher. Now if only it could help me on my Christmas-card list.

Column: the io pen

Loose Wire — The Pen Is Mightier Than The Computer, Too: Check out the io Personal Digital Pen: It’s a pen that can store everything you write and transfer it to your computer; And you don’t have to lug a hand-held device along with you for it to work

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 27 March 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
This is not the first time I’ve reviewed something that tries to marry your doodling to your computer. Most have been shotgun affairs — forced unions that fail to take into account that you might be away from your computer, or that you don’t swagger about with the iron biceps necessary to lug it around with you. This product, however, makes neither of those assumptions, which is why it’s a gadget I’m actually using. It’s called a pen.

Well, to be exact it’s an io Personal Digital Pen from Logitech. But it really does look and feel like a pen. It writes like a pen, with real ink, on real paper. But it also stores everything you write, and will transfer it all to your computer when you return it to its cradle. I have to say it’s pretty neat, and may mark the beginning of Something Useful.

The nub of it all is a simple problem: Despite typing, despite software that interprets your scrawl on a hand-held organizer, despite Microsoft’s Tablet PC [http://www.microsoft.com/tabletpc], there remains a disconnect between scribbles on a notepad and the computer. I’ve reviewed Seiko Instruments’ SmartPad and InkLink products [http://www.siibusinessproducts.com/], which do a good job of letting you store drawings digitally, but both require some sort of computer, whether it’s a laptop or a hand-held device, which limits what you can do with them.

The io Pen

The technology behind the io pen comes from a Swedish company called Anoto AB. It’s been promising for some time to launch a pen that remembers what you write, but Logitech is the first to bring something to market. [Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications offers a similar looking product called a ChatPen, which also uses Anoto’s technology, but it’s geared to transferring your jottings to the world via hand-phone, rather than your computer.]

Anoto’s technology works like this: The pen writes normally, using normal ballpoint pen ink. But while you’re writing, a tiny camera inside the pen is also taking 100 snapshots per second of what you’re doing, mapping your writing via a patchwork of minute dots printed on the paper. All this information — the movement of your pen on the paper, basically — is then stored digitally inside the pen, whether you’re writing longhand, scribbling notes or drawing complex diagrams. You can store up to 40 pages worth of doodles in the pen’s memory. As far as you’re concerned, you’re just using a normal pen.

It’s only when you drop the pen into its PC-connected cradle that the fun begins. Special software on your PC will figure out what you’ve done, and begin to download any documents you’ve written since the last time it was there. Depending on whether you’ve ticked certain boxes on the special notepad, it can also tell whether the document is destined to be an e-mail, a “to do” task, or a diagram to be inserted into a word-processing document. Once the documents are downloaded you can view them as thumbnails, print them out or convert them to other formats.

It’s a neat and simple solution to the problem of storing, sharing and retrieving handwritten notes, as well as for handling diagrams, pictures and other nontext doodling. Unlike the Tablet PC you don’t have to carry around a laptop; unlike the Seiko InkLink and SmartPad, you don’t have to carry around a hand-held organizer or other device. Just whip out the pen and the special paper and you’re off.

Of course, there are downsides. Those of you hoping to see your spidery writing automatically converted to digital text are going to be disappointed: The best the io pen can manage is to offer a slimmed down handwriting recognition which, with some training, can convert letters entered into special boxes into text for e-mail addresses, document names, etc. [This doesn’t work terribly well, and to me isn’t a selling point.] Others might find the pen a tad bulky: It looks more like a cigar than a pen, though it fits snugly into the hand. It’s also pricey: around $200 for the pen, a pad, and some refills, but expect to pay up to $25 for replacement sets of pads.

I think it’s a great product because it doesn’t try to fix something that’s not broken: It doesn’t force you to work differently — walking around with a screen strapped to your arm, or carting along extra bits and pieces. The pen is light and works like a normal pen if you need it to, while the special notepads look and feel like, well, notepads. The only strange looks will be from people who are curious why you’re writing with a cigar.

It also has potential elsewhere. FedEx, for example, is introducing a version of the pen so that customers can fill out forms by hand — instead of punching letters into cumbersome devices. Once that data is digital more or less anything can be done with it — transferring it wirelessly to a central computer, for example, or via a hand-phone. Doctors could transmit their prescriptions direct to pharmacies, reducing fraud; policemen could send their reports back to the station, reducing paperwork; lunchtime brainstorming sessions could easily be shared with the folks back in the office. It’s not that we can’t do all this right now, of course, but given that most people seem happier with a pen and paper than with a hand-held device, I think Anoto’s technology and Logitech’s pen are a realistic marriage of convenience. Have a cigar, boys.

Column: SimCity 4

Loose Wire — Calling All Control Freaks: Crave power? Get a taste of it in the newest version of PC game SimCity; In it, you build and govern your own city, then fill it with characters that you’ve created

 
By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 20 March 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Eighteen years ago a guy called Will Wright was trying to peddle a computer game called SimCity to the big boys. Their response was, “Who wants to play a game where you just build a city, and then run it?” Now SimCity is into its fourth incarnation (SimCity 4, $50 from www.ea.com) and is pre-eminent among PC games. It turns out folk did like building stuff rather than blowing it up.

In some ways SimCity hasn’t changed that much in the intervening years. You’re still the mayor of a town that’s starting from scratch, you still zone land for residential, commercial and industrial use, and you still hope that enough citizens — Sims — move in to provide enough of a tax base to fund your grand urban-design fantasies. Under the hood, artificial intelligence is still computing all the factors of life to determine whether those Sims come, how they get to work and whether they are next going to clamour for a mall, a park or an airport. What’s changed is computing: Now computers are so powerful that the makers of SimCity can make the simulations — and the artificial intelligence — so detailed that you’re no longer seeing a few dots represent traffic, but real cars, with people inside them, all driving badly.

SimCity is something of a legend among gamers. At first it was hard to imagine it appealing to anyone other than town planners. Indeed, the early manuals came packed with academic treatises on the art of city building, not the sort of thing that your shoot-’em-up brigade was likely to digest prior to an evening’s PC mayhem. Against all odds, SimCity was a hit, and remained one, as the humble graphics — everything was viewed from above, in two-dimension — gave way to the isometric version used in most computer games nowadays. SimCity 4 has added God-like powers of forming terrain, from deep oceans to volcanoes, while also extending your powers to a region, whether it’s a patchwork of dormitory towns supporting a metropolis, or separate cities linked by rail, road and garbage-disposal deals. As mayor, it’s your job to figure all this out and make it work. SimCity doesn’t sound like the sort of thing you want to spend your free time doing, but trust me, it’s very addictive.

That’s not to say SimCity 4 is perfect. For one thing, it requires a well-powered PC to run — don’t even think of running it on anything less than a 1-gigahertz PC with plenty of memory. Maxis, the maker of SimCity, has been swallowed by the computer-games giant Electronic Arts (www.ea.com). My copy didn’t work until I downloaded an “update” from EA for minor fixes, such as ensuring freight trains drop their cargo at ports and fixing a bug where industrial zones would develop without any roads in and out. Even then my cities have been unstable, tending to crash if I put too many water pipes in. Were my cities not all such appalling examples of urban sprawl and unchecked pollution, I might have been more upset about having to keep starting over. Another grumble: Will Wright’s name is not on the credits, and I have a suspicion he’s transferred his affections to The Sims and The Sims Online games, which he also developed.

SimCity came first, but it made sense that folk who enjoy directing the lives of millions might also get a kick out of micromanaging the lives of one or two. That’s what The Sims was, while The Sims Online allowed you to take your creation onto the Internet and commune with other micromanagees. SimCity 4 has wedded part of this by allowing you to move Sims you created in either game into a building in the city you’ve created and govern: Watching your Sims driving their clapped-out Beetle to work along the streets you have laid, past a monument to yourself, to the smog-covered industrial heartland you zoned is an experience to warm any closet megalomaniac’s heart.

SimCity 4’s strength is its amazing attention to detail. Build a zoo and if you’re lucky you’ll see wild animals visiting their caged cousins after nightfall. Build an advanced research centre and you’re likely to see fireworks emanating from the building before crashing into nearby high-rises. Demolish a bridge and a blue bus will appear, suspended cartoon-style in mid-air before splashing into the river below; dynamite a church and its resident spirit will float heavenwards. Look out for the town drunk wandering by, or the mayor’s stretch limo, which glides down side streets at night: Either the mayor’s a kerb crawler or he takes his duties pretty seriously.

This is all great to watch, but SimCity 4 isn’t the quantum leap many enthusiasts hoped for. Just as with the first game, you’re best advised to ignore all your high-minded ideals about pollution and open spaces and get the place running with a combination of heavy industry and trailer parks. Don’t even think about educating your Sims, let alone giving them running water or a fire station, until you’ve got a population of 10,000 and a decent income. Of course, by then, you’ll have probably forgotten all your ideals and be demanding a limo, a mansion and the odd statue.

Among other gripes, I’d have liked more options for focused management where, as mayor, you could give your attention to traffic problems or waste management by delegating other tasks. As mayor in SimCity, it seems, you’re still putting out too many literal or figurative fires to stand back and be a visionary. A bit like being a real mayor, I guess. Right down to the stretch limo.