Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Agenda - an influential program I never used seriously

There is one program that greatly influenced the way I think about personal information management and note-taking but that I never really used, and that is Agenda. It clearly also influenced Ecco and InfoHandler. Ecco's folders and views were clearly an attempt to implement some features of Agenda's automatic categories. And InfoHandler's "unique concept of categorizing information" has a similar precedent. Its master/slave categories replicate the hierarchy of categories at least to some extent. InfoHandler can even import Agenda files, and thus provides an obvious path from Agenda to a Windows application.

The Projects View:

A Note:

Another application that learned a lot from Agenda is Zoot. In fact, Jim Fallows, who wrote an article on Agenda in the Atlantic that is, at least in part, responsible for the continuing popularity of Agenda, also wrote an article about Zoot. (See the file section of the Zoot Forum. But, since Zoot is another application I never seriously employed, I will not say any more about it here. In any case, one might say that Agenda has influenced every serious contender in the note-taking application business since the early 1990s. While it is said the application "flopped," the latest release (2.0b) of 1992 is still being used by some.

Agenda is a freeform database program that is characterized by "items," "categories," and "views," where items are headings with freeform notes attached to them. Categories are used to classify different items into groups, and views are grids that allow you to see the items in different contexts. Category membership formed the basis for retrieving information. Since these categories could be arranged hierarchically as parents and children, any item that was assigned to a child category also became a member of the parent category. The notion of a "smart folder" was born. Thus "a 'When" category was included automatically so that if a date was embedded within the text, it was interpreted as a date and an assignment was made. For example, the item 'See Wendy on Tuesday 3pm' was automatically assigned to the following Tuesday at 3pm. If a category 'Wendy' had also been created then an assignment could also have been made as well." (See Lotus Agenda.)

The notion of dynamically assigning categories that allow one to sort the information automatically as it were is very appealing. Some people claim that the employment of categories as a fundamental construct for organizing and retrieving information is more powerful than and inherently superior to a hypertext-based model of information management, like that of a personal wiki. But I would argue that this is misleading, because there seems to me not the slightest contradiction or tension between organizing information by direct hypertextual links AND by way of categories (arranged hierarchically or non-hierarchically). It is possible to do both at the same time, and all of the better Wiki-application allow you to do both.

In ConnectedText, for instance, the basic structure of "items" (called "topics"), "categories" (called "categories"), and "views" (called "smart topics" and "category" topics) is preserved. While it does not automatically assign "See Wendy on Tuesday 3pm" to a date topic, there is nothing that prevents one from writing a script that would do this. In any case, if there is a smart topic that collects items containing "Wendy," it would do this even without a script.

In any case, one might say that Agenda formed an interesting step on the way toward my own solution of "the card file problem," even though all I ever did with it was to "play with it" - and, yes, it does have a place on the USB drive with the other "old applications."

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