Sunday, September 4, 2011

Lotus Agenda and ConnectedText, II

Let's look at the "moving parts" of Agenda and ConnectedText and compare them. I will ignore such things as the ability to handle pictures, videos and other non-textual objects. I concentrate on textual matters. I will also leave out automatic date assignments that make Agenda special, as they can be reconstructed with a program like AutoHotkey.
  1. files,
  2. (only one file can be open at a time)
  3. items and notes (it manages mainly items which can have 150 words; you can attach notes by pressing F5; notes can have 1400 words (or about 4-6 pages)
  4. columns and
  5. categories,
  6. views.[1]
ConnectedText has
  1. projects (the equivalent of files; more than one file can be open at a time),
  2. topics (the rough equivalent of items and notes;),
  3. links (completely absent in Agenda); they incluce inter-project links,
  4. categories (that behave a bit different from Agenda's categories),
  5. properties and attribute (which have no equivalent in Agenda) and
  6. search (which allows you to construct "smart topics;" perhaps surprisingly, Agenda had no search function). Search can find topics in any open project

Items: Anything can be an item: appointments, tasks, quotations "or anything else you want to find later on" (Fallows). They are the basic units of information in Agenda. They are small chunks of information, i.e. they must be no longer than 150 words long. This leads to the granular or chunky approach to managing information that I have always liked. Items are similar to the headings of index cards. The notes would be like the rest of the index card, but can hold a lot more information than a 3x5 card could (i.e. 10,000 characters). The same holds for ConnectedText, except that items and notes are more closely integrated. "Item" corresponds to the title of a ConnectedText topic and "Note" to its content.

Ecco also had items, with the only difference that these items were presented in Agenda as a plain list, in which everything seems to assigned the same level of significance. Rather, items are by default presented as an outline. This is the most important difference between Agenda and Ecco. It allowed a more fine-grained characterization of items. Items in Ecco could also be much longer. But this also cluttered the original design and made it more confusing to some who saw in Ecco mainly an outliner whereas it really was a spread sheet with outlining capabilities. (See below.)

Columns: Let's look next at columns. They represent the only obvious difference between Agenda and ConnectedText. And this is no small matter, as columns are absolutely central for Agenda. They may be said to be the "engine" of Agenda. It was was designed to be a "spreadsheet for words." They correspond to the columns in spreadsheets. Items provide the rows. So, Agenda provides you with different cells in a two-dimensional matrix or grid consisting of rows and columns, just like a spreadsheet. Without columns Agenda would be just like any other list manager. With columns it is much more powerful, i.e. it is a spread sheet for Word. Columns can be standard or text, numeric or date columns. (They are standardly indexed, but they can also be made unindexed).

Ecco later copied this approach. It also had columns, but they added check marks, pop-ups and Gantt chart columns.[2] Both allow you to view the information in accordance with different columns. As already mentioned ConnectedText lacks this capability.

Categories: The columns are closely integrated with categories. In fact, they are the main means for assigning categories to items and they are essential for defining views. Views are like different tables in a spreadsheet. Everything in Agenda is a category in some sense. For that reason, they are usually considered to be the central feature of Agenda, but it is important to remember that categories need or are columns as well. It is this that makes them more interesting than ordinary categories or tags. What makes the categories even more interesting is that they are "automatic." In other words, you can specify rules that cause Agenda to apply certain items to categories. The most primitive rule is to assign a topic to a category, if the name of the category appears anywhere in the item text, but you can specify also a short word and a number of other key words that trigger the assignment. You can also specify conditions for the assignments. These assignment conditions have to with the fact that categories can be nested or form an acyclic graph, a tree, in other words. They specify whether an item will inherit the category from a parent or a child in a tree.

Ecco essentially followed Agenda here as well. But categories became Folders with auto-assignment rules. The "auto-assign feature automatically evaluates items throughout your file (PhoneBook, Calendar, and Notepads) and gathers them into specific folders" (Ecco Help File). This shows that categories are a bit like smart folders or folders whose contents are determined by a saved query. Version 5 of ConnectedText will also allow auto-assignment of categories. Categories are, however, a bit different from categories in Agenda simply because they are not connected with columns. Accordingly, they cannot, per se, be used to "pivot" the information spreadsheet-like to open up different views in the way that Agenda can.

Views: This brings us to views. One of the difference between Agenda's spreadsheet-like behavior and a textbase conceived along the lines of a database is that it eliminates queries. You don't have to search explicitly, but you define a "view" in which information is represented in accordance with the categories and columns. This means that Agenda can sort any information you have put into it by categories, which in turn are determined by rules you have specified before. In Ecco views are most closely related to Notepads, which allow you to view the same information from different "perspectives" or in accordance with different folders. There is even one notepad for search results.

While ConnectedText has no folder—everything is an item—it does have the equivalent of smart folders, namely "smart topics." This smart topics are essentially saved searches (as in Ecco), but they are much more powerful and include not just and, or nearby and not, but also RegEx expressions.[3] You can not only search for text in topics, but also for categories (predicates and attributes, about which we have not yet talked) and other things. These smart topics correspond very closely to views in Agenda. In Agenda you have to press F8 to show the different views you have designed and then select one. In ConnectedText you can name one (or more) topic(s) called views, in which you reference the views you have designed. You can furthermore put this topic into the header or footer and have immediate access to it by pressing on it.

Links: The last functionality has, of course to do with the ability easily to link topics (or what would be items in Agenda. all you have to do is enclose the topic in Square brackets, like so [[Views]]. Linking adds a whole new dimension that is completely absent from Agenda (and Ecco). As I have written about Wikis many times before, I will not say anything more than that it can be very useful in reconstructing some of the features directly available in Agenda. (Just see the example above).

Properties and Attributes: You can assign properties to topics, like "priority," "done," etc., etc. Your imagination is the limit. These properties are never displayed in a topic, but they can be used in Searches. You can also define attributes, that is, expressions like "[[$PR:Status:=OK|DateDue:=20080519]]". You can also search for them (and they have their own "smart topics" that display all the topics with these attributes. This semantic dimension was, of course, completely missing in Agenda.

Search: Enough said already. ConnectedText has the most powerful search available in Wiki software. Next time, I will get into how to reconstruct Agenda's capability connected with rows and categories (and then some).

1. There are also sections. they are parts of views and ultimately just categories.

2. I discuss Ecco here as a successor to Agenda, but Zoot is another worthy contender. It recreates some of Agenda's capabilities. Another one was InfoHandler, but it's development has stopped. It can, however, import Agenda files. Still other applications, i.e. those which rely on keywords or hierarchically order keywords, have very limited similarities.

3. It appears that one of the recent add-ons of Ecco, developed by independent developers, adds this capability, but I have not tried it out. In ConnectedText RegEx does not work in inline queries.


Manuel Simoni said...

I'm a big fan of such information management apps and their architectures. Thanks for this detailed write-up!

Miles said...

Please post your next CT vs. Agenda piece as soon as possible. This is extremely interesting.