The Spectrum of PIM

Long ago, I began an information organizer review series. I started out strong. I posted a nice little intro piece. I knocked out the first review in the series. Then it utterly unraveled for two reasons.

First, Alan over at Metadata weighed in that VodooPad shouldn't be in my review group (which included Yojimbo, DEVONThink, Together, and EagleFiler).

He followed up that thought with a post on his blog in which he suggested we divide info organizers into two distinct categories: those that help us organize existing data, and those that help us create new data (or, as he restated at the end of his post: "creators let you manipulate data, whereas organizers let you manipulate metadata").

It's a great article, and the foundation for this post. I agree with much of what he said, but as you'll see, my model differs a bit from his.

I've concluded he was right about VooDooPad: you can organize existing documents with it, in the same way you can use Word to store a list of all of the books you own. But why would you? Other apps are far better suited for the task.

So, as I was pondering this, I was offered a new job. And that's the second reason for the long delay. As I've mentioned here many times now, I moved. I'm still recovering (and unpacking).

Now I'd like to resume the discussion. This is an attempt to build upon Alan's post by proposing that we present organizer apps on a spectrum. I want to reemphasize that, in the spirit of collaboration, this draws heavily on the ideas from Alan's post. Go read that first.

So here it is. There are three main categories of info organizer applications that form the spectrum of PIM:

1. Finders

These applications strive to serve up something better than Apple's Finder to archive, organize, and search through your important documents. Apps in this category tend to focus on giving you powerful metadata tools to help you find what you need and organize your existing documents/files (thanks, Alan). Examples are Leap, PathFinder, EagleFiler, Together, DEVONThink.

2. Creators

These apps focus on providing a better notebook experience. They provide a central repository to create and collect notes, ideas, snippets, multimedia clips, and (to a lesser extent) existing documents. Simple interfaces, quick entry, and rapid search are emphasized. Examples are Yojimbo, Evernote, Notebook, VooDooPad

3. Visualizers

These applications focus on providing a better creative space in which to help you plan projects and gain insight into your data. Examples are Curio, Tinderbox, OmniOutliner

Since many of the functions of these applications overlap each other, I think it's helpful to view them on a spectrum. We can then perhaps get a better sense of where on the spectrum a given app fits. The screenshot on the right, for example, shows where I think DEVONthink fits on the continuum.

The fine print

Now a word about info organizers, info managers, PIM, or whatever you want to call these kinds of apps. I've had so many people ask for recommendations on applications that fall in the info organizer realm. I think there are no clear answers. Part of the problem is also a great strength of the Mac platform: the glut of third party app choices. And part of the problem is that many of us aren't really sure what we want.

The explanations (read: marketing) provided by many Mac 'info management' apps don't help much. So there it is: we have too many choices, the essential functions of these choices are not well enough defined, and the reason the definitions are broad and vague is because the apps themselves offer solutions to a very wide range of info organizational problems.

Some organize existing data, some help create new data, some help visualize connections amongst data ... and most do all of these things to some degree.

We know that most (or, at least, the best) info organizers do a lot more: they help us find things more quickly, make connections between disparate items, and come up with new ideas. They aim to help us solve uniquely modern problems: to fight information overload, to cut through clutter, to combine the super powerful with the super simple interface, to help us make unforeseen connections, and to serve as a nesting place or (better yet) breeding ground for our thoughts.

If we have a glut of PIM apps, it's because we have a real need to manage the wash of information that is cluttering our lives. With our computers serving as the repository for all of our info, data, thoughts ... we clearly need to find a way to pull it all together. To make it perform for us. That's the new paradigm. Some focus on organization, some on creating new info, and some focus most on tying together all stuff into some sort of coherent package so we can find our way forward.

Which you choose will depend on what you need. Ultimately, I think the winners will not necessarily be the ones that pull all of these elements together in one application. Rather, I think there is room enough for lots of variety. Our challenge, then, is to pick the right apps to do the job, but to pick the ones that do the job in a way that is natural for us. While it's true there may be too many options out there right now, that's the nature of competition. The best ones usually stand the test of time.

I plan to use the spectrum framework as I return to reviewing some specific applications. In the spirit of choosing apps that clearly fall within a 'band' of the spectrum, my review choices will change from the original lineup (I'm still deciding which ones I want to tackle).

When I'm done, I'm considering placing all the major info organizer apps (not just the ones I reviewed) on the spectrum with the aim of helping people sort through all of the choices.

I'll close with a word on the acronym PIM and the phrase 'info management.' I think they are both hopelessly broad and meaningless. Every program used on a home computer is, in a sense, a personal info manager. Sadly, I'll probably keep using PIM out of habit. After all, spectrum of PIM sounds much better than spectrum of info organizers.

Some clever person should devise a better term. I kind of like 'personal content assistant,' used by the folks over at Eastgate Tinderbox. Or perhaps we could use MIP: making information perform.

Troy Kitch @troykitch