Computers: Data manager that's just the job: Hugh Davidson beefs up his filing system with an innovative approach to personal information

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The Independent Online

System: Apple Macintosh/Power PC.


Hardware: At least 3 megabytes of free main memory

Availability: Mac Warehouse, tel 0800 181332. Common Knowledge, tel 0101 415 325 9900; fax 0101 415 325 9600.

Price: pounds 200 (including VAT).

Examine the hard disk of the average Apple Macintosh or PC Windows user today and you will find a predictable collection of proficient and deeply unexciting applications built around wordprocessing, spreadsheets and graphics. Little separates the dominant Microsoft programs from the few rivals left on the market.

All seem to see the future in terms of dumping in extra features that are supposed to make these mundane products easier to use. Now whether it is really worth buying an extra 4 megabytes of main memory (ram) to get a Microsoft 'wizard' (tutor program) to teach you how to mail merge a letter is debatable. More importantly you have to ask: Where's the beef? Where is that spark of innovation that makes you look at the screen and think: Yes]

One place you can find it is in University Avenue, just down from Stanford University, California, where, little more than a decade and a half ago Steve Jobs was putting together the first Apple computer. The company is called Common Knowledge, the product is called and it currently lumbers under that catch-all category of a PIM (Personal Information Manager). I guess they call it a PIM because it sounds friendlier than the more accurate term.

is a database, an extremely easy to use, smart, and visual one, but a database all the same, and databases, sadly, are just not deemed sexy. If you write for a living you are more interested in your word processor; if you design, your graphics package. Yet organising data lies at the heart of most work on a personal computer, though we often take simple, time-consuming routes to avoid facing up to this fact.

For example, let us assume that twice a month you write to your bank. You will probably have a folder or directory on your 'desktop' - the opening screen layout from which you control the system with a mouse-based operating system - marked Correspondence, perhaps with a subsidiary folder called Bank. Each time you write a letter, you save a copy in the folder - marked, perhaps, by date or some brief reference text.

Six months later you want to look at a letter you wrote and remember nothing about it except a few phrases. How do you find it? By opening the files until you find the right one, or searching globally for some string of text. Why do you have to give the letter a filename in the first place? Surely, if you keep writing to the same person, the computer should simply file each letter automatically - under a subject heading if you wish - in the right place?

An operating system is not smart enough for this. A database like is. So, you set up a folder marked Bank Correspondence, tell it to collect a copy of every letter you write to the bank, click on your addressee and write the letter. All the filing happens automatically.

Take another example. Imagine you are writing the outline for a book and halfway through introduce a new character. In , you set up a 'note' for each element of the story. The character note lets you set a description for the person as you create them. Then automatically files that description in a separate cast list folder which you can use elsewhere in the story - just drag the 'person' out and insert them into the narrative, correct description and all. Dump the lot out of the database as a text file and you have an accurate, logical outline of the story for your word processor.

In , you create notes - names, addresses, telephone, E- mail, fax and financial numbers, links to other notes and files on your computer - work out how they relate to each other, then get on with entering and playing with the data, leaving the software to work out how to organise it. The result: a sophisticated integrated PIM with a calendar, telephone dialling, address book and letter writing facilities. Or a system that will monitor copy flow around a magazine, casework handling in a lawyer's office, pretty much anything you can think of.

The software comes with several powerful templates for common uses, such as workflow and PIM applications. Others are due to be posted on Compuserve's Macintosh Applications forum where the product gets excellent direct support from the developer's head of operations.

accepts plug-ins, which means that anyone with experience of Mac programming can write an add-on module to make it do something new, a feature which is likely to win it a lot of friends in the big corporate world. It is also smart enough to remind you of appointments and let you cut text 'clippings' directly into your database even when the program is not running. This is a hefty application. Three megabytes of free ram are advisable, though you may find that you can work using nothing but for much of the time. It will handle all telephone and work-logging tasks and write letters with all the usual Mac text flourishes.

The learning curve is not steep, but it is there, so set some time aside if you want to develop your own custom applications.

Next year, it arrives in a Windows version for PC-compatible systems and will surely create a storm. For now, allows the Mac owner to feel superior about owning one of Mr Jobs's babies.

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