Computers: In search of the perfect organiser - Isabel Hilton casts aside beat-up Filofaxes and steam-driven Psions to get a new grip on her life with 'Infocentral'

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The Independent Online
I confess to a secret vice: I am a soft touch for any suggestion that a microchip can ensure that I do not miss appointments, render me better tempered with my children or enable me to find the only reliable plumber's telephone number when water is cascading through the kitchen ceiling.

I have one of the largest collections of personal organisers in private hands, from beat-up Filofaxes, to early steam-driven Psion organisers and, the lynchpin of my life, the Psion Series 3. Divorce I could contemplate, but losing my Series 3, that's another matter.

So I approached Infocentral with mixed emotions: the true junkie is always up for another fix. On the other hand, beware, said the inner voice: of time lost mastering it, time lost entering information, of duplication of systems.

Installation was trouble free. The quick tour laid out 'The Concept'. Infocentral orders information in two ways. It categorises objects - people, organisations, events, etc, then allows you to make connections between them. You can enter, for instance, Shoddy Plumbers Inc, with telephone numbers, then connect it as you wish - to your house, entered as a separate object, or to the house of a friend for whom Shoddy installed the central heating.

Entering Fred Idle, with telephone number, birthday and name of wife if you wish, enables you to specify that he is manager director of SPI. Once you find him, through any of these connections, or even by remembering his name, the machine will dial his number for you - assuming your modem, connecting the computer to the telephone line, is working - so you can complain. You can log the call, attach memos to his name, - any of your dealings with him, in fact. It will not fix the leak, but that is another problem.

Entering information is straightforward, if slightly laborious. The choice of connections offered is within the conventional business range - accountant, chief executive and so on, but you can customise by adding your own. One test I set it was to see if it would help in my line of country. In connection with a recent article, I entered as an object the organisation that was the main subject, then tried to connect a large cast of characters who ranged from members to sworn enemies, lawyers for and against, researchers on the subject.

It worked pretty well, though it tends to assume that where there is a connection, there is a direct line in the same organisation, not the case with the sworn enemies. I can see that it would be extremely useful, for instance, for a politician who wants to remember Amanda Preston-Worthy is married to Joe, when their birthdays are and whether or not they canvassed last time round. It would also be useful in business to someone simulating an interest in a client.

The key advantage of having a global box for your information is the ability it gives you to relate people, accounts, events and so on to each other. You can create your Christmas card list or mailshot list from the people in the Information Base, attach name lists and task lists to meetings scheduled in the calendar, all with point and click procedures using the mouse. It also caters for private obsessions: the rhythm and blues fan who wants to log recordings with all participating musicians could spend half his life lost in Infocentral.

I am in search of the perfect organiser for book writing: the one that helps you plan and execute the research, tracks the references, the contacts, the budget, the trips and, when it comes to the writing, finds the notes and alleviates the nightmare of sources and references. This would help, but there are drawbacks.

One is in the calendar. It has the usual day, week, month and year planner views and it does enable you to pack in all kinds of information related to calendar events; but it lacks a number of elementary facilities that my Series 3, for instance, offers. One is repeat events: if you have a meeting every Monday at 12 noon, you need to be able to enter once and repeat it every Monday until Doomsday.

The second problem is that it does not record graphically the time an event will take or describe duplicate events. Imagine that you are to be in Outer Mongolia for 10 days: on a paper diary you draw a line across the top of the 10 days and write Outer Mongolia, leaving the rest of the page free to enter your Ulan Bator appointments. When you look at the month of July, you know not to book a dentist's appointment in Hammersmith during the trip. Or if your Tuesday appointment will take three hours, you need to be able to see that.

On a domestic level, I find I need to be able to enter school holidays and the activities of several members of the household in order to be sure that the fragile edifice will not collapse because there is no adult spare to ferry the offspring to a date. Infocentral asks you how much time something is going to take, but does not display it for you.

The other thing Infocentral lacks is a spreadsheet on which to arrange accounts connected with events.

It comes with a large package of data in the Information Bases which might be useful if you are the manager of an engineering factory in Milwaukee, but is less enticing if you are a something else in London. I know, now for instance, who to call if I need an In-Sink-Erator and I live in Pennsylvania.

The travel I-base is a cultural icon in its own right - a little portrait of how the US businessman sees the world: click any region - as long as it is not South America, Africa or India, which do not figure in this universe. I tried Asia, but found that the Philippines was not available. I went to the People's Republic of China, which I know well: here I was offered Peking and Shanghai, where I could find 'top restaurants', convention facilities, hotels and the US embassy. I looked under convention facilities in Peking and found the Great Hall of the People listed.

Thinking it might be fun to see if they would host the next meeting of the Islington Working Mothers Association, I tried to call. Sorry, I was told, a telephone number is not known. I was relieved to note that my favourite restaurants in Peking and Shanghai were not listed. I can add them, secretly, without fear of finding them booked out by a convention of engineers from Milwaukee.

Infocentral System: PC-compatible.


Hardware: Modem.

Software: Windows.

Publisher: Wordperfect; 0800 601234.

Street price: pounds 69 (inc VAT).

(Photograph omitted)

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