(nytimes-Techno Files) Programmers Devise New Ways to Make the Pieces Work Together

Submitted by Editor on Sun, 08/08/2004 - 17:55

IT'S software time again.

Four months ago, I wrote in this space about the growing variety of programs that in one way or another could be considered tools for thinking. Some of them enhanced the part of thought that involves factual recall by making it easier to retrieve information from the recesses of your computer's hard drive. Others allowed you to put existing information together in ways that might stimulate new perceptions and ideas.



Published: August 8, 2004

In the brief period since that column appeared, the lineup of contenders and offerings for Windows-based machines has changed significantly - in one case for the worse, but generally in more positive and useful directions.

The bad news involves Scopeware Vision, an elegant contender for the role of "Google for your own computer." (Elegance is an even higher term of praise for software than for couture. It means a program does what you want it to as cleanly and directly as possible - think of the Google search screen - with no excess burden on the user.)

Scopeware, which was based on the work of the renowned computer scientist David Gelernter at Yale, had that kind of spare effectiveness. But in May its backers closed its doors, despairing of staying in the race when Microsoft had so clearly indicated that it would include disk-search functions in Longhorn, its next version of Windows, scheduled for release in 2006.

This Scopeware story conforms to the familiar fear that Microsoft, like the tallest tree in the jungle, can deny others the right to live merely by casting its deadly shadow upon them. (For the record: five years ago I worked briefly on a software design team at Microsoft.) But another similar story led to a much happier conclusion.

Eighteen months ago, an investor and former programmer named Eric Hahn noticed that he had lost control of mail in his Outlook inbox. This made him the same as everyone else. What made him different was that he decided to write a program that would let him quickly find specific e-mail messages and attached files, rather than rely on Outlook's appallingly slow built-in search function.

Early this year, after forming a partnership with another programmer, Mike Belshe, he released a free utility called Lookout. It created a new toolbar inside Outlook and allowed lightning-fast searches of e-mail messages, addresses and attached files. By word of mouth - and blogs - it became an underground sensation.

Last month, Microsoft bought the two-person Lookout company, with the obvious intention of incorporating its search system into future versions of Outlook and Windows. And then - a shadow falls across the landscape - it banned further downloads of the program. People who already had Lookout could keep using it; those who didn't could twiddle their thumbs for a few years until the next Microsoft release.

In the face of bitter blog-world complaints, however, Microsoft reversed course and agreed to make Lookout available again. It is one of several intriguing free utilities in the Sandbox section of Microsoft's Web site. (Last week Microsoft also released an update to its well-designed OneNote program.)

For those who don't use Outlook or would like another option, a good new one exists. It is the latest release of X1, priced at $74.95. The program was conceived by Bill Gross, who won acclaim in the 1980's for designing the best early search utility, Lotus Magellan, and drew criticism in the early 2000's for a series of big losses at his Idealab company.

Like Lookout, X1 is extremely fast. Unlike other search systems, it immediately shows what you are looking for in its original format. A PowerPoint slide has the right formatting, a stored Web page has its original look - even on a machine without PowerPoint or a browser installed. I use this and Lookout throughout the day.

There are also promising developments in programs that specialize not in retrieving information but in letting you see it in different configurations, furthering the elusive goal of putting the clues together for a new insight.

For nearly a decade, I've entrusted all my research and reference data to such a program, called Zoot, which costs $99 and is produced by Tom Davis, a lone programmer in Delray Beach, Fla. My friends roll their eyes when they hear me praise it, because Zoot has the reputation of being like the Chinese language: convenient if you know it, off-putting if you don't.



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