We all have access to, and are commonly swamped by, mountains of information every day. I don’t know about you but I record lots of information during the course of a day about a wide range of things. I write notes about projects, I make lists of todo items and I record thoughts and information about articles I’ve read (in paper and web-based magazines) and all sorts of other information.
I’ll admit, I don’t use a computer based solution – why? Because I can use my notebooks without having to have access to a computer, and that I can use them pretty much anywhere, including on the plane, during a power cut, or when my computer is too busy to handle me typing in yet another little item (commonly when playing a full-screen game, for example!).
Obviously there are some limitations to this; for example I can’t search and I have to use four notebooks to organize all the various bits and pieces of information into a useful structure to help me find things. I also cannot simply search for information that I might be looking for. Most importantly from an IT persons perspective, notes and links to computer data – for example an email message or document, I have to name it by hand.
Now years ago, I used to manage a free-text database solution (BRS/Search) frequently used by libraries and other information organizations to store data that was otherwise non-structured but still needed to be searchable. BRS/Search and similar solutions are a bit of sledgehammer to crack a nut solution.
Would there be a suitable desktop computer based alternative I could use?
Well, Boswell is an information manage designed to do exactly that.
Boswell is a very data focused application that allows you store text, placing it in special ‘named’ notebooks, and to allow you to identify the text with different tags, making it easier to find and search for particular piece for information. For example, you might create a notebook for all of your email messages, but tag an individual message as relating to a specific project. You can also search for information and through a combination of the tags, notebook organization and full-text searching you can also create new notebooks and collections of information.
I forced myself to make use of Boswell for a month, adding and updating information for all of my projects and work. As a writer the ability to store and recall so much text would obviously be appealing.
Unfortunately, I found great difficulty working with Boswell. The searching, reporting and organization parts of Boswell work great. It takes some time to get used to adding and updating entries, but some of the functionality, like versioning, and the ability to specifically tag text and filter searches and lists with specific terms makes it very easy to find and view the information in the way you want.
The interface is simplistic, but effective, but you can easily identify the Mac OS roots. I don’t always appreciate flashy interfaces, but Boswell’s plain style is a little bit excessive; there’s very little delineation between sections and it can sometimes be difficult to understand the layout of the different sections of the interface.
The biggest problems however exist in the way Boswell integrates with external data sources.
Boswell is primarily a tool for entering and managing information within the Boswell application. If Boswell was your only source for information this would not be problem, but if you also want to use it to search and report on your email, websites, or perhaps work with your Word documents that aren’t based on bare text, then you are in trouble.
Boswell provides a method for importing text – either from a single file or from a folder, creating a separate entry for each file. However, it will only import text documents and the process is a manual, not automatic, procedure.
Boswell doesn’t automatically import your email for you. Nor does it have any way of access or reading your email, either through a POP or IMAP connection or by accessing the folders storage on your hard drive.
The only way to get email into your Boswell database (aside from cut and paste) is to save and export your email from your email application and then re-import it into Boswell. Even doing this, as the manual suggests, once a day, would be something of a chore.
Whichever way you select, the process is manual. Not only does this take up time, but you’d only have to forget one day and then wonder why you couldn’t find that email you know you received to realize how limiting the manual update process is.
Meanwhile, when importing other files, they have to be text. If, like me, you work in Word then the only way to reliably get the information into Boswell is to save the file as text and then import it.
With Word and other formatted types the cut and paste method might be better, as Boswell will retain the formatting and layout. However, the data is static. Update the Word document, and you’ll also have to manually update Boswell, it doesn’t automatically identify that the source file has changed and then update its database for you.
As I’ve just mentioned, there is no connection between the information source and it’s location within the Boswell database; once the data has been imported, Boswell really doesn’t care about where it came from unless you specifically tag it or mark it with that information. Even if you do so, it just becomes another textual mark, not a method for Boswell to make any use of that specific information.
Boswell is also completely isolated from the outside world in other ways. A good example here are URLs and web pages. If you past in a web page that includes a number of links, Boswell will correctly format the page just as it appeared on the web. Unfortunately, it completely loses all the information in all those embedded links. They might look clickable, but any URL or link information that might have existed in the text when you cut and pasted it is lost.
Similarly, if you create a new entry and paste in a URL, it just becomes text. You can’t click on it. Boswell has no idea what a URL is, or what to do with it. To access the page or information attached identified by that URL from the Boswell database, you need to manually select the URL, copy it to the clipboard, change over to Safari or Firefox, and then paste it into the location bar. The same is true with email addresses, irrespective of how you import them into the Boswell database.
I tried to use Boswell as an alternative to bookmarks – often by pasting a complete news story (for example the full page, or the entry from an RSS feed) into a suitable notebook. Because Boswell loses all of the link information, I would often forget to manually paste in the URL, somewhat defeating the object.
Even if I had remembered, when I found the item again during a search I’d have to go through the cut&paste process to actually access the page I’d bookmarked.
While I can see the benefit of a free text storage and retrieval system, the isolated nature of Boswell makes it difficult to see how it could be an effective tool in the modern world. I would seem to be an ideal market for this kind of product as I do nothing but write all day, but I cannot effectively use a product that requires up to an hour each day for me to keep it up to date with incoming emails or the documents I create.
Even when I’ve updated the information, an ‘information manager’ product that doesn’t know what to do with a URL or email address stored in its database is a rather futile concept.
We live in a connected world and whilst Boswell has many features that I find useful, the completely isolated nature of the product is far too limiting for me to consider using it.
If, however, you don’t need to work with emails or URLs then Boswell could be an effective way of storing all those little fragments of information and allowing you to retrieve that information and cross reference it.
Boswell is $99.95; you can download a limited Demo version from the website.