Sunday, November 21, 2004My latest application find in the information management space is Ultra Recall, a new product that is quite compelling.
When I first started the program, I initially found the interface a little cluttered. The default view has six different panes visible. After using the app for a few days, I'm now actually quite comfortable with the pane layout, and in any case, each pane can be docked, hidden or even detached and floated elsewhere on the screen.
The interface will be familiar to programmers who have used an IDE. There is the data explorer pane, which is essentially the tree hierarchy we've come to know and love (and at times curse) in various information managers. There are also panes for search, item attributes, item parents, and a grid that will alternatively show search results and child items, depending on the type of item selected.
Ultra Recall has fairly deep functionality. I almost didn't explore the application, thinking initially that it seemed a little confusing without being much different than the slew of tree-based programs that are out there. I'm glad I didn't give up. New software always has surprises, and usually the surprises are disappointing: you discover that something you want to do is not going to work. Ultra Recall, on the other hand, has mostly been full of pleasant surprises. In about five days of trial, I've ended up pouring a lot of information into the program and have come to appreciate many of the unique features. Following are a few highlights of the features I find most promising.
Item attributes (metadata):
Ultra Recall provides a flexible system of creating and assigning item attributes to items. These key-value pairs can be of various data types, including date, date and time, currency, strings, yes/no, and numeric. There are built-in attributes such as dates for when the item was created and modified, the number of times the item has been accessed, etc. The item attributes show in their own pane, and can be grouped into various categories. The coolest part is that any tree item can have its own column definition of what attributes should be shown in the grid pane. This allows you to combine hierarchical storage with a spreadsheet-like grid. While default attributes can be associated with an item type, assignment of attributes is completely arbitrary (you can choose to assign project attributes to a contact item, for example).
Ultra Recall has the basic keyword search you would expect, and it's very fast. Ninety percent of the time, this quick search will be sufficient for locating items. The nice thing is that any of these searches can be saved as their own item, so you can quickly reuse your oft-used searches. In addition, you can build advanced search queries based on any number of criteria and item attributes (including user-defined attributes). This flexibilty makes it easy to build your own arbitrary systems.
Item types and templates:
Many apps in this category of software have some concept of item types, although the functionality is usually fairly limited and often can't be modified by the user. Ultra Recall comes with some pre-defined item types (Contact, Search, Task, Project, etc.), but the real joy is that you can create your own item templates and specify such things as the item attributes for the type, default icon, etc. A template item may also include its own tree structure. This allows you to set up a default tree structure for certain types. For example, I added sub-folders to the Project type for Issues, Correspondence, and Completed Work. Now these folders are added to any project I insert into the tree.
Storage and viewing:
Ultra Recall has flexible storage and viewing capabilities. You can drag URL shortcuts and selected HTML text from the internal browser or an external browser. The resulting items can simply be shortcuts to re-open the web page or can store the contents of the page in the database (and the contents are indexed and searchable). External files can be handled in much the same way. Certain file types can be viewed internally within Ultra Recall. Microsoft Word files and PDF files are indexed so they can be located like any other item.
The documentation refers to this as linking, but long-term users of outlining software will think of it as cloning. Any item can be cloned and inserted into multiple locations in the tree outline. Cloning overcomes most of the limitations of organizing by hierarchy, and this feature, combined with all of the other strengths of the software, really sets Ultra Recall apart. The "item parents" pane shows all of the parents of a selected item, so it's easy to jump around to related information regardless of how you first entered into a cloned item, be it by navigating the tree or searching. Not only are individual items cloned, but any sub-items of the item will also be available wherever the cloned item appears in the outline.
There are two other things going for this application. One is that it is made by a company (Kinook Software) that has been in business for five years and has another product that is apparently rather mature. This means the company probably won't go out of business any time soon and they don't need the success of their PIM product to completely carry them. Second, this is only version 1 of the software. This means the current functionality doesn't even have the benefit of a lot of user feedback and that there will likely be more useful features added in the future.