On Documents and Information
Greetings, my fellow Devon-software users. I’d like to share some thoughts on the downsides of DevonThink with you, downsides and drawbacks that either I haven’t found a solution or workaround for or that may be true for other users, too, and should therefore be tackled by the Devon Development Forces as soon as possible.
DevonThink is a great application and I have been using it more or less intensely since its infancy. You see, I am a teacher and folks like me have to deal with tons of the most various information imaginable. DevonThink, so I thought, would help me keep track of all those worksheets, texts, diagrams and research data I had assembled in years past, pretty much the same Steve J. promised what Spotlight would do. And, so I hoped, DevonThink could thus prevent me from inventing the wheel twice. Finding and reusing old material would be much more efficient than creating it all over again every time I needed it. Unfortunately however, this never really worked for me. The reason for DT not living up to my expectations is rooted in the one great and painful gap in its feature set: It cannot handle documents.
Now, this is the point where many of you might raise their hands to intervene. You should feel encouraged to do so, but let me explain my point a bit more detailed before. DT has always been great for gathering information. Convenient system shortcuts and a built in web browser and lots of other cool features help you collecting all kinds of information that might appear useful to you. It goes like this: “Ah, I might use this little snippet later, and who know, this pictures might come in handy later, too. Oh, and this website contains tons of information that might not be related to my current project but I’d better store its URL for later reference.” Ain’t it so? That’s how information gathering via DT has always worked – and it’s great. Now let’s take a look at what this kind of workflow creates: Yes, you are right, lots of tiny little snippets, notes, pics, clips, whatever. These snippets are what I relate to as ‘information’. It’s a good thing that DT is also an unparalleled information manager. Artificial intelligence and a clever browser with lots of views and features make it easy to stay organized. But organized or not, this information really isn’t worth a penny unless you make something of it. That’s what we gathered it for, isn’t it? We want to create something with this information. We want to write a text, an article, an project plan, an outline, a mind map, a letter or eMail, a report or an essay. In short, we want to create a 'document" that in some way incorporates the previously gathered and organized ‘information’.
Unfortunately, here we reach the limits of DT’s feature set. There may be a basic text editor, ok, but you can’t really create a polished document with it. It’s great to jot down notes, but that’s about it. It surely can’t produce, for instance, a decent school worksheet or a page layout for the next company memo. What follows now is the colourful world of fancy workarounds. You could copypaste the stuff you need into other applications, always keep a DT window open next to your word processor, and so on and so on, and that would be fine with me, but… yes, again there is a little but. When it comes to handling ‘documents’ DT hardly understands any file format apart from RTF and PDF. This means that you have to save your creations outside the DT database. This doesn’t seem acceptable to me because you leave the reach of DT’s search capabilities. DT cannot answer the question “Where is that report I wrote 6 months ago on a similar topic” anymore. Sure enough, it can still find you the information you gathered for it, but not the report itself. Again, workarounds are imaginable but circumstantial. You could export your documents via PDF to DT. But why should you create and look after two editions of your documents? This turns the user into a file converter and manager rather than an ingenious mastermind with a productivity head start.
That said, here is my wish list for future versions of DT:
Give up that nasty database approach.
I say this from a users point of view. I have no idea whether this is possible from the development point of view. Spotlight can index all the files on the HD, so why can’t DT? As a user I don’t want to constantly think about which files I put into the database and which not. This is reduces efficiency.
Make DT more transparent
Once the DB is gone, there is no need for a browser anymore. You should instead turn DT turn into an EasyFind on steroids, which incorporates all the features (e.g. AI) that make DT so unique and would thoroughly kick Spotlight’s butt.
Add tools to facilitate document creation
No, I am not talking about new text editor features here. I am thinking (or dreaming) of floating panels that give you the information needed for the document creation process. I am dreaming of graphical visualizations (like in DA 2.0b) to illuminate connections and relations between the information snippets gathered for a certain project.
That’s about it. Now, let the DT wars begin. I am sure many righteous knights will be happy to defend their app of choice. As much as I am looking forward to this discussion, I am particularly interested in what Devon Officials think about my thoughts and ideas.