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Where PIMS went wrong.

'At some point there will be new forms of publications that don't have any counterparts in Gutenberg all over again. But here's the gotcha: If you look at the history of printing it didn't really take off with Gutenberg. Gutenberg invented printing with movable type. Aldus Manutius, a Venetian, came along 50 years later. He invented the portable book. He figured out how to package up printing into an actual distribution mediium."

Mitch Kapor contributed this little nugget of history to a recent Wall Street Journal roundtable on the future of personal computers. Although Kapor was actually talking about multimedia, his point--which we believe is enormously important--applies just as forcefully to another category of software: personal information managers (PIMs).

The fact is, PIMs are beginning to look like a category that may never reach escape velocity. After two years in the limelight, none of the leading Pims has yet cracked even the bottom rungs of any of the bestseller lists we watch. Lotus, Symantec, and Persoft have poured bushels of money into promotional campaigns, and all the major magazines have devoted space to generally positive reviews. The fish just won't bite.

In retrospect, we believe Kapor's Gutenberg analogy hits the nail on the head. The basic (and natural) mistake that most PIM developers made was believing they had invented another conventional productivity application. Gutenberg couldn't imagine a use for movable type except to replicate the handiwork of medieval scribes; PIM developers thought they were selling products that belonged on the same shelves as word processors, spreadsheets, and database managers.

Yes, a few people actually do use PIMs to manage personal projects, sales contacts, and the like. But we're increasingly convinced that PIM developers might do a lot better if they paid attention to the lesson of Aldus Manutius and repackaged their technology as a new form of distribution medium.

What's a "distribution medium"? The explosion of knowledge in the Renaissance occurred, in large part, because good-sized chunks of knowledge (books) could be created and distributed rapidly and cheaply. Today, we're in the midst of a similar knowledge explosion. We can pull literally millions of lines of text out of on-line databases and CD-ROM disks; the technical documentation for an airliner is said to weigh more than the plane itself; a corner newsstand offers more titles (never mind the quality) than existed in most of the best Renaissance libraries.

We've mastered several technologies for reproducing all this stuff (the Gutenberg part of the equation)--but we still lack ways to make the knowledge we're reproducing adequately accessible (the distribution part of the equation). A million words of disjointed text on a CD-ROM disk isn't the 20th century equivalent of a Renaissance book; to most people, it's an almost useless hunk of plastic.

Here's where PIM technology starts to look interesting--as a front end for commercial text databases, as a hypertext authoring tool, as a self-publishing medium for corporate documentation and technical materials. PIMs may be overkill for personal information bases, but their ability to define complex networks of cross-references makes them ideal for helping users navigate vast knowledge collections. Ultimately, we have no choice about whether to deal with the problem of distributing and accessing large knowledge bases; the only real question is how long it takes for a modern Aldus to appear on the scene. (Mitch Kapor, incidentally, thinks we'll have to wait 40 or 50 years for this moment, which we believe is too pessimistic. But he could be right.)

We don't pretend that it will be easy to reshape the PIM category into a true information distribution technology. Products will have to be torn apart and rebuilt; pricing and marketing decisions need to be reconsidered; a now class of authors (like HyperCard stackware developers) will have to learn how to shape raw information into more useful forms. There's a good chance, we concede, that many current PIM companies simply won't survive this transition.

But we also have no doubt that managing large knowledge bases is a critical application. If PIM developers can't figure out how to reposition their products to do this job, there's already a next generation of little-known products (notably Polio Corp.'s Folio Views, Dataware's CD Answer, and Unibase's Textware) that could evolve into full-fledged information distribution systems. Sooner or later, somebody's going to come up with the right answer.
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Copyright 1989, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:personal information management systems
Date:Jul 1, 1989
Previous Article:On defining a competitive difference.
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