IS Survival guide: PIMs morph into nifty mobile choices

From a press release about Philippe Kahn, founder of Borland International: "Currently he's developing wireless technology that will free us from our PCs, transforming digital photography into a mobile experience."

Transform digital photography into a mobile experience? This reminds me of the old joke about electric cars needing long extension cords.

I'm sure Kahn is working on something wireless, wonderful, and related to digital photography. But digital cameras aren't tethered to PCs, so I'm sure digital photography is already a mobile experience.

Along with mobile digital photography, Philippe Kahn more or less invented the PIM (personal information manager) with the Sidekick. PIMs were the ultimate expression of personal computing. Though highly diverse, they all focused on keeping track of personal information - contacts, appointments, IP addresses, recipes, quotations, birthdays, to-do lists, book titles, your niece's clothing sizes; all the stuff you'd otherwise scrawl on scraps of paper and lose. A recent column mourning the extinction of this software species received a torrent of e-mail in response.

The bad news: most companies have banned this software in favour of Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes, both of which are clumsy at managing personal information.

The good news: PIMs aren't entirely dead. Instead, the PIM lineage has evolved and branched. Want to manage personal information? You still have some nifty choices.

First, there are a few pure PIMs left. And although I don't endorse specific products, I feel obliged to report that an overwhelming number of respondents recommended a product called Info Select (www.microlog.com), which ships in Windows and Palm form, with bidirectional synchronisation. More than 100 e-mail messages say it's worth a look.

Some PIMs aren't PIMs any more; they're now SFA (sales-force automation) tools. And although some early SFA tools focused on management reporting, they're gone.

The most interesting PIM descendant is ‘thought mapping' or ‘knowledge mapping' software. Yes, the category is still in its infancy. Sure, the marketing makes way too big a fuss over what is basically outlining. Still, the idea that the management of personal information is best achieved by mapping interrelationships among categories of knowledge has potential. Products in this category let you insert nearly anything - text, document files, pictures, URLs, e-mail, or the family gerbil - in the knowledge map where you find it by traversing the tree or through a search engine.

Finally, how the open-source business model fits into a capitalist economy is still a matter of active debate. One promising role is as a haven for products that, despite a loyal user base, are somehow insufficiently profitable.

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