Humans vs. Computers, Again. But There's Help for Our Side.
By JAMES FALLOWS
seen this pattern before in the computer world: many companies
scrambling at the same time to solve the same problem. Sometimes the
concentration of effort mainly ends up underscoring how hard it can be
to solve a given problem, like controlling spam or designing laptop
batteries that last as long as they should. At other times, the problem
everyone is tackling yields to steady year-by-year technological
progress. Disk drives and other storage devices grow ever cheaper and
more reliable. Transmission speeds over modems keep going up.
often such races result in true breakthroughs that make computers much
more useful and creates countless opportunities for follow-on
innovations and products. More than 20 years ago, the introduction of
spreadsheets - first VisiCalc, then Lotus 1-2-3 - essentially created
the personal computer industry by convincing businesses that PC's were
tools, not gizmos. Over the last 10 years, Tim Berners-Lee, who is not
getting rich, and Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who are, have made the
modern Internet possible. Mr. Berners-Lee did so by creating the
technical standard for Web pages and offering it as a public utility;
Mr. Page and Mr. Brin, by creating Google, which is a public service
but a private company.
A current race for a solution goes by
the deceptively blah name of "knowledge management," or K.M. It is an
effort to bring Google-like clarity to the swamp of data on each
person's machine or network, and it is based on the underappreciated
tension between a computer's capacity and a person's. Modern computers
"scale" well, as the technologists say - that is, the amount of
information they can receive, display and store goes up almost without
limit. Human beings don't scale. They have finite amounts of time,
attention and, even when they're younger than the doddering baby
boomers, short-term memory. The more e-mail, Web links and attached
files lodged in their computer systems, the harder it can be for people
to find what they really want.
If anything, the challenge of
helping people find their own information is harder than what Google
has done. Search engines let you explore sites you haven't seen before.
Knowledge management systems should let you easily retrieve that Web
page, that phone number, that interesting memo you saw last month and
meant to do something with.
The current creative struggle is
important because, when it yields a victor, it will leave everyone less
frustrated about using a computer. What makes the struggle intriguing
is that it involves two great axes of competition. On the business
level, it is another installment of that ancient tale, Microsoft vs. the World. On the conceptual level, it raises basic questions about what knowledge is.
is automatically a player in any software competition, but its role
here is unusual because of its two-front approach. Bill Gates has
talked for years about the headache of trying to find what you want on
your computer and has presumably heard every surly retort about Windows
itself being the real source of pain. The next big release, which is
scheduled to appear within two years and now has the code name
Longhorn, will have a variety of new file-retrieval features built in.
operating system upgrades are Microsoft's "hard power," it also offers
a soft-power approach to the K.M. problem, with a program that looks
and feels different from anything the company has offered previously.
This product, OneNote, is costly - $199, but with a free trial - and is
still a promising glimmer more than a realized solution. But its goal
is to provide an easy, elegant way to lodge bits of significant
information and then get them back at the right time. Oddball
disclosure: I worked with the team now responsible for OneNote during a
brief stint at Microsoft five years ago.
THEN there is everyone
else. There must be hundreds of programs designed to give users better
command of their own data. I know that I have tried at least 50 of
them. They have names like ADM, askSam, BrainStorm, Chandler, Enfish,
InfoSelect, iRider, Lookout, Onfolio, TheBrain and Zoot. Their prices
range from zero to about $100, and nearly all of them do something
The business drama now is whether any of these companies
can attain enough of an independent, Google-like identity to co-exist
with Microsoft - or whether users will have to wait for future Windows
versions with the best features built in.
intellectual question about knowledge management is whether people
actually think of knowledge as a big heap of laundry just out of the
dryer, or as neatly folded pajamas, shirts and so on, all placed in the
proper drawers. The "big heap" theory lies behind some of the programs:
we don't care where or how things are stored; we just want to find
certain pairs of socks - or P.D.F. files - exactly when we need them.
The "folded PJ's" theory guides a variety of programs that let you mark
information as it shows up - for instance, tagging an article you know
you want to refer to later, when shopping for a new car. Brains work
both ways, and the ideal K.M. software will, too.
success suggests that there is a huge potential for solving a problem
that people didn't realize they had until the right solution appeared.
I wish all contestants well in this knowledge management race.
James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.