Eric Freeman is searching for some papers in his cluttered office at Yale University.
He rummages through piles on the desk, rifles the file cabinet, combs the shelves, even digs into the trash can. No luck. Paper and file folders are everywhere, but Freeman can’t find what he wants.
“This is the problem with the desktop metaphor,” he says with a wry smile.
The irony is that Freeman is hoping to end the very clutter that now envelopes his office. Freeman, a Ph.D. graduate from Yale’s computer science program, is working on a new vision of how we store and find documents on computers.
He calls this vision “Lifestreams” - an approach to data management aimed at eliminating the drudgery of filing, sorting and searching for the information you need.
No more naming files. No more deciding where to save them. No more frantically hunting though folders and directories buried deep on your hard drive.
“Current computer systems put all of the overhead on the user to decide where the information will be stored and what it will be called,” Freeman said. “The whole point of Lifestreams is to minimize that overhead and maximize your ability to find the information you want when you need it.”
In the Lifestreams vision, most of this data won’t even be kept on your hard drive.
Instead, a giant multimedia archive of your data - all your e-mail, all your pictures, all your personal documents, memos, receipts, reminders, appointments and financial records - would be stored on the Internet, where you could reach it from anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice.
Lifestreams would be, in effect, an electronic journal of your entire life - organized chronologically, searchable instantly and available constantly. Forget Day-Timers; this is the ultimate computer-assisted memory.
Lifestreams has its beginnings in the work of celebrated Yale computer scientist David Gelernter, who described “chronicle streams” in his 1991 book “Mirror Worlds.”
“This is too information-dense a world for most of us to even throw things out intelligently,” he said. “Having the time to open things is a luxury in itself.”
If you’ve ever won a game of solitaire in Windows and watched the cards start bouncing across the monitor, you have a rough idea of what Lifestreams looks like.
The interface displays a cascade of rectangles, about the size of a playing card, beginning in the top left-hand corner of the screen and arching toward the lower right. This is the Lifestreams archive; each “card” represents a separate document.
At the front of this column of documents is the most recent one that the user has created or received. It could be an e-mail message, a Web page, a spreadsheet, a reminder about an appointment or any other kind of data.
Running the cursor alongside the documents produces brief thumbnail summaries of what each document contains, so the archive can be easily browsed. A mouse-click lets the user display an individual document, in whatever software application created it, for easy viewing or editing.
Chronology is proving very useful in helping people find their data.
But it is in searching and analysis that Lifestreams really shines. The Lifestreams software can pull out sets of documents - called “substreams” - from the larger archive based on a variety of sophisticated search queries. Helper software can then help analyze documents in the substream.
“One critical thing that you have to be able to do with a lot of information is be able to boil it down and get a handle on it,” Freeman said.
Wondering about your credit card spending? Lifestreams would find your bills, and a plug-in application could crunch the data to produce a pattern. Thinking about changing investments? A different search might locate investments in your current portfolio, and another plug-in could rate their performance.
Lifestreams can even step into the future, allowing users to set reminders about such upcoming events as Father’s Day, anniversaries or business appointments. When those occasions arrive, the reminder appears at the front of the user’s document stream.
Freeman believes most people will elect to keep their Lifestream archives on the Internet, where they can reach the data from anywhere they happen to be.
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