A box with something in it

Alex Payne has written a thought-provoking piece on the use of organization software on the Mac. In his “The Case Against Everything Buckets” article he tells you why their use isn’t a good idea. But I’m going to tell you why that isn’t always the case and how I came to that conclusion.

In a nutshell….

3rd party bucket apps make it easier to actually grab stuff while native tools are generally multi-step processes. Most of the bucket tools emphasis one-click storing or provide easy access to system-wide scripts.

This might sound crazy, but the filesystem really isn’t a very good general storage system. It requires up front thinking and decision making. Features such as links and aliases only give you so much flexibility in changing your system later. Alex’s article sorta waffles on this point.

The Finder is only the bare minimum for an everything bucket client. 3rd party tools, like Pathfinder, get closer to meeting the needs.

Currently an unadorned Spotlight barely meets the minimum needs for search. With some 3rd party tools and adding some constraints it can be better. But out of the box, no.

Here’s my story….

One of the first things I installed after getting my Mac was Devonthink. After the indignity of Windows and OneNote, I felt I finally found my home with Devonthink. I always just assumed a dedicated catch-all was the way to go. Devonthink is my everything bucket.

But Devonthink is a true island and totally opaque to OS X. It needs to be running to get things into it. Searching happened inside too. Granted it was a really fast search, much better than Spotlight in that regard. But again, it had to be running to be effective. Eventually, I found myself not using it as rigorously as I once did. I went in spurts. Days with it running, days without.

Over a holiday break last year I thought about how I was using Devonthink. As it turned out my use had degenerated to nothing more than collecting & filing webarchives, PDFs, images, text snippets. Nothing more. No fancy AI. No outlines. Nothing really Devonthink specific. If that’s the case, I reasoned, there’s another path available to me.

From Devonthink I exported my entire database to a folder on my hard drive. Everything. And then I began piecing together a system that mimicked what Devonthink was doing.

What I learned….

First, get your story straight. If this was a research project, you’d have a very clear statement describing what it is you’re after. Same here. If you google around for Devonthink stories you’ll find success comes from a pretty focused use of it. Steven Johnson, as an example, uses Devonthink to save text clippings and notes and then uses the fancy clustering/relating tools to find interesting connections. His use isn’t something I’d call an everything bucket.

So my goal was to manage the rich media and chunks of text I was keeping in Devonthink with the file system and native & 3rd party apps. Eventually, I settled on these as the most important pieces:

Pathfinder & contextual right-click extras
Quick Look extras

Leap is just a fantastic tool for digging through your hard drive. Leap makes Spotlight something special. Since I restricted it to just my Devonthink archive it was always fast and immediate. Leap can do tagging but I never really used it all that much. The standard Spotlight metadata is actually incredibly rich and provided enough flexibility for me to find and group what I needed.

With Pathfinder as a Finder replacement, I relied on the tabs and the ability to create new files in a given folder. Simple tasks lacking any native OS X analogs oddly. But Pathfinder sucks up RAM so I’d have a back-up, NuFile, when I felt like living an austere Finder-only life. NuFile adds customizable right-click context menu file creation. So if I was in my RFID folder and wanted to add a new note I could just right-click, create a new text file and edit in TextMate.

Devonthink made it easy to see things since it had native viewers for every sort of media you could import. My Mac, on the other hand, has a smaller set of native viewers. Luckily with Leopard you get Quick Look and a large library of extra 3rd party Quick Look plugins for viewing non-native things. I’ve installed plugins for webarchives, Excel, iWork, zip files, etc. etc. Tapping the space bar generally brings up a preview of whatever it is I happened to have selected.

I had high hopes going into this project that I’d be able to quickly glue a bunch of things together with Applescript. The best I was able to do was create some Safari scripts for saving off webarchives to a common Inbox folder. The biggest hurdle wasn’t the Applescript language so much as the inconsistent treatment the various apps gave Applescript. Safari, for instance, is pretty bad while iTunes is really good. Devonthink ships with a great collection of very useful scripts. Furthermore the Devonthink support forums are full of very helpful script writers willing to provide code; really top-notch.

So my cobbled together system was working for me. I had various ways of looking through my archive, both native and non-native. I had various ways of finding items in my archive. And I had many ways of creating new items in my archive. Things were good. I was living with this low-tech system for many months.

And then the Devonthink people had to go and create v2. The latest goes native! Stores items as-is in your filesystem, uses Quick Look for viewing, uses Spotlight (but doesn’t rely on it) and provides a universal inbox that doesn’t need the app running to work! I’ve been using the betas and liking it–my biggest gripes have been seemingly answered. Once again, time for some hard questions.

Ultimately, I agree with Alex with one caveat. One app to store everything doesn’t work for me. However one file system doesn’t work for me either. Your particular situation will drive that decision. What’s important to you? Want a quick one-click way of grabbing stuff? Need a lot of flexibility in structuring and organizing stuff? Have to handle fancy exotic media? Need to search through gigs and gigs of data? Hey maybe Excel is all you’ll ever need.

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One Comment

  1. Sergio Mora
    Posted February 10, 2009 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for your post. I’m currently in a similar situation, because I would like to have a consistent and coherent way of storing all my data.

    DEVONThink Pro 2 improves a lot of things, but sadly, I think it misses its promisses. First, it does store files into your file system, but it does it in a non semantic manner (first by kind then by date of import). Spotlight won’t see those files because they are inside the database package. You can’t navigate your files seamlessly using the Finder because they are hidden into the package. So you got to stick to the not so well done DTP’s Spotlight plugin, which lets you find your data via Spotlight but don’t let you preview it with Quicklook in the Finder. Second, and paradoxally, it does use Quicklook to preview all kind of files, but you can do the same and better in the Finder!. And third and most important, it has HUGE usability problems.