Software Review: DEVONthink Pro Office, Version 2.0

DEVONthink 2.0 has now been in public beta for several months, with the final release right around the corner. The new version brings a host of feature enhancements and interface and usability improvements. But while this superstar of Mac OS X information management is more capable than ever before, advances in tagging technology and search in the underlying operating system itself threaten to shrink the potential market for this software down to just those who are truly taking advantage of the software’s sophisticated AI core.

A Quick Recap, and What’s New in Version 2.0

Our earlier review of DEVONthink Pro Office version 1.3.2, from DEVONtechnologies, provides a full run-down of the fairly amazing capabilities built into this free form database: clever artificial intelligence technology automatically analyzes, categorizes, extrapolates and summarizes the documents you drop into it. As far as I’m aware, in terms of this type of capability, nothing else compares to it at anything like this price level, on any platform. The software is so remarkably powerful that some users, particularly researchers in academia, actually don’t want to tell anyone else about it — they’d rather keep this ‘secret weapon’ to themselves!

The software has long been criticized for having a steep learning curve or, as I prefer, a steep ‘appreciation curve’ — by which I mean that it’s not that hard to start using in a basic way, but it takes longer to appreciate just what else you can do with it, and how best to take advantage of all the power concealed under the hood. The 2.0 update goes some way toward exposing more power to the user via numerous interface tweaks and whole new additions such as the ‘Sorter’, which provides an ever-present slide-out drawer at the edge of your screen, into which you can drop documents for later automatic filing into DEVONthink.

The new version also brings a range of usability enhancements, including the ability to show thumbnail images for all documents types supported by Mac OS X 10.5’s Quicklook. Likewise, documents in a group can be viewed with Mac OS X’s Cover Flow. Multiple databases can now be opened at the same time, and a universal inbox can be used to collect new documents which can then be farmed out to the various databases. And the contents of all those databases are now fully indexed by Mac OS X’s Spotlight search facility, thanks to a move away from the proprietary database structure of past versions: now all documents are stored in their original form as separate files, thus becoming fully visible to Spotlight.

In all respects, the 2.0 update is an improvement over the previous version, and in many ways the upgrade is a no-brainer for existing users.

Interestingly, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that many of the improvements to DEVONthink have actually come about as a result of throwing out the previous way of doing things (e.g., the proprietary database, thumbnail generation, etc.) and integrating instead with Mac OS X’s built-in capabilities. To fair, this is not true across the board: PDF management capabilities have been significantly beefed up, for example, as have OCR functions, thanks to a new OCR engine based on ABBYY FineReader. These improvements have nothing to do with OS X. But the point is that the operating system itself is advancing swiftly, and it is catching up in many areas with capabilities that previously distinguished DEVONthink itself.

And therein lies a problem, in my opinion.

So if Everything Has Improved, Where’s the Problem?

The problem, in my view, is a classic case of Christensen-style disruptive technology. (See Clayton Christensen’s more than decade-old book The Innovator’s Dilemma. [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]) Christensen’s term describes the process whereby an inferior but ultimately cheaper and improving technology gradually eats away at the unique value of a superior but more expensive technology. For example, when ink-jet printers were first introduced, they were inferior in almost every way to laser printers: they were slower, offered lower print quality, and cost more per page to print. But the printer itself could be made more cheaply, and its capabilities could be improved sufficiently rapidly that eventually the ink-jet became not only ‘good enough’ for a growing segment of the printing market, it became the preferred solution; the higher quality laser printer staged an ‘upmarket retreat’.

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An analogous process may now be occurring, I believe, in the area of the software market previously served by a sophisticated AI-driven package like DEVONthink (or even less capable competitors like Yojimbo or Together): for users who are not taking full advantage of its sophisticated artificial intelligence capabilities, and who are just looking for something akin to a snippet repository with decent search and some analogue of clustering capability, the combination of Mac OS X’s Spotlight, Quicklook, and simple tagging via the emerging standard called OpenMeta may be good enough. In other words, the problem is not that DEVONthink fails to exceed the capabilities built into the operating system or available via free or low-cost tagging software — clearly it does offer far more powerful capabilities — the problem is that a segment of the market that may previously have looked to software like DEVONthink may now be happy to get by with Spotlight, Quicklook and tagging. (After all, even DEVONthink itself is now using Spotlight and Quicklook!)

And that segment of the market is apt to overlap significantly with the group of mental health professionals and academic researchers who might be visiting this site: for some (but certainly not all), DEVONthink is no longer the only game in town for what you want to accomplish.

Where to From Here?

The game is far from over for DEVONthink: the software remains remarkably capable, and for many users, it still literally cannot be beaten. But the heat has been turned up, and in my view DEVONthink now — despite undeniable improvements in features and usability — has even farther to go if it is going to maintain its relevance to other than those already taking full advantage of its sophisticated AI. That means putting that sophisticated AI squarely in the middle of the value proposition it is offering users, bringing it right out into the open and making it faster and easier and downright obvious for users actually to use it.

Supporting native Mac OS X technologies is a great thing, but the folks at DEVONtechnologies have their work cut out for them making sure it is plain for all to see just how obviously greater DEVONthink is than just a collection of underlying capabilities being provided by the operating system.

System Requirements and Pricing

DEVONthink Pro Office

DEVONthink requires Mac OS X version 10.5 or higher and comes in the following flavours:

  • DEVONthink Pro Office: US$149.95
  • DEVONthink Professional: US$79.95
  • DEVONthink Personal: US$49.95

These prices are unchanged from the last version, except for the Personal edition, which has increased by $10.

Please see the DEVONtechnologies site for full details of the different features available in each version.

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