DEVONthink Pro Office: Mac Users’ Secret Weapon, Page 1

Information management software DEVONthink has a serious problem: it is so uncannily capable that many of its users don’t want anyone else to know about it. Content to let their colleagues or competitors think of it as just some ‘database thing’, they don’t want to let the cat out of the bag: for certain purposes, this software is a Mac user’s secret weapon.

What is DEVONthink?

DEVONthink, from DEVONtechnologies, is a pack rat’s dream: as a free form database, it’s a digital analogue of a box into which you can throw pretty much any type of file. DEVONthink does just a bit more than a box, however: built-in artificial intelligence technology automatically analyses the content of what you throw in, classifies it, groups it, interlinks it, summarizes it, and serves it all up back up to you in the blink of an eye.

Want to see a list of the main topics in an article? No problem. How about finding all your other files that are related to a given paragraph of that article? It’s easy. Need to search for all the files that include something roughly like a particular phrase, but which are also focused only on a specific topic? It’s a piece of cake.

DEVONthink handles everything from emails to PDFs, from music files to photos, from movies to browser bookmarks. And the data needn’t come just from files you already have sitting on your hard drive: you can also grab them live from web pages or RSS feeds (browsing: built-in), scan them in from paper documents (optical character recognition: built-in), or create them on-the-fly (text editing environment: built-in).

Who Needs a Personal Database?


If you’re an academic or a researcher — say, working in a mental health field — you already know what it’s like to amass mountains of data…and then have to manage it and make intelligent use of it. But the fact is, you’re not alone: with capacious hard drives, zippy processors, and always-on broadband connections to the internet, today’s computers invite everyone to accumulate files ranging from fairly useless digital detritus through to irreplaceable gems of wisdom and important business documents.

So if you have a mass of information, and you want to organize it and retrieve it easily — or if you want to explore or make use of the interrelationships within it — then the answer to the question ‘who needs a personal database?’ is you do.

How Does DEVONthink Work in Practice?

Long-time readers will know that before reviewing any piece of information technology at — whether hardware or software — we make a point of actually using it, and putting it through its paces in the real live business environment of a small mental health practice and web publishing venture. I’ve personally been using DEVONthink Pro Office (this is one of several versions; see ‘System Requirements and Pricing’) in research and business every week since shortly after I returned from paternity leave in late March 2007. When I came back after 3 months off, I had a fair bit of catching up to do, but I also had a renewed determination to spend less time on organizational tasks. If I could get up to speed with it quickly enough, DEVONthink promised to do some of my jobs for me. Here’s how I got on with DEVONthink Pro Office version 1.3.2, interspersed with a few usage tips that may be of some help if you decide to try out the free demo of the software.

I’ve heard many people comment that DEVONthink has a steep learning curve, but in my experience it’s more appropriate to say it has a steep appreciation curve — i.e., it took awhile before I really began to appreciate what I could do with it. One day I just decided to start with web pages I wanted to save for later use: as I encountered them, I began dropping them into DEVONthink rather than into the various locations across my hard drive where I’d been accumulating bits of information for years. (I wasn’t prepared to jump in headlong just yet: my old archives were staying just where they were!) And at first, this was little different than what I’d always been doing: just grabbing web data and, using the 2-pane or 3-pane DEVONthink view of my collection, stuffing it into hierarchically organized folders that I created along the way.

Usage Tip: If you’d just like to have a quick look at the software’s capabilities, try importing an existing collection of folders full of documents, or grab a sample data set from the developer’s web site.

So at first, nothing much was different, I wasn’t getting any significant benefit, and learning a new software environment demanded that I invest some time rather than saving it. I had little motivation to try out new capabilities, because with such a small database, few of them would prove useful. Hmm. I persevered.

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Soon I tried out the ‘auto-classify’ feature and discovered that if I already had a good number of items filed in one ‘group’ (a folder, in terms of the visual interface elements), DEVONthink was pretty good at spotting new items that were similar, and zooming them straight into that same group. No navigating required: just a single keyboard shortcut, and DEVONthink did its best to fit new items into my existing organizational structure. Perhaps this actually could start saving me some time.

Usage Tip: Clicking on ‘Classify’ at the bottom right of the DEVONthink window instead of using auto-classify will slide out a drawer showing DEVONthink’s best guesses at related groups, allowing you to choose easily where to drop your data.

So far, I was just amassing and organizing information, but I wasn’t making much actual use of it. Sure, I could get some speedy search results for items in the database, but this wasn’t terribly different from using the Mac’s built-in Spotlight search facility to search document contents; and it was much slower than using LaunchBar (see Objective Development) to access an item whose file name I happened to know in advance.

Then one day I needed to find the answer to a particular programming problem. (In my case, the web publishing side of my business requires a fair bit of nuts-and-bolts work with mixed-metaphor alphabet soup: PHP, XML, XSLT, AJAX, etc.) I couldn’t remember exactly what the solution looked like, but I was pretty sure I had something relevant. Bingo! A quick fuzzy search and a look at what DEVONthink thought were other documents topically relevant to one I was checking, and there it was: the answer was right there, and getting to it required a few seconds only because that was how long it took me to scan results and click a couple of times.

This ‘See Also’ capability, even though it is reportedly just built atop simple word frequency analysis, has turned out to be uncannily accurate at spotting relationships between different items.

Usage Tip: In addition to DEVONthink’s ‘See Also’ button, which slides out a drawer of related documents, the little right angle quote icon at the top right which looks like a fast-forward button provides a pop-up list of key words from the document you’re viewing. Selecting any of those brings up a list of items relevant to that word, along with DEVONthink’s estimation of the relevance.

OK, now I was getting the hang of it, and DEVONthink had for the first time definitely saved me some hassle in retrieving something I knew I had but which I couldn’t remember or describe in enough detail to locate easily with traditional content searching methods like Spotlight.

It’s now happened several times since then, and the fact that it has happened has begun to save me time in another way. Because I know DEVONthink is so good at finding relationships, I’m starting to devote less time and brain power to reading the items I save. I no longer have to remember as much about the particulars of a piece of information in order to retrieve it again: I do less work, DEVONthink does more.

My primary database is still very modest in size, at under half a million words. As the database grows, however, I find that I do now want to drop in the occasional nuggets I’d previously filed elsewhere, and I certainly find myself taking advantage of the classification and search features more often. And I am distinctly aware that I am getting much more use out of the things that I take the time to save than I used to. (Another database contains around 3.5 million words of psychology texts, but I don’t use that one in the intensive way that I do my main ‘daily’ database, so these types of observations are less relevant there; it does, however, let me know that DEVONthink appears to have no problems at all scaling to handle several million words.)

Usage Tip: DEVONthink needn’t import items in order to index them; if you prefer, you can leave things where they are and just ask DEVONthink to store the information in them, always referring back to the originals for display purposes. (This enables you, for example, to create a database of information physically stored on optical discs.)

The gist of my experience is this: yes, it may take some time and effort before you can really get something out of this software, but if you start realizing the sorts of benefits I’ve experienced, that time and effort will have been well invested.

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