Sizing Up The Personal Managers

When you met the new sales rep from Widgets Inc. last week, you took her card and filed it in your Rolodex. But did you file it under Widgets or her name? And what was her name, anyway?

Maybe it's time for you to get your card file--and your appointment calendar--off your desktop and into your computer. Once you get past the puffed-up name, personal information managers are programs that make filing and retrieving personal information on contacts and managing your schedule much easier. You can use electronic search capabilities to locate contacts by name, company, or any other information.

LINKAGE. The trick is choosing a program that suits your needs. The capabilities and ease of use of the many information managers on the market vary. At the simplest level, every copy of Microsoft Corp.'s Windows comes with little programs called Cardfile and Calendar. But you're likely to outgrow them almost immediately. Unlike more complete programs, for example, you can't click on the name of your 10 o'clock appointment in Calendar entry and bring up the background information from Cardfile.

Here's a look at three information managers for Windows: an old standby, an interesting newcomer, and a revival of a venerable favorite.

Lotus Organizer, around since 1991, owes some of its popularity to its inclusion in Lotus Development Corp.'s popular SmartSuite software package. Its calendar looks like a pocket secretary, and individual records resemble business cards. But you have little flexibility in choosing how information is displayed.

Organizer is especially well-suited to work with other programs, especially Lotus' cc:Mail. With cc:Mail, you can use Organizer over your network to schedule meetings with other users. It also lets you set up "links" between people and events: Clicking on an appointment will automatically fetch a memo from your word processor. Unfortunately, the process of setting up these links is clumsy.

WordPerfect Corp.'s new InfoCentral is different. While its calendar is conventional, it dispenses with the card-file metaphor in favor of a free-form database of names and information. InfoCentral, part of WordPerfect's forthcoming PerfectOffice suite, allows you to establish all manner of "connections" among your address-book entries. You then use a graphic interface to sort the information into different hierarchies. For example, you could display a screen of all the vendors' reps you deal with, then switch views and look at all your contacts in the auto industry. But you pay a price in added complexity for this flexibility: InfoCentral sometimes makes it tough simply to find a phone number or an address. That means InfoCentral probably is not your best choice unless it's worth mastering the complicated process needed for getting information organized.

SIMPLICITY. Borland International's SideKick for Windows is a revival of a product that disappeared from the market for a time, having originated with the dawn of the PC: The new version really only shares the name and general function of the original. Absent are some of the bells and whistles of the other products, but ease of use makes it a gem. It's easy enough to set up your calendar and phone list and be working within minutes of installing the program. SideKick, my personal favorite, is simple but not simpleminded, giving you considerable control over just what information is displayed for each phone-list entry.

The choice of a personal information manager is idiosyncratic, and you may well hate what I like. But when you select one, choose carefully. In fact, the programs are inexpensive enough--SideKick comes with an introductory price tag of $29--that you might want to buy more than one to see which you like best. Getting started with an electronic information manager can be intimidating--imagine typing up all those file cards. But once the unpleasant chore of setting up the program is done, you'll wonder how you ever lived without one.

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