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Monday, December 12, 2005

It was just my imagination, running away with me...

When you look at the file browser, a web browser, an email client, or even a blog, message forum, or wiki—in other words, virtually if not all information systems, there are several higher order functions which potentially if not yet actually unite them. Based on these functions, it will be shown that it is possible for one single interface to integrate these in a unified manner, while still allowing for the range of healthy diversity which is possible when the programs are not independent—and in fact expanding this diversity by making more cross-interaction possible between the different “organs” of the digital organism. As in all aspects of life and reality, an ever-widening and perfecting unity-in-diversity is the ideal impulse and aim.

To take one of these functions for information browsing, creation and storage, we can say that there is a desire to receive information by time/date according to wholly new information (updated information to be discussed later) and to be able to view these items globally (i.e., all together at once) and sequentially (a calendar format is also possibly for all the possible permutations as well, but more perhaps on that later). For email, this is the primary, though not exclusive, means of display. One can see all of one’s email in order (that will fit into the window at least). Thunderbird developers have had the insight to realize that RSS fits this paradigm as well and can be integrated within the same interface (though it can be integrated even further as also discussed later, both among RSS and between RSS and emails). When examining this functionality at the web browser level, one may be tempted to say that this is not relevant. However, upon looking closer, one can see a missing functionality of most if not all browsers (at least as a central feature): the ability to receive in a kind of “inbox” a sequential listing of all subscribed to webpages—those which appear whenever a webpage has been added.

Of course, there are a plethora of ways in which one may be notified of new information. There can be icon changes, pop-up notifications (local or global), etc. And even in the display of global sequential new information described above, we may wish to resort the list by some other means, add or utilize categories, tie together automatically or manually such as through threads or “paperclips”, and filter the list (by any means imaginable to the developer and user—by message headers, message content, by being marked read or unread, etc.). But it is nice to at least have the basic functionality expressed for each type of content (and to have it integrated together with all common if not all types of content as well).

To extrapolate ideal features still missing from our “ideal” system, we can also begin with the web browser for ideas. Although there are bookmarks (which are analogous to email folders) and other means of browsing, the most familiar it would seem, is the URL window. In general information terms, this functionality is the ability to type in an absolute location (or relative in the case of URL window shortcuts) to find one’s information. So, why then is this functionality missing from email programs? With a mass of emails and folders to scroll through or perform an imperfect search for, it might be nice to have an auto-complete window (as with the URL window) to go in such a manner to the right email. The analogy could be extended further to think of email bookmarks (for frequently or recently referenced emails), email shortcuts for such a URL-like window (e.g., “wikip 5” could jump to my fifth email in my Wikipedia email folder).

If I have the time, I would like to elaborate on all of these ideas much more, particularly on the advantages of being able to browse or edit all of one’s content in an integrated fashion (e.g., storing emails, websites, blog entries, etc. in the same categorization scheme). But hopefully such a global, bird’s eye view of development planning could help focus on some really time-saving, power-enhancing innovations, rather than mere tweaking of a babel of imperfections brought about by a lack of a unified (yet flexible and vastly expressive) system.

Hopefully existing components can be considered for a wider application, and then brought into an integrated framework for viewing, editing, etc. all knowledge.


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