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The AquaMinds Interview

How would you describe your professional work and focus? Why or how is your Mac important to your work and projects?

I'm a management consultant, media producer, and author. I'm also on the board of a small high-tech/bio-tech venture capital firm, and I generally keep a foot in the academic world. I was a Visiting Scholar at MIT's Sloan School for many years and, before that, an Adjunct Professor at Columbia University Business School.

My firm's consulting activities focus on large scale organization design and transformation, particularly working with senior executives on strategy development and change. For instance, I've been very involved in the evolution of global financial markets, such as London's Big Bang and the debates over Nasdaq in the U.S. I've also spent considerable time trying to understand the role of major technological and structural developments on strategy, such as the impact of biotechnology on the evolution of the pharmaceutical industry and the emergence of information technology as a competitive weapon and organization design "structural material."

The media business generally supports the firm's change-related activities, since all such work involves lots and lots of communication, and these days people expect a lot more than hand-drawn overheads.

Since I work with ideas, it's important for me to be able to tell my story effectively in a variety of media. I've always used Macs for my work. In fact, I bought a Lisa in 1981 because it was the first accessible graphical machine. At the time, the results were the envy of my colleagues. LisaDraw was a breakthrough.

Tell us about what kind of machine you're running OS X on and what you think of Jaguar (10.2)?

Personally, I'm running on a 500MHz Titanium Laptop under Jaguar. NoteTaker runs really well, as does everything else -- both classic and OS X. I was somewhat skeptical about the Jaguar release before I upgraded, but it has turned out to be very valuable despite one or two legacy problems. I also have an older 500MHz G3 running System 9 and a PC that I use for particular applications and compatibility testing.

What kinds of software applications do you use in your work?

This is a long list, so I apologize in advance. I'm a believer in using the right tool for the job, and so I've collected a lot of tools.

Until NoteTaker came along, for list-making, brainstorming and document drafting I've used MORE, the outliner, for many years. It has been really the best game in town for idea processing on either Mac or PC. I've always been surprised how few people use outlines, although if one is not using a tool that's optimized for it, outlining is often inconvenient.

For general-purpose writing, I use MS Word, although I'm quite interested to see how the OS X version of OpenOffice evolves. It's now in beta and shows considerable promise. When I have to process text or write code of some kind, I use BBEdit. It's a wonderful piece of software and grep makes it much easier to do complex searches than I can do in Word without resorting to Visual Basic or writing a Perl script.

For doing analytical work, I use Excel for simple tasks and as a communication medium with clients for numerical analyses. For more complicated analytical work, I must confess to being a bit of a Mathematica junkie. Mathematica is one of the greatest pieces of software ever written, and it can be used as a simple calculator or to do "real math." For statistics, I use SPSS and StatView, and occasionally some specialized tools. I also use iThink for systems dynamics model building, which I'm doing a fair amount of at the moment, and I use various forms of StarLogo for demo-scale agent-based models.

For drawing diagrams and charts, something I do a lot of, I use both Freehand and Illustrator. Freehand is also great for small desktop publishing projects where Quark Express would be overkill. For more "artistic" drawings, I use Painter for pixel-based work and Expression 3, and object-based tool, from Creature House in Hong Kong. This is one of the most exciting graphics packages to have come along in some time, and anyone who loves graphics software should look at it.

For presentations and slide shows, I use Powerpoint like everyone else, although I'd love to see an alternative. However, presentations are often the format for a deliverable to the client so using the same application is essential. I also publish certain documents in PDF using Acrobat. This is an obvious choice for documents prepared outside of the MS Office suite, which are the only applications you can ever count on people having.

For Web design, I use DreamWeaver plus Flash, Photoshop, Painter and Freehand. Often, my deliverable will be a concept for a website rather than the fully functioning site, so I tend to personally get less involved with performance than design. Nevertheless, even early mock-ups have to have pictures and animation, so I tend to do my own as a way of storyboarding the ideas.

For image processing and compositing, I use a combination of Live Picture and Photoshop. Live Picture, despite its limbo status, is still the best creative environment for digital photography. It has an active international online user community hosted by Julian Calverley in the UK that keeps it alive. In addition, I preprocess my digital photographs using Bibble from BibbleLabs. It does an astounding job on Nikon NEF format files.

I sometimes use Premiere for animations and short video clips, but I leave the heavy duty editing to the professionals. I also do a limited amount of 3D work in Bryce and other simple packages. Again, I leave the real work to the pros.

I'm also a big fan of FileMaker. For the vast majority of cases when data needs some structuring, Filemaker is perfect. It's often possible to get a rough version of a new data base up in less than an hour if the data is reasonably clean. I find that a lot of people under-structure the data they work with which makes it very difficult to discern important patterns or to drill down to get the answer to deeper "why" questions.

Sometimes, even with all these tools, there are tasks that need a custom solution. If the task is numerical, I can usually do it with Mathematica. If I can't, I might resort to Visual Basic, Perl, Java or even HyperCard, although I try to avoid getting lost in this work.

I'm sure that this is a longer list than you want, but it's a realistic picture. As I said, I'm a great believer in using the right tool for the job, but to do so you need a range of tools available and know what they can do. Far too many people try to make a few software tools do everything, which is a bit like trying to drive a nail in with a pair of pliers. In many cases, I've seen people do the wrong type of analysis simply because they used the tool they knew how to use rather than learning the right one.

Are you using NoteTaker now? How exactly are you using NoteTaker?

I'm still exploring NoteTaker, but it is fast becoming the center of my information universe. I increasingly use it to organize everything, from those sets of information that naturally fit within the notebook paradigm of sections and pages to things that are a little less obvious. I'm writing a new book, for instance, and that's a slam dunk for NoteTaker.

What NoteTaker features matter most to you? Why?

Let me tell you what I really like so far. I love being able to drag files into NoteTaker so that I can access them without having to worry about exactly what I called them or where they are stored. I also love the ability to highlight, categorize, prioritize and index information in a variety of ways. NoteTaker makes it easy to get information in, and then to get access to it when you need to.

In this regard, services are amazing. Once a "clipping service" is set up in NoteTaker, it's possible to ship information from any application that supports services to NoteTaker even if the receiving notebook or even NoteTaker itself is closed. As more and more applications support services, this means that the manual effort of cut-and-paste will be replaced by a much more natural process of just "shipping off" the data to the right notebook destination. I must confess that it's so much like magic that I had to check the first few times to make sure that it worked. Of course, in the early days of fax, I remember calling to destination to make sure the fax had arrived, since the process seemed so wondrous.

Another key point is that NoteTaker is completely integrated with the web. You can link any word or phrase to a URL or you can enter the URL directly and it will be recognized and become a link. If you drag the @ sign from the MS Explorer tool bar, NoteTaker will enter the reference for you, and you can also drag the entries from your favorites page.

Using the Refresh Entry command NoteTaker will happily expand your URL into a visible page, effectively acting like a browser. What's even more amazing is that you can then click on a link within that page and your browser will pop up the page you clicked on. Thus NoteTaker provides the ability to save specific pages including the utility of their links. With so much of people's essential information becoming available on the public and private web pages, NoteTaker is worth the price of admission for this feature alone!

I must say, though, that it is less the specific features of NoteTaker than its overall design that is exciting. It's one of those applications that gets better and better the more you use it so that, after a while, it's hard to imagine how you ever lived without it. NoteTaker may actually be a new type of multi-purpose software, much the way the food processor was a different type of general purpose kitchen appliance when it was invented in the 1970s.

From my perspective, the key point about NoteTaker is that unlike almost every other application, it is not single document oriented. In addition to text you enter or import, you can include other document references, URLs, other notebooks, graphics, and so on. This is subtle but important. Like just about any application, NoteTaker allows you to enter your own information, like your bank, brokerage, and mortgage accounts, but you can also enter the URLs of your financial institutions and 3rd party information providers as I just described, or include a link to the Excel spreadsheet you might use for budgeting or aliases to your Quicken or Money database. With NoteTaker you have access "under one roof" to the information you entered, to web pages, and to the information you have "clipped" or copied from various separate documents. In some ways its a bit like going to a shopping center versus a series of separate stores. There's much more convenience when things are all together than you might think.

Beyond this, from the ground up NoteTaker's design reflects the belief that information becomes more valuable the better it is organized. Using NoteTaker's multiple ways of structuring information, one can evolve the value of one's notebooks over time through better interconnections as well as by adding more content. Unlike a data base, however, NoteTaker's data structures are much more free form, so you can start with little, if any, structure and add more as you need it on a just-in-time basis. There is simply nothing else out there quite like it.

The benefit of the NoteTaker design is that you "share the load" of keeping track of information relationships with the software. In other words, you don't have to keep it all in your head. AquaMinds has given us a great tool, because the bulk of the information that most of us have to keep track of is semi-structured, or it needs to be organized in multiple ways. This is where NoteTaker shines in a way that nothing else comes close to.

How do you describe NoteTaker to other users?

Explaining new software is always a challenge, especially if the software defines a new category. It's useful to realize that most people embrace new tools on the basis of "one key use" rather than by thinking of all the wonderful things it might be able to do with it. To be helpful, therefore, I try to identify the types of things that a potential user might value from NoteTaker, especially the things they might be struggling with today. Fortunately, there is always something in almost everyone's life for which NoteTaker is the perfect solution.

For instance, my wife is working on a cookbook for parents and kids that's designed to be published in sections. It will have multiple contributors for both recipes and art, and it will have introductory parts to various sections that need to be researched. As you can imagine, there are a lot of bits and pieces to keep track of, and there will be a lot of rearranging before the project is done. This is a great job for NoteTaker.

I also think that NoteTaker is the perfect tool for doing schoolwork. It beautifully fits the real-world paradigm of multi-section notebook, but students can put all the info they gather for a project or homework assignment in one place. Even more powerful, teachers can distribute courseware in an NoteTaker notebook, including links to the class or third-party web pages, readings, homework assignments, answer keys for practice problems, etc. Compared to NoteTaker, paper is a poor substitute.

What is the learning curve for using NoteTaker?

NoteTaker is very easy to use in a simple way, such as as an outliner, as a tabbed notebook replacement, or as an electronic scrapbook. The learning curve arises as one begins to explore the ways certain information management tasks would be better handled using NoteTaker than in the old way, whatever that might have been.

For instance, when I first started to write my new book, NoteTaker was not yet available. I used the Mac's file structure to organize information such as chapter outlines, drafts, articles, simulation runs, Mathematica notebooks, diagrams, pictures, etc. When NoteTaker arrived, it became clear that it provided a much better way to keep track of all this information, especially if the notebook was structured like the book itself.

Since I've gained experience with NoteTaker, I've found that I've been more casual about the filing of individual documents but more extensive in my descriptions of their content within NoteTaker. In the new system, everything is accessible and logically grouped, nothing gets lost, it's easy to move things around as my ideas evolve, and cross references are a snap to create.

In the abstract, it may be difficult to understand the incredible power of being able to put aliases and URLs in one's documents, or to link one part of a notebook to another or to another notebook. However, remember that this hypertext ability is a key part of making the world wide web so usable, and AquaMinds is the first company to have brought it to the desktop in a friendly yet powerful way. In addition, if one categorizes one's entries as you go along, the task of summarizing them becomes very easy. Of course, it's possible to do a text search to find something after the fact.

This last point reminds me that NoteTaker doesn't force you into this more structured approach, and that's one of its strengths. Moving from straight text entry to an outline is an easy step, as is using major section headings for separate topics. Categorizing, prioritizing, and cross-referencing via links are just a click away, and building an index is as easy as running a spell check. You use these functions as you need them, and online help is right there in notebook form.

To be honest, however, like any powerful multi-purpose tool, NoteTaker will pay the greatest dividends for those users who make an effort to understand its capabilities, not just to focus on solving their immediate problem. This doesn't mean mastering all the features at once, merely learning what the program is capable of is often enough to enable you to come back to a specific feature when you need it. The AquaMinds website contains a number of useful examples, and its interesting to see the novel ways people have tackled their information management problems. I would encourage people to explore other people's solutions. You never really know when something might come in handy.

Are there other applications you intend to use NoteTaker for in the future?

As the splash screen says, NoteTaker is for everything on your mind, so I expect that I will find more and more uses for it. One obvious task is to reorganize my client work into a series of "meta-notebooks" that have sections for the various projects and initiatives. A lot of information needs to be cross referenced -- even across clients -- but it has been difficult to do that easily before now. In addition, like most people, a lot of my personal information is spread out over multiple files and stored on servers accessed via the web. NoteTaker provides a way to put this all in one place, and there's no reason why the references can't be across computers, which will provide some very interesting benefits for families and workgroups.

As soon as I can, I plan to introduce my son to NoteTaker, although he's only 4, so he has to learn to read first.

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Bio
B.E.E. Rensselaer
S.M. & Ph.D. MIT Sloan School of Management

President of MGA Limited, a management consulting company and MGA Media, its sister media production company. Projects in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and the U.K. and work for a very wide variety of industries.

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