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An Ode to Useful Computer Software

THE letter came the other day and I knew it was bad news.

Its glossy pages described the company's new software. But what it really said, between the lines, was that its old product was history.

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The high-technology highway is full of such orphans, abandoned because companies didn't think they were attractive enough. When the product happens to be your favorite software, it hurts.

It's called Agenda, an information program long on vision but short on sales. Lotus Development Corporation is giving up on Agenda to concentrate on a new information manager called Lotus Organizer. That's an unfortunate step. I think Agenda represents an important guide to the future of computing.

People are never objective about their favorite software. I can't claim immunity. But I'm not alone in my enthusiasm.

James Fallows, Washington editor for The Atlantic, devoted an entire article to Agenda in the magazine's May edition. Lauren and Robert Flast of Westfield, N.J., built a company around the concept. They are convinced, as I am, that it represents a giant stride in personal computing.

Lotus doesn't think so.

It will continue selling and offering technical support for the program but has "no intention at present to do development further on the Agenda product," says Barbara Baird, a senior marketing manager at Lotus.

I can understand why. Agenda never caught on with the masses.

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It's the leading "personal information manager" or PIM. But no one really knows what that amorphous term means. Some PIMs manage your calendar. Others organize your ideas. Computer users let out a collective "Huh?" and scurry back to their spreadsheets.

Even Agenda experts, like Ms. Flast, admit they can't explain the product in few words.

Imagine a computerized librarian that collects all the ideas and random bits of information you feed it. It automatically categorizes and cross-references them. You can slice and dice the information anyway you want. That's Agenda.

If you create a category called "Fishing," Agenda will put there any item that includes that word. Agenda uses artificial-intelligence techniques to match the text in an item with categories.

Suppose you change the item. "Meet today with Bonnie about France" becomes "Meet Jim Friday for fishing trip." Agenda takes the item out of the categories "Today," "Bonnie," and "France" and drops it into "Friday," "Jim," and "Fishing."

There's more to the program but those are the basics. The point is that Agenda does these things automatically. Lotus's new Organizer does not. Yet Lotus expects to sell many more copies of Organizer in the next two years than it ever sold of Agenda.

The company is probably right. Organizer is much more straightforward than Agenda. Like all today's popular software, it uses a familiar metaphor. Organizer displays a desktop calendar, including the metal rings that would bind the pages together if they were real paper!

There's no handy metaphor for what Agenda does. It goes beyond speeding up routine activity. It "knows," for example, that when I type in "Friday" any time this week, it means Oct. 9; "in two weeks" means Oct. 14, and so on. It's the first step toward idea-handling software and, perhaps, a common-sense computer.

Agenda needed more development. It's harder to push information into the program than it should be. The program runs on DOS, the character-based operating system. So it's not in a good position to reap the emerging benefits of graphical interfaces. (Organizer runs on the graphical interface called Windows.)

The critics are wrong when they call Agenda hard to use. But it takes time to grasp its possibilities. I used it three years almost daily before I realized I could use Agenda to write stories as well as collect information. This column was written with it.

Even if Agenda drops into obscurity, common-sense, idea-handling software will reemerge somewhere. One day it will have many fans.

* Send your comments on this column to CompuServe (70541,3654) or Prodigy (BXGN44A)

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