January 1991

Softfile: A Memory Enhancer

Softfile is an RTG software product with an ambitious goal: to use a computer to supplement an individual's memory.

The human brain is an incredible storage device. It stores huge quantities of information which can be retrieved easily and quickly most of the time. But the brain has some weaknesses as well. It is selective about what it "stores", choosing what to remember and what to forget in a way which is usually beyond our conscious control. In addition, certain kinds of information are very difficult to remember, such as complex procedures, or strings of words and numbers which require great accuracy to be useful (for instance, a mailing address).

Computers, of course, have no trouble "remembering" thousands or even millions of phone numbers, mailing addresses, account balances, and the like. Software is readily available and widely used for these tasks.

But much of the information we need to remember is not "structured". There are no well-defined fields like "first name", "last name", or "zip code". For example, you might like to keep a record of the conversations you have with various people. When someone phones unexpectedly, you want to recall what you spoke about during the previous conversation. Or it might help you solve a problem if you could remember how you solved a similar problem months ago.

Information like the notes of a conversation is called unstructured data or free-form text. This type of information is not handled very well by traditional database programs. However, it is exactly this type of data that Softfile was designed to store.

Storing Free-form Text

Softfile organizes information somewhat like a notebook. Each screen of text is like a page in a paper notebook. After entry, the screen of text gets stored as a "record" in Softfile's memory bank. Softfile can store nearly one million records.

If a note doesn't fit on one screen, it can be continued on subsequent records, just as you would continue a handwritten note on successive pages in a paper notebook. The records are connected in a way that lets you "page" through them, forward or backward, like the pages of a book.

Softfile records do not have to be connected, however. You can enter a record which is not connected to any previous record, and then connect subsequent records to it, if you choose.

In order to store notes of conversations, you could create a background note for each person you talk to over the telephone. It would contain the person's name, phone number, and so forth. Softfile can be set up to provide a form, with pre-defined fields, just like a traditional database. Connected to the background record would be a record for each conversation. These records could be ordinary text.

The records for one person would be like a stack of notes, with the background record on top. If you enter a new note, it would go after the background record and before all the other notes. This lets you see the most recent notes first as you page through them.

Hypertext Links

Sometimes one note may refer to another one elsewhere in the stack. For example, a call today may refer to another call six months earlier, with many notes between the two. You can set up a connection between the two records which lets you move from one to the other with a single keystroke. This connection is called a link. Any two records can be linked together. You can think of links as cross-references to other pages in the electronic notebook created by Softfile.

A paper notebook and a word processing document are linear: you start at the beginning, and text follows word by word until you reach the end. But text with links between related items, often called hypertext, gives you alternative paths through the information.

Softfile has both linear and hypertext capabilities. Records can be connected together so you see them in sequence, but they can also be linked together in any desired order. Indeed, records can even be separate from all others, like paper notes tossed at random into a large box.

Retrieving Information

Information retrieval is the real challenge in storing unstructured text. In our example, once you have the background record on the screen, you can easily page through the notes which follow it, or follow a link to another record. But how do you find the proper background record?

Softfile indexes the words and numbers in each record automatically, as soon as you finish entering a new record and whenever you make changes to an existing record. You can search for all records which contain any combination of words or numbers, and then "page" through the records Softfile has retrieved.

If you search for "RTG", you might find many records. A simple trick will let you find just the background record you want: put "RTG/" on that record. Softfile considers the slash to be part of the word. Now you have a unique "word" which can pick out that record from thousands of others. To carry this idea one step further, create an index record containing the word "INDEX/" and list all the unique identification words you have created.

Softfile Availability

In a future issue we will describe additional search capabilities. Softfile is available directly from RTG for $295. A demo version, limited to 100 records, is only $25.

RTG Bills and RTG Timer are trademarks of RTG Data Systems. Other company and product names may be trademarks of the companies with which they are associated.

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