Monday, September 24, 2012

Hidden in Plain Sight: Zekira and the Battle for Facebook

A long and complicated essay was posted last week by Aaron Greenspan, one of the people who claim that Mark Zuckerberg stole the idea for Facebook from him (link).  Most of the essay is focused on Greenspan's vast reservoir of dislike for Zuckerberg.  I didn't read the whole thing; it's about as entertaining as listening to me complain about the stuff Microsoft did to Apple in the 1990s.

But what did stand out to me was the start of the essay, where Greenspan reports that just this month he found copies of IM conversations he had with Zuckerberg when Facebook was conceived in 2004.  Greenspan writes:

"It turns out that my Other folder contained some of the most important legal evidence regarding the origins of Facebook, Inc. that I had been trying to find for years, but without much success. I had already scoured the folders I created for the Student Entrepreneurship Council and come up with a number of the AOL Instant Messenger conversations that I had with Mark, but not all of them, and not the most revealing ones. I had also checked my "Aaron" folder, which had another sub-folder for Instant Messenger conversations, as well as the large hierarchy of folders containing all of Think Computer Corporation's data, which had even more conversations, but none with Mark. The conversations I remembered having, but could not recall the exact details of, were nowhere to be found, at least until September 12, 2012."

The files stayed lost for eight years because they were buried in a flood of other documents Greenspan had saved.  Most people who save documents end up with this problem.  You can't know what you'll need in the future, so you save everything.  But the more information you save, the more difficult it is to find anything when you need it.  It sounds like Greenspan was unusually rigorous in the way he organized his files, but no amount of careful organization can help you find something if you don't remember where you put it.

This is one of the problems that a context manager should solve.  In addition to helping you recall the context around current events (meetings you're going to, people you know, etc), it should help you go back in time and recall your context around past issues.  I think that if Greenspan had been using Zekira, he could have found those files in under a minute.  And who knows, maybe the legal wars over Facebook would have turned out differently.

I'm not saying you'll end up in a legal fight over the origins of a leading web property, but you never know.  What I can promise is that the more successful you get, the more likely it is that you'll desperately need to find some files or messages you saved, and Zekira will be able to help you.

Announcing Zekira Beta Five

I'm happy to report that the fifth beta version of Zekira has now been completed.  If you sponsored us on Indiegogo at the $35 level or higher, you should have already received an e-mail with downloading instructions for the beta.  If you didn't receive your e-mail, please send us a message right away.

We took a lot of time on this beta because we wanted to thoroughly optimize the performance of Zekira while it indexes your information.  That was the #1 request from testers.  Our engineers did a huge amount of difficult low-level work on the innards of the app, running enormous in-house tests to identify bottlenecks, and carefully tuning the code.  Mike spent much of the summer as Mr. Tester so the engineers could focus on the hard work.  The whole process took longer than we wanted, but the result is a much snappier indexing process in our tests, and we look forward to hearing what the beta testers think.

We also simplified the UI, added support for more file types, and of course squished a lot of bugs.  A partial summary of the changes is below.

I've learned over the years not to try to predict a specific release date while waiting for beta feedback.  We originally hoped to ship in summer, but all I'm comfortable committing to at the moment is that we'll ship version 1.0 this year.  Thanks for your patience, and we'll update you as we progress.

Changes in the latest beta

Support for more document types.  We added support for Excel files, Outlook messages saved outside of a PST (.msg files), an additional form of web file (.mht format), and RSS feeds stored by your e-mail system.  The index also now lists every document Zekira finds, even ones that it doesn't know how to read.  Those documents are indexed by name, date, and folder location.

We eliminated the Context list.  Many of you told us that the Context list, displayed on the right side of the main window, was confusing and cluttered up the screen.  Since you can now search for any word or date by clicking on it, the list is redundant.  So we eliminated it. 

If you want to reduce the size of your index, or speed up the indexing process, you can specify a cutoff date for how far back in time you want information indexed.  Items older than that date will be ignored.

We made a huge number of bug fixes.  One highlight: Zekira now handles Outlook PST files more robustly.

These changes are in addition to the new features we added in beta four:

Everything's clickable.  When you're looking at a document, meeting record, or other item in Zekira, you can click on any word, name, or date in it to do an instant search for it.  This makes it much easier to follow the connections between items.

Narrow or broaden a search with a single click.  If you click on an item like a name, meeting, or document to see other things related to it, you'll sometimes find that you get either far too many matches, or too few.  You can use a new control, the Connections slider, to adjust your search.  Slide it to the left to show only the closest matches; slide it to the right to do a broader search.

Filter by folder.  We've added a new filter that lets you look for items that were saved in a particular folder or set of folders. 

We added a Query window.  This is a small window that you can leave open on your desktop to get info on your next meeting, and do quick queries on a word or name.

We simplified the setup process so you don't have to fuss with choosing folders to index or look for the location of your Outlook or AppleMail files.  

Add up all the changes, and this is a very different app from the one we previewed at the beginning of summer.  That means we need to go back and re-create the preview videos on the Zekira website.  It's a nice problem to have -- it means we're making progress.