Internet Research — Collect, Organize, Share

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted July 07, 2004
Searching for information on the Internet — almost everybody has to do it at some point, and knowledge workers do it all the time. Keeping track of what you find can be a daunting task. Yes, you can save links as browser Favorites, and the Windows Explorer folder system provides a way to organize pages you want to store locally.

But what's been missing until now is a good tool designed specifically to help Internet users collect, organize and share the information they find online. Enter Onfolio from Onfolio Inc., the first of what the company says is a new category — search information managers or SIMs.

Onfolio, which costs $30 for the Standard edition and $80 for a Professional edition that adds powerful report writing functions, may be the best first-version software program I've ever reviewed. It works very well — not perfectly perhaps, but then what does? — and it has a slick and professional design.

To give you an idea of how good this software is, when it arrived, I started using it for all my Internet research — and journalists do a lot of it — and haven't for a moment thought of giving it up. Microsoft's One Note, a similar product in some respects, while very good, never took hold with me. It's overkill — too much program for most purposes — and requires too much learning and too many computing resources. On the other hand, Onfolio became instantly invaluable, and using it second nature.

How it Works
Onfolio integrates with Internet Explorer (IE) and sits ready to help you capture Web links, pages or files from the Internet (such as PDFs) that you want to store locally, snippets of Web pages or other documents, files from your hard drive and e-mail messages.

You create search collections and within those collections, you create folders and sub-folders in which to store the material you capture. You can drag and drop items and folders within collections and export from one collection to another. And with the Professional edition, you can produce formatted summary reports.


Onfolio's content and folder area
Onfolio's folder and content area appears to the left of the IE screen, while the Property Tray sits at the bottom.

Two clickable icons on the main IE toolbar let you access the software. Click on the Onfolio icon to display the sidepanels that contain the folder and content areas. The suitcase icon let's you copy the page you have currently displayed with one click. You can also display a Property Tray, a panel at the bottom of the screen that shows the properties of individual items within a folder.

Item properties include name and comment fields plus URL or path, and optionally, author name, copyright information, keywords (to make it easier to find items in big collections) and custom fields.

Within a folder you can display items by name, color-coded priority flag, date or type — Web link, PDF, snippet, etc. — or you can arrange items in any order you want by dragging them up and down the list.

Capturing Content
The beauty of Onfolio is in its flexibility and the ease with which you perform most basic functions.

To capture a Web page you're viewing, for example, click on the suitcase icon on the main Onfolio menu bar (as mentioned above), or the one on the IE toolbar — or hit F9 or right click anywhere in the page and choose Capture Page to Onfolio.

This brings up the Capture Item dialog. It includes a Windows Explorer-style panel for selecting the collection and folder in which you want to store the item, plus name and comments fields — already populated with the Web page's name and comments, if any — and a radio button option to save the page as a local copy or link. The URL is also automatically captured.


Onfolio's Capture Item screen
Onfolio's Capture Item screen let's you pick the folder where you want to save the info you found online.

Click Save, and the item instantly appears in the item list in the Onfolio panel, if you have it displayed. You can edit an item's properties at any time by right clicking it in the item list and selecting Edit Item Properties, which opens a dialog similar to the Item Properties Tray.

Here's another handy feature: When you capture a Web page or link, Onfolio automatically captures information about the Web search you used to find that page. You can re-run the search later by clicking on the link within the item's Properties.

From any Web page — or file — you can capture a snippet of text or text and graphics, or a picture as an Onfolio item. The software saves it as a local HTML page and displayed in an IE window when you select it from an item list.

If you're capturing a snippet from a Web page, it's the same process as capturing a link or local copy of a page. If you're capturing from within a stored file, you select the snippet and then click CTRL-Shift F11 to bring up the Capture dialog.

Minor Flaws
If the product has a flaw, it may be that it doesn't go quite far enough. Why not a tool that also integrates with other programs typically used in the online research process and follow-on activities such as writing reports, articles, presentations?

You can capture Word and other files stored on your hard drive to an Onfolio folder, but not very conveniently. You have to select the file from a file list and copy and paste it to an Onfolio folder, or arrange your screen so you can drag the file from the file list to an Onfolio folder.

A better alternative would be a Capture button within Word and other programs — like the one in IE — that would let you capture a file with a single click.

When you do add a file from your hard drive to an Onfolio folder, the program automatically creates a copy rather than a link. You can view the copy from within IE as an HTML page or, by double clicking, you can open it in the original program. But when you do the latter, any changes you make will only be made to the Onfolio copy, not to the original — so you can easily end up with version conflicts.

In fairness, Onfolio's stated aim was to create a Web search manager, not an all-purpose research tool. That said, other users have noted the same shortcoming, and Onfolio president Adam Berrey says the next version of the program will likely allow users to save links to non-HTML files as well as copies. The next version won't appear for at least six months, though, Berrey says.

Saving an e-mail message to an Onfolio folder presents similar problems and shortcomings. You have to select the message from a list in the e-mail program mailbox, copy it within the program, then click CTRL-Shift F11 to bring up the Onfolio Capture dialog. The only option, at least with Outlook Express, which I use, is to save a copy of the message as an HTML page. These are minor quibbles, though. The program works very well.

Search and Report
Finding material you've saved is usually just a matter of navigating the Onfolio collection/folder system — which works just like Windows Explorer. I create an Onfolio folder for each client, then a sub-folder for each project or assignment.

To find items within a larger Onfolio collection of more complex organization, click the Search tab in the main Onfolio panel and enter search terms using the program's very complete Google-like search syntax.

The report functions may be of less universal appeal and utility, and it's not quite clear that they're worth the extra $50. The Basic version of the program does let you send an Onfolio collection by e-mail to a colleague or client, but the recipient must have Onfolio too.

Given the low price of the license, it might make sense to equip everyone involved in Web research with a copy. On the other hand, if research results must be distributed to clients or large groups of people who can't be expected to have the program, then you should go with the Professional edition.

The professional edition lets you select layout templates, fonts and other formatting options so that you can you print out reports The reports are stored as MHTML (MIME Encapsulation of Aggregate HTML) documents, which can be sent by e-mail. MHTML documents can be opened in a browser, include all of the textual information — the item property data - plus all the links work.

The Bottom Line:
Like many useful programs, getting the most from Onfolio requires a certain discipline. You must take the time — though not very much — to set up collections and folders and to capture everything you might conceivably need again. If you do, the program can pay big dividends.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980's. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here's How, a spiffy new Canadian consumer technology magazine. Blackwells knowledge is vast and his wit enduring.

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