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Manage your information and activities

Why is it hard to manage tasks?

Keeping track of what you have to do and the information needed to perform those tasks is an essential requirement for staying productive. Unfortunately, rather than making this easier, computers seem to have greatly complicated matters.

One is now confronted with the additional burden of managing the computer itself, including hardware, software, and data. The rapidity of change and growth in all of these areas leaves an ever-diminishing portion of our time to accomplish any useful work: things break faster than they can be fixed, tasks pile up, and meanwhile, you're drowning in a growing sea of information.

It isn't enough that computers make some jobs much easier. The larger question is how computers can make things so much easier that the net benefit outweighs the attendant complications.

How Montage overcomes "information overload"

Montage helps you cope with lots of tasks and related information by organizing everything into manageable activity-based units, i.e. montages. Each montage can include links (Montage Shortcuts) to related montages, as well as Shortcuts for launching diverse programs and referring to relevant documents, stored either locally or on the web.

One could attempt something similar using nothing but the native capabilities of Windows itself, and this certainly is better than nothing. Unfortunately the Windows Shell and filing system suffer from a variety of annoyances and limitations.

For example, Windows can globally suspend and resume all of your work, i.e. put your whole machine to sleep. Montage, on the other hand, provides a fine-grained way to suspend and resume an essentially infinite number of distinct activities, in any combination, at any time.

The following screens illustrate activity-based usage of Montage:

A typical main montage, which opens and arranges 5 application windows.

The above shows a typical "main" montage, as it might appear upon opening (after activating the Montage Desktop window to show its full contents). This entire arrangement of applications was obtained simply double-clicking the desktop icon for main.mo3, which launched a couple of Windows Explorer windows (Today's Data and My Links), Outlook Express (for email), an Internet Explorer window navigated to a daily news site, and a Notepad window containing a "to-do" list.

In addition to Shortcuts used for daily activities, this montage contains a few important folder Shortcuts, arranged along the left edge (Favorites, My Documents, Root drive, and My Computer). Of course, since these are Montage Shortcuts, they do more than their Windows counterparts, e.g. restoring exact window placement and Explorer options, monitoring and controlling the target window, and so on.

The rest of this sample main montage contains Shortcuts to other montages, each pertaining to a certain activity or group of activities, for example astronomy, backups, clients, computer maintenance, education, etc. (Subjects need not be mutually exclusive.) These Shortcuts have been arranged into columns, alphabetically, for quick reference and easy maintenance as the number of topics grows.

Also purely by convention, the main montage is placed at the upper right of the screen, so its title bar (at least) will usually be visible for rapid access. The Shortcuts in the uppermost row of this montage (highlighted in red) correspond to applications normally kept open, i.e. these are automatically opened when the montage is opened, and closed when the montage is closed.

Now let's suppose we double-clicked on "astronomy", after reviewing the usual daily news and email ...

Adding a diversion into astronomy to the usual daily routine...

After opening the "astronomy" Shortcut, we see another montage window just below the main montage, plus another browser window navigated to a nice page of Hubble telescope images, because the Shortcut to this web page was left open last time we played with the astronomy montage. Because we've followed a consistent pattern of window arrangement, we still can recognize at least a portion of all the windows that were opened through the original Montage metafile, main.mo3, in the background. Since astronomy is a very large subject, we included only a handful of Shortcuts to selected web pages in the main astronomy montage, e.g. home pages for Hubble, NASA, etc. Instead of overcrowding the layout of astronomy.mo3, we created some more narrowly defined, related montages, and added Shortcuts to them: deep space graphics, graphic design, and Hubble.

Now suppose we opened the Shortcut to "deep space graphics" ...

Going further into astronomy, looking for deep space graphics...

The "deep space graphics" montage contains a selection of 5 Hubble images, to be considered as backgrounds for a logo. These graphics are displayed as extreme reductions of large JPG files, using Montage's built-in image viewer. Next to each image is a pair of Shortcuts, for viewing that file externally, either through Image Composer (a graphical editing tool) or through Internet Explorer. The highlighted Shortcut at the bottom corresponds to the large Image Composer window (behind, at left), which was also opened by this montage.

Although the large size of these windows has obscured most, but not all of the previously visible windows, the title bars of the main montage and the astronomy montage are still easy see, and from either of those windows we could quickly get to any of the other open windows.

Also note the highlighted Shortcut to "astronomy" in the "deep space graphics" montage itself. Even if the astronomy window were completely hidden from view, we could immediately tell that it's open and bring that window forward simply by double-clicking this Shortcut. The special gray background indicates this is an auto-detected Shortcut, i.e. it wasn't launched by this montage, but the connection to an already-open target is recognized.

The remaining Shortcuts refer to a couple more related montages, "graphic design", and "Hubble", neither of which is currently open, and there is a folder Shortcut to the directory into which these graphics were downloaded, for reference.

Now let's open the Shortcut to "graphic design" ...

Graphic design work, culminating in creation of a logo from deep space image.

Having obtained a suitable background image from "deep space graphics", we created a separate montage to do some graphic design work. This montage, shown above, has opened three more external windows, displaying the final result at various sizings.

You can tell from the highlighting of their Shortcuts that the "astronomy" and "deep space graphics" montages are still open, even though those windows are now completely hidden. Likewise, each of the other montages has a Shortcut back to this one, making it quick and easy to navigate back and forth between these related activities, despite the limitations of screen space.

Note how each of the montages has been organized into a logical, visually recognizable arrangement of Shortcuts. It takes a bit of thought and continual massaging to arrive at the most satisfactory layout for each montage, and the best way to break things down into separate montages. Fortunately, those efforts are not lost.

In this case, we created rows of Shortcuts to keep track of the steps involved and the intermediate results, as the work was performed. The project was done on and off over a period of days, experimenting with various cutouts, fonts, scaling, palettes, transparency, image formats, etc. Montage made the job easier to manage and helped to preserve a useful record of the work, which could be picked up and expanded at some later date.  Beyond that, Montage actually made it fun!


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