Why fool around with discontinued, obsolete technology? Isn’t everyone going to Outlook anyway? Why resist? The answer is: for the same reason you should stick with using WordPerfect over Microsoft Word. Popularity does not determine what is the superior product with superior features. The newest thing is not necessarily the best thing. So here is a bit of an essay I threw together to compare and contrast InfoCentral 7 and its stated successor, CorelCENTRAL.
Any attempt to illustrate the differences between InfoCentral and CorelCENTRAL is both easy and difficult. Easy, in that listing its advantages is a fairly simple, if lengthy, exercise. Difficult, because those unfamiliar with the product will not fully comprehend just how useful those features can be.
The first and foremost advantage of InfoCentral, of course, is its linking technology. Using this, any object – be it a person, organization, event, task, file on disk, or a custom-created object – can be linked to any other object. Further, the links themselves are objects. The reason this is important – no, essential – is flexibility, which is most easily shown by example. Suppose one has a client called “ABC Company.” Working for ABC Company are five separate contacts, each with his or her own extension. In InfoCentral, the “organization” object ABC Company has a separate connection to each such individual, and each connection may be distinctly defined: e.g., “President,” “Manager,” “Staff Member,” and so on. Each connection also has its own “Direct Line” phone number for that individual’s own extension. Therefore, in order to find a contact, one can locate the organization that contact works for and find the connected individual immediately. Without “organization” objects, one has to recall the name of the individual to find the contact. CorelCENTRAL 8 has linking ability, but each link must be within the object and expressly defined. In CC8, “ABC Company” would need a specific link field for “President,” one for “Staff Member”(perhaps several for “Staff Member”), one for “Manager,” and so on. And each such link would have to be a filed in each Organization object. When one considers potential links to directories, files, events, tasks, telephone calls, and other objects, one soon finds the hyperlinking technology used in CC8 to be too cumbersome and unwieldy to be actually useful.
I could offer a multitude of other examples, but will limit myself to a couple. Instead of having to differentiate numbers for ten different IRS offices by artificially altering “display names” (e.g., “IRS - Appeals,” “IRS - EP/EO Division,” “IRS - Form SS-4 Filing,” none of which are the way one actually wants one’s letter addressed), I can have one “Internal Revenue Service” object connected to ten different branches, which are naturally and logically organized. And the addressee and address does not have to be modified when inserted into a letter (e.g., having to change “IRS - Appeals” to “Internal Revenue Service [hard return] Appeals Division”). Not only that, but I can connect objects to areas, people, locations, states, cities, counties, appointments, telephone calls, ad infinitum. InfoCentral allows me to organize my information hierarchically in a tree structure, unlike all other products which only allow parallel “groups.” And InfoCentral can use “groups,” too, in several different ways: tabs, categories, connections.
A second example: in my “Audio” IBase, which organizes my music collection, I can have one musical group (say, “The Beatles”) connected not only to albums but songs, genre, locations, and related groups. That kind of connectivity simply is not possible using something like the Card File, but it is easy in InfoCentral, which has the power of a relational database that can be created on the fly and without any programming knowledge. Further, unlike the Card File, the information is accessible and usable.
Having one’s information organized hierarchically, though unfamiliar to some, is a lifesaver. Occasionally I will run across an unfamiliar name in my IBase. In any other PIM, I would be left wondering who the person is and what relevance that person has to me. In InfoCentral, all I need to do is find out what organization, event, telephone call, case, file, or whatever that person is connected to. I’ve got a Personal Information Manager.
I could go on and on about the flexibility of InfoCentral links, but I probably already have. Just try downloading some of the sample IBases that shipped with InfoCentral, and investigate the possibilities.
The second major advantage of InfoCentral has to do with finding all that information. FastFind is, of course, exceptionally handy, because all one needs to do is enter part of a name of anything (people, organizations, events, tasks, QuickNotes, or any other object) -- and all matches for that part pop up immediately. Looking for me in your IBase? No need to type out all of “Michael Koenecke,” which you probably forgot how to spell anyway. “Ko” will get you there. “Mike” will get you there, or “Michael.” All instantaneously. Once accustomed to using FastFind, the InfoCentral user soon abandons its Address Book-like optional view, since it is so much faster and easier to obtain one’s information that way than visually scanning through a list.
But that is a minor feature compared to Find By Example, which allows one to do a quick and dirty database parsing: find all people in a particular zip code or state, or even everyone on “Main Street.” How is this useful? I have a field of check boxes on people in my IBase, one of which is titled “Christmas Card.” A quick Find By Example based on that field gets me my annual Christmas card list. A different Find By Example gets me a list of people to be printed to my portable address book listing, or any other configuration I have set up. It is true that this could be done using Groups, too -- but it would require a lot of groups, and groups only allow explicit groupings, not by state, or city, or zip code, or other natural parts of an address book object.
The third big advantage of InfoCentral relates to using all that information. In the traditional WordPerfect - Address Book (or Microsoft Word - Outlook) interaction, to create a letter I select the appropriate template, choose an address, complete the letter, and print. Using InfoCentral’s “Create Related Files” feature, I start with the recipient first. I Create a Related File, and the template pops up in WordPerfect with the address information inserted. I complete the letter and print. How does this differ? In the InfoCentral example, that letter has been assigned a unique name and saved to disk. Not only that, but the file is automatically linked to the person to whom the letter was sent. I automatically have a record of my correspondence, linked to the recipient, recallable and reviewable at any time. For a lawyer, this is a Godsend. Of course, those who prefer to work from the word processor without using Create Related File can work that way, too, by selecting an address from InfoCentral to paste into the letter. I have produced an “AddressBook” WordPerfect / InfoCentral macro (actually two linked macros) which makes the process easy and automatic.
Another advantage of the Create Related File function is using it to push information to other programs. MAPI is a good concept, in that having one central source of data makes sense. But not every program (including, at present, InfoCentral itself) is MAPI-enabled. And InfoCentral can use a SendKeys-like function to push information to any other program, if set up properly. This gives it unparalleled flexibility and usefulness.
A fourth advantage that InfoCentral has over other programs: it has its own macro language. The degree to which information can be exchanged with it, using its macro language (which is very simple BASIC, actually) is astounding -- even though the macro functionality is, at present, a bit half-baked. (For example, there is no way directly to assign a particular macro to run from a menu command or keystrokes: you have to tell it to “run” the macro as a program, which is slower.) The macro language, at present, is a wonderful possibility, particularly because it offers so much more access to the information than any other PIM. In brief, the reason for this is that each field in an InfoCentral object has defined attributes, and the hex value of any field can be read to determine the type and characteristics of each field. For example, an InfoCentral macro which interrogates the value of a specific field’s attribute can be used to determine if the contents of that field is an e-mail address, whether it should be called “email,” “e-mail,” “e-address,” “online,” or anything even less intuitive.
A fifth advantage of InfoCentral concerns flexibility of output. Personally, I especially like automatic formatting for Day-Timer-sized pages, making for easy printing of portable address books. But InfoCentral also allows adjustment of fonts and sizes for the various printing options -- although you have to edit an .INI file to do it -- which allows customizable output.
Finally, as for advantages, I will throw in the “Cool!” factor. InfoCentral can pop up a message window listing Caller ID information to notify you of incoming calls. Cool! (And, with my modified Caller ID macro, it can notify you audibly, too!) InfoCentral has a list of country codes and area codes, searchable. Cool! InfoCentral tells you the time zone where you’re calling to, automatically. Cool! It pops up birthday reminders automatically, just like appointments, and tells you in the object how old the person is. Cool! InfoCentral can pop up QuickNotes with a keystroke. Cool!
And so on. Frankly, the only thing I can think of that is even remotely “Cool!” about CorelCENTRAL is the fact that it will dock off the screen.
In summary, once someone gets used to using InfoCentral, one becomes fairly passionate about it. It becomes indispensable, and everything else seems inadequate.
Though InfoCentral, unchanged since 1996, remains the best and most flexible personal information manager there is, it is not without its flaws. Here is a portion of a message sent to Corel in 1997, discussing what needs to be fixed or improved. I have added later comments in italics:
“The latest reviews of the upcoming version 8 of the suite have me, and many devotees of InfoCentral, rather concerned. CorelCENTRAL appears to be a ‘me-too’ version of Microsoft’s Outlook; that is, combining the weak Address Book with a Sidekick-like scheduler. No mention of InfoCentral has been made either by Corel or by the press, and it is starting to look like the product will be abandoned. This is a huge disappointment and shame. Were InfoCentral to be developed into what it could be and used as a true Suite centerpiece, it would be hailed as revolutionary. What I mean is that InfoCentral has sufficient power to be novice-friendly (with some interface upgrades) and retain the underlying power that makes it unique. I’ve sent my list of suggestions to George Hanus, CorelNet InfoCentral moderator, already, but here they are for you:
1) Ability to drag and drop files to connect to IC objects (only works with the Windows 3.1 file manager currently).
2) Ability to keep more than one pane open, to link between panes.
3) Ability to select multiple objects and perform operations on all. For instance, this could be a very slick way to do mail-type merges.
4) Ability to access object and field information from within other components of the Suite (WordPerfect, QuattroPro, Presentations).
There is already a DLL provided with InfoCentral that offers limited access to object information. As far as I can tell, it needs the object and field name provided exactly to be useful, however. If that DLL could be expanded to include more of InfoCentral’s internal macro functions, it could be a springboard to true Suite integration.
5) A better standalone phone dialer, capable of dialing 10-digit local calls both within and without the local area code (this is becoming more and more common).
6) Ability to configure the appearance (fonts, colors, etc.)
7) Macro integration with Perfect Script (currently really only uses SendKeys equivalents).
8) Access to all features from all views (currently, limited features available in Cardfile and Calendar views).
This is, frankly, InfoCentral’s biggest problem. Many people have found its default InfoTab view “intimidating,” because they are used to a standard Address Book-type view. That view could be made the default in InfoCentral, with the InfoTab view retained only for the advanced user, if only all functions could be accessed from it. Currently, the “Cardfile” view is only an overlay, as can be shown by trying to run macros on it. The overlay does allow viewing of information and connections, so something is working there, but it needs to be connected to the underlying database.
9) Integration with Netscape Communicator.
This was written before MAPI was popular. I would amend this to “Make InfoCentral MAPI-compliant.” What this would mean is that a selected subset of the information available, in conformance with MAPI standards, could be available to the MAPI subsystem. The “Create Related Files” functionality could be retained as a parallel way to access the information. Just as WordPerfect is the consummate example of the “more than one way to skin a cat” approach, InfoCentral could be its perfect complement. I would also add:
10) Updating InfoCentral’s country code and area code listing, and making it editable for future updates. These are changing all the time, and the proprietary format of the database is, unfortunately, uneditable at present.
This was written before this problem was solved in 2004. New databases are available for download from my Web site.
11) Finally, perhaps the biggest thing InfoCentral lacks is networkability. It had a decent start at it with integration with Groupwise, and the fact that the data directory is called “Local” indicates that networking the data was in the plan from the start. But it never got there. Making the IBase networkable and multi-user accessible is essential for it to be a premier product.
“Were the above to be implemented in InfoCentral 8, Corel could have a *true* centerpiece for the suite. You may protest that CorelCENTRAL will be able to handle all that, which is true in a very limited sense. As an attorney, I find InfoCentral’s linking ability and configurability indispensable. For instance, unlike any other PIM, I can organize government sites (courts, clerks, IRS, etc.) by area and jurisdiction. I can have a case connected to opposing counsel, parties, and the court it is situated in, as well as connecting it with hearings and trials, and the actual pleadings involved. But version 7 is really only a 32-bit 1.1, with a few bells and whistles added. Its limited ability to transfer information only via the Clipboard holds it back from attaining the preeminence it should possess.
“I very much fear that Corel is pursuing the ‘least common denominator’ strategy and that, if InfoCentral 8 appears at all, it will be targeted to the ‘power user,’ who, in order to access IC’s power, will have to give up the convenience of true integration being built into the ‘mainstream’ CorelCentral.
“I’ve been thoroughly disillusioned by Microsoft (rigidly demanding that one do things their way alone), Symantec (monopolizing the utilities market, increasing prices, and decreasing value vis a vis its old competitor PC Tools), and IBM/Lotus (abandoning the individual market for their all-inclusive vision of groupware, not to mention the huge fumble on OS/2) for their product and marketing strategies. I have been a big Corel supporter, but am starting to wonder if Corel has adopted the ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ point of view. I would sure like to be proved wrong.”
[Postscript: In the two and a half years after I sent that message, I think the capabilities of CorelCENTRAL 8 and 9, and the fact that CorelCENTRAL 10 looks to be yet another complete rewrite, are themselves sufficient commentary.]
[Second postscript: And there isn’t a CorelCENTRAL 11 at all!]
Last updated: November 27, 2004