Everything Buckets

“An Everything Bucket, since you’re probably wondering, is what I call applications that encourage the user to throw anything and everything into them. They’re virtual scrapbooks, applying a lightweight organization system to (often) unrelated data of varying types. These applications typically employ a proprietary database, or at best, build atop the SQLite database technology that Apple ships with Mac OS X. They usually default to storing information in Rich Text Format (RTF) or Portable Document Format (PDF). They are Not A Good Idea.”

As a longtime, devoted user of a particular “everything bucket,” Gus Mueller’s excellent VoodooPad, I have to disagree pretty heartily with Alex’s blanket condemnation here. I wouldn’t use VP for every kind of data, but as a longtime observer of the Mac scene, I’ve admired many of the more specialized applications he’s praising and in many cases tried to incorporate them into my daily routine (for, say, storing passwords, recipes, notes, or to do items). Very few have stuck like VoodooPad—an application which has, for me, become every bit the “outboard brain” that Alex disdains.

But am I simply deluded? Let’s take a look at how VP stacks up against Alex’s objections:

"Everything Buckets cry: “throw it all in here! Search it! Maybe I’ll corrupt my proprietary database, but maybe I won’t and you’ll have the joy of sifting through a mire of RTF documents."

Perhaps that’s true (although it’s certainly never happened to me with VP), but isn’t that equally possible with most special purpose apps, which are probably using databases of their own (at best) or Cocoa object serialization (at worst)? At least with something like VP (which stores RTF documents) you’ll still be able to recover some data in the unlikely event of corruption.

"Everything Buckets are selling you a filesystem, and removing the step of creating and saving a new file within that filesystem. That’s their primary value. Whatever organization scheme they may claim to offer, you can replicate on the filesystem. I promise."

Maybe Alex is right that I can even approximate tags and VoodoPad’s multifarious connections among documents using UNIX-ey constructs like symlinks, but why, when apps exist that do that in a more natural way? Isn’t this just making the Finder another “everything bucket” that has more obscure UI? With VoodooPad, I can establish connections between my data that make sense to me using a medium naturally suited to that purpose: hypertext.

"So while you, the user, are presented with the illusion of ‘Googling’ for that phone number you threw into your Everything Bucket, your computer is constantly hauling ass to make up for the fact that you couldn’t be bothered to put the phone number in your virtual address book."

I would argue that this is a pretty condescending, engineering-centric view of the world. For some people (and I am one of them), search is a more natural way of interacting with their computer, and tut-tutting at users for not considering the burden their indolent user experience places on the computer strikes me as a bit odd.

I’m just finishing reading John Markoff’s “What the Dormouse Said,” a history of the early personal computer industry, and this attitude reminds me a bit of the thinking that ultimately sunk Douglas Engelbart’s visionary but incredibly complicated NLS (online system) [edit: changed “OLS” to “NLS”]: Engelbart didn’t consider it all that necessary to develop an easy-to-use interface because, he felt, people invested years in learning human languages, so why not invest 6 months in learning his system’s powerful, language-size command structure? It’s an interesting argument when you think about it that way, but it ultimately doomed his design to obscurity, while his proteges who left for Xerox PARC and designed a system people could learn to use in a hour went on to change the world. Frictionless user experience is paramount, engineering concerns are secondary.

Besides, in this era of computing power, is building a search index of a single user’s relatively small corpus of data really such a strain on the average computer? If anything, it seems to me that we should be evolving toward more sophisticated software that can take advantage of modern processors by automatically establishing connections and adding context without placing the burden of careful data cultivation on the user.

All of that said, though, I think the only truly important argument I need to make about VoodooPad is: I use it, and I use it consistently. It works for me. It’s a simple, low friction repository for the tons of scraps of disparate information I run across on a daily basis, much of which would be lost if I didn’t have a place to capture it quickly and with a minimum of fuss. It’s not perfect, and I would always advise people to use more specialized applications like Address Book (which VoodooPad integrates nicely, by the way) where it makes sense. But for most things, you can have my “everything bucket” when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

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    Decided you didn’t want to delete everything? Look into file recovery!
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