First look: Foldera shows great promise

I had an opportunity recently to get a first-hand look at Foldera in an online demo with founder and CEO Richard Lusk. For those of you unfamiliar with the as-yet-to-be-released online application, Foldera is an AJAX-rich information manager that combines e-mail, instant messaging, a calendar, task management, and a document repository to produce a browser-accessible collaboration space.

I had an opportunity recently to get a first-hand look at Foldera in an online demo with founder and CEO Richard Lusk. For those of you unfamiliar with the as-yet-to-be-released online application, Foldera is an AJAX-rich information manager that combines e-mail, instant messaging, a calendar, task management, and a document repository to produce a browser-accessible collaboration space. What sets Foldera apart from similar offerings that provide PIM functionality in a browser window is the degree to which the application automates much of the drudgery and frustration these tools generally create with regard to organizing and sharing information.

Whenever you are focused on that particular activity and are working in that folder, every piece of information related to that project is a click or two away.Anyone who has struggled with Outlook or other personal information managers knows that the maintenance of information is a daunting task. We create arcane hierarchies of folders to store information and, more often than not, fail to remember the rationale we were using when we created the folders when we subsequently go looking for a critical piece of information. The advent of desktop search tools from Google, Microsoft, Yahoo (x1), and others represent an attempt to either make the hidden findable or reduce or eliminate the need to create filing structures. To one degree or another, they have proven to be an effective solution for some people.

Other approaches to managing information chaos abound. Some attempt to impose order on e-mail by automating the process of associating related pieces of correspondence based on metadata like who sent it, what the subject line included, or how the message was tagged. Google's Gmail stretched the notion of how e-mail might be managed by doing away with the idea of folders entirely, relying on labels (tags) and subject lines to thread related messages and make them more retrievable. It's a compelling and effective approach to e-mail and one I have come to rely on heavily.

See a gallery of Foldera screen shots here. 


[Click to enlarge image.] Foldera uses AJAX in a number of ways. In the Calendar, hovering over an appointment pops up the details for that event.

But an overarching solution for managing all of the disparate information objects we seem to accumulate so effortlessly but struggle so mightily to organize and use has yet to be developed. And so, we assemble a number of tools to accomplish the task and design workflows that attempt to "pull it all together". I've spent years dabbling with different tools in various combinations looking for the ideal system to impose a sustainable structure on all of my "stuff". Most recently, the combination of Microsoft Outlook and OneNote has been my solution for work-related information. Gmail is my tool of choice for personal correspondence but in order to integrate this incoming information with my calendar, task list and contacts, I bring my Gmail into Outlook as well as interacting with it on the web. Hardly an ideal solution.

When I first heard about Foldera, I was intrigued. The notion of an application environment that organized all of the different data objects I’ve described into an “Activity Folder” automatically sounded like an approach worth investigating further. One of the challenges that comes along with assembling your own toolkit is keeping multiple data stores organized. Your e-mail is stored in folders in your e-mail program. Your files are stored in folders in the file system. Your IM chat transcripts are saved elsewhere on your system. Maintaining these separate storage environments and trying to integrate them is a time-consuming and often frustrating undertaking.

Foldera approaches things from the opposite direction. You begin by creating a new Activity Folder when you begin a new project. Each Activity Folder has its own metadata that is attached to any object you create while you’re working in that folder. So, when you send an e-mail from a particular Activity Folder, that’s where it’s stored. When a response to that e-mail is received, it’s stored in the Activity Folder. Calendar events, tasks, and documents related to the Activity Folder are similarly tagged and accessible from that folder. Finally, you can associate any of your contacts who are part of that Activity with the folder as well. And every object in an Activity Folder can be shared with any of your Contacts at an extremely granular level.

Back in the dot-com days, I was part of a team that designed and implemented a web-based digital asset management system used by motion picture and television studios to provide controlled access to high resolution digital images, audio, and video files. Trust me when I tell you that developing a permissions and privileges infrastructure is a maddeningly complex undertaking. The more levels of privilege you define, the more complex the underlying logic becomes.

The user privilege controls in Foldera are very well-conceived. As the owner of an Activity Folder, you have complete administrative control over all of the information objects in that folder. You can assign view (read), view and edit (read/write), or complete administrative control (read/write/delete) over any object to any user or group in your contact list. The document controls extend to versioning to provide a similar level of granularity to who can check out (download) or in (upload a revision). The interface is clean and simple and takes only a few minutes to master.

You now have a single location where everything related to an activity is gathered. Whenever you are focused on that particular activity and are working in that folder, every piece of information related to that project is a click or two away. Of course, there are frequently times when you simply want to see all your new e-mail, documents (or revisions), appointments, and tasks. Foldera’s Summary views allow you to look at all new objects in a single, consolidated view that mirrors the presentation in a specific Activity Folder.

All of this is harder to describe in words than it is to visualize. I’ve put together a gallery of images that show the different views and controls Foldera provides. Lusk said the company will be opening up beta accounts to the first wave of people who signed up in a short time. As the user community begins to establish itself, I fully expect that the feedback the company will receive will provide a number of additional ideas to stimulate further development. From early conversations I’ve been tracking in the comments to blog posts about Foldera, the company is listening carefully.

For example, I’ve seen discussions between Richard Lusk and bloggers and their readers suggesting that the company is already considering ideas like a virtual drive on your PC where your online data can be backed up, an offline client to provide some or all of Foldera’s capabilities when you are unable to connect to the internet, and PDA synchronization. I’ve suggested that some kind of presence indicator would be a valuable addition so that I can see when any of the contacts I’ve associated with my Activity Folders are available online.

Foldera shows great promise. I’m looking forward to taking it for an extended drive to see how well it can support the activities I’m engaged in and how it can foster better collaboration with the people I work with on those activities. I get excited when I see software that pushes at the boundaries of what I do and how I do it. I get really excited when I see a truly different approach to work and, based on what I have seen, Foldera is that different.

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