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Secret Agent Man

Chandler puts the user’s convenience above all else-which means the way e-mail and other entities are grouped is changeable, depending on the tasks at hand and how users want their information arranged. The foundation’s programmers are calling the groups of files “contexts,” since the point is to let users easily access related items, and to control what types of items appear.

The “to-do” screen, for example, could be a context, with e-mail mixed in with related task items. So if you’re planning a party, Chandler might put a calendar with key dates on it (when to pick up a cake, say), the invitation form, RSVPs, a task list, and even a budget on-screen at once. When a guest’s e-mail request for veggie hors d’oeuvres arrives, arranging for them would automatically be added to your to-do list. Contexts will mean Chandler can reorganize the screen every time the user shifts between projects, as if she were replacing her desk with a new one. That’s a far cry from today’s software, which forces people to dig through applications and file folders to find things, and to print them out if they want to see everything in one place. And while Chandler will offer preset contexts, Kapor expects other open-source programmers to build them, too. If someone develops a better way to run spreadsheet analyses, a user can simply pull out existing contexts and replace them. (Try that with Outlook.)

Driving some of Chandler’s flexibility will be a technology with a checkered past: software agents. These are small pieces of code typically designed to perform individual tasks, such as beeping when an e-mail message arrives. Attempts to build more sophisticated agents, such as Microsoft’s much-loathed “Clippy,” an animated paper clip that purports to help people use Microsoft Office programs, have faltered. That’s where Chandler volunteer Andy Hertzfeld comes in. The exuberant, boisterous programmer, whose Mac OS remains perhaps the most user-friendly program ever, thinks agents done well could reshape how people use software. “On the network, there’s a whole world that’s constantly churning out there,” he says. “So can we allow end users to express their desires automatically and then track them?” For instance, Hertzfeld asks, why shouldn’t your computer have an agent that will perform mundane tasks such as making hotel reservations when it finds a room for the right price, or update your address when it sees that a friend’s contact list is out of date?

Hertzfeld can’t resist plays on words-he’s working on “postal agents” for e-mail, “travel agents” for booking trips, and “secret agents” to handle software encryption. But his purpose is not to be whimsical. “Mitch is afraid I’ll make it too cutesy,” he says. “I have to make things Mitch-friendly.”

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