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But what makes Picasa stand out are its unexpected features – like the ability to make posters and collages, burn a gift CD in a few clicks, trade photos with friends via Picasa’s “Hello” instant-messaging program, upload your photos to a blog on Google’s free Blogger service, and even export your photos for viewing on a TiVo digital video recorder.

Why Google gives away powerful imaging tools like Picasa and Google Earth for free is an intriguing question. My guess: the more images consumers save on their hard drives and exchange on the Internet, the more there is for Google to search.

If Picasa is a traditional photo-album program on steroids, Coolect is an entirely different beast. Built by a quirky Australian company called Immortal Dimensions, the program is really a “media collecting tool” – it combines the features of a photo organizer, address book, calendar, journal, and audio- and video-management programs, such as Apple’s iTunes and iMovie. It’s available for a free trial download at Coolect’s website, and can be purchased for $39.95.

The first step in using Coolect is to import your digital media – all of it, if you like, including photos, music, video, and contact lists from programs like Microsoft Outlook. You can then browse these materials in standard ways, such as browsing through thumbnails or watching a slide show. The innovation behind Coolect, however, is that it allows you to connect items of different types into a private “mini-Web” representing your entire digital existence, then navigate it using a nifty 3-D interface called the Nexus.

Creating a connection between one item and another – say, a birthday party photograph and the contact list entry for the birthday boy or girl – is as simple as bringing up the two items, selecting them, and clicking a “Connect” icon. This forms a permanent link between the two.

If you then select the birthday person’s contact list entry and open the Nexus screen, you’ll see thumbnail picture of that person, surrounded in 3-D space by the birthday photo and all other media you’ve connected to that person. Clicking on any media item in the Nexus moves that item to the center, and shows its own set of connections. In this way, you can browse through your entire media collection – and, along the way, develop a more visual sense of how the people, events, locations, and memories in your life are connected in a real-life web. (Okay, it might sound a bit new-agey; but as with other new graphical interfaces, such as that used by the search engine Grokker, you need to try it out yourself to experience its usefulness.)

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