Applications: storing and retrieving all kinds of documents, including letters, memos, articles, bibliographies, research notes, transcripts, employee appraisals and email messages
If you feel you are drowning in a flood of text, Asksam 3.0 could be your lifebelt. This free-text database can bring order to an unruly mess of documents, text files, downloaded copy, email messages and so on.
A free-text database is different from the conventional type. Instead of imposing a rigid row-and-column structure on data, it absorbs whatever text you throw at it. Each record is a separate document which you can browse or edit using the built-in word processor.
Typically, Asksam would be used to build a database of documents relating to a particular project. These could include anything from letters, memos and faxes, to technical specifications, interview notes and articles downloaded from the Internet.
With the database in place, you can quickly retrieve documents according to phrases or key words. You can also follow hypertext links, and produce reports containing summaries of various kinds. For example, if your database contains staff employment histories, you could use it to extract details of all employees with particular skills.
With the network version of Asksam, you can publish the database across a LAN. By default, users can edit the database, although an administrator can restrict this access. This makes Asksam ideal for publishing online manuals, staff bulletins and so on.
Getting your text into Asksam is easy. One option is simply to type it directly into the program. The built-in word processor is no match for Microsoft Word, but is still surprisingly powerful. It supports drag-and-drop editing, embedded OLE objects, background spell-checking, and the usual range of formatting options.
It is more likely that you will want to import existing text from other applications. The program caters for a large number of import sources, including a variety of word processors, spreadsheets and databases. It can also make sense of Compuserve threads, Eudora email messages and Lexis/Nexis downloads.
If you don?t use any of these, you can buy an add-on for #100 which brings scanned-in paper documents into the database. This allows you to drive a scanner from inside Asksam, and to apply OCR to the documents to convert them to database records.
Importing text is straightforward: you just point to the files you want to import and click a button. For the most part, Asksam does a good job of keeping the layout and format of the original document.
Once you have imported the documents, you can browse them using familiar VCR-style buttons. But the real power of Asksam lies in its searches. At its most basic, this involves typing a given word or phrase in the command line above the document window. The program then retrieves all documents which contain the specified term.
For more complex searches, you can enter multiple terms linked by boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT). Alternatively, you can specify proximity searches in which the requested terms must be within a certain number of words, sentences or paragraphs of each other. Other options include wildcards, fuzzy searches (for terms which vary slightly in spelling) and range searches on numbers and dates.
Although you can formulate all these searches in the command line, you need to learn a programming-like syntax. This is fairly straightforward, but casual users will probably prefer to specify searches step by step, using the program?s interactive dialogues.
Another way of retrieving information is with the Show command. This is similar to searching, except that it creates a new document which contains all instances of the search terms in their context. Typically, it would show the sentence containing the term, and the sentences on either side of it. Double-clicking on any of this text will take you back to the original document.
Although an Asksam database is intended mainly for free-flowing text, it can also contain forms and fields. For example, you might create a form which contains fields to hold authors? names, publication dates and similar details. Then you can limit your searches to the contents of one or more of the fields, such as to find all documents by a given author and published after a particular date. You can also generate reports and mailmerge documents based on these fields.
Although this is a reasonably useful feature, it is limited. The method for creating forms is clumsy, and the forms themselves are unattractive. Also, a given database cannot contain more than one form.
Another problem with Asksam is that you cannot save the results of a search. If you run a search, and then another, the only way to get back to the first result set is to run the earlier search again. Similarly, you cannot save a search to use in another session. And you cannot run one search based on the results of another.
The program would be more useful if you could name a search and recall its result set at a later time. The only way around this is to individually bookmark the selected documents, or export them to a fresh database.
For the most part, Asksam is a capable and easy-to-use program. This latest release is much better than the original 1993 Windows version, which was rather disappointing. Version 3.0 also has about three-dozen features which are new to the product since version 2.0.
The most useful of these is HTML support, which means that the program can import pages downloaded from the Web. It can also export documents in this form, which means that Asksam could be used as a rudimentary Web page authoring tool.
The new version can also import several graphics formats (GIF, JPEG, PCX and others). You cannot edit the graphics within the database, but you can rotate them, flip them and adjust brightness and contrast.
This type of program allows you to collect the contents of thousands of different text files, in dozens of different formats, and to store them in one self-contained database, which is easy to manage. If you like organising your text-based data in this way, Asksam is an excellent tool.
Verdict: despite a few irritating weaknesses, Asksam 3.0 is an efficient tool for managing large volumes of text-based information. It can import text from a variety of sources, and can quickly retrieve documents according to the words or phrases they contain.
Contact: Guildsoft on 01752 895100
Price: #295 (single-user); from #995 (network version)
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