Written by David Tebbutt, Personal Computer World 10/89 - scanned
If you find that the hierarchical conventions of DOS restrict easy access to your programs and the data contained within them, Octave Associates' WEB could be the organiser you need. David Tebbutt entangled himself in its intricacies.
As you know, it is notoriously difficult to keep track of all the programs and information stored in your personal computer yet still be able to work naturally. You find yourself bending your view of the world to match the DOS hierarchies of sub-directories, or trying to make filenames meaningful with only eight plus three characters. What's needed is a program which lets you work more or less naturally and which reliably delivers all the information and program resources you need for your current task. In real life you will quite often want to access the same programs and data when carrying out different tasks, so the program will have to overcome the file naming and directory restrictions imposed by DOS.
If you're at all like me, you would like such a program to help you manage all aspects of your life without imposing extra demands on either your time or your brain. May I suggest that WEB, from Octave Associates, is the closest to this ideal. I know you've heard it all before, but WEB really is quite unlike any other program. In fact, it meets all the foregoing requirements. By allowing a single item of information (a brief note, a text file, a program) to belong to more than one context WEB breaks with the hierarchical conventions imposed on us since the beginnings of the written word.
You could say that WEB is a member of the hypertext family of products, although it was originally designed in ignorance of this fact.
BACKGROUND AND CONCEPTS
Richard Care, who first conceived WEB, was a system developer on minicomputers. He worked in traditional data processing where a requirement's specification is produced to describe the user's needs. This is translated into a system specification which defines these requirements in computer terms. Eventually, functional specifications define the design of individual programs.
At each level of specification, Care noticed two things. One was that a lot of common information was replicated at the next level down. The other was that a lot of higher level information is excluded from the lower level specifications. These observations led to the creation of WEB, a program which keeps track of all the information while allowing individuals to view only the parts which are of interest to them.
Care defined the total body of information as a 'web' and defined each user view by means of a 'thread'. In this way, some elements of the web may belong to every single thread while others may belong to only one or two. These individual elements are called 'frames' in WEB. From the original data processing application, Octave Associates developed today's WEB, a general purpose PC-based program. The frames concept has been developed so that, instead of simply holding text, they can now also link to data files, executable programs, batch files or other WEBs. Each frame will still usually contain some textual information perhaps the name of the program it activates, or a text of up to 10k (about 1500 words). Such large textual frames do break with the original concept of the frame being a single 'nugget' of information, but it does increase the user's freedom to use WEB according to their own preferences.
MACHINE REQUIREMENTS & INSTALLATION
WEB requires a PC, a PS/2 or a compatible with DOS 2.1 and above, a hard disk and at least 512k memory. It also requires CGA, EGA, VGA or Hercules graphics, since it uses GEM/ 2 or later as its operating system interface. Although WEB will work without a mouse, your experience will be greatly enhanced if you do use one.
WEB is supplied on two 5 1/4 in. diskettes or one 3 1/2 in. diskette plus, if you pay extra, a set of GEM/3 diskettes. GEM needs to be installed first and its batch file put in the root directory. Both the root and the GEMAPPS directory need to be included in the path name. Once this is done, a WEB installation program builds the WEB system on your computer. It puts six files into GEMAPPS, two into the root and seven into a directory it creates, called WEBS. Later on, the program adds another file to the root directory.
The essential files are less than 300k. If you don't already have GEM then this will take another 400k or so. In addition, the sample WEB applications total 136k. As you build your own WEBs, the system overhead is usually between 10 per cent and 20 per cent of the textual content of your frames.
THREADS AND FRAMES
The easiest way to build a web is to type WEB followed by a filename at the DOS prompt. WEB loads itself and then creates an empty web with that name. The top line of the screen is a menu bar. The second line shows the web name and the name of the active thread. At this stage, the thread is automatically called 'A new thread'. Apart from scroll bars, the remainder of the screen is reserved for displaying thread names and the textual content of your frames. If you want to work with several webs at the same time, WEB allows you to have up to seven web windows onscreen together.
Staying with the single web example, the main web display starts off with the thread name 'A new thread' half-height characters to the left of the screen. A column 18 characters wide is reserved for thread names. A vertical rule separates the thread names from the frame information. Running down the left-hand side of the frame text, and to the right of the dividing rule, lies a 'trot' column called the 'frame selector'. If the frame simply contains text, then this selector column is blank. If the frame is associated with a file or a DOS command line, then the column appears as a grid.
To start developing your web, you would select the thread name and change it to something meaningful. A sensible option would be to call the first one MASTER; you could then attach everything in the web to this thread. The next thing is to type something in the frame which lies alongside the thread name. Since this is the very first frame of the whole web, the HOME frame in fact, it might be worth typing something to that effect. Now you have a base from which to build the rest of your web.
Suppose you were the editor of Personal Computer World. You could either decide to keep everything to do with PCW in the one web, or you may prefer to build it as a series of external webs. WEB lets you work either way or in a mix of ways. If I were the editor, I'd probably build separate webs for staff matters, company matters, contributors' information, back issues details and so on, keeping the main web for current and strategic issues as well as being a convenient way of accessing these other webs.
The problem with using multiple webs is that a thread in one web cannot reach inside another web to a specific frame: it can only point to the web as a whole. A single complex web, on the other hand, could end up being very confusing. It would be nice to be able to break a web up into sub-webs when it becomes too complex. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to do this. You either have to move selected frames from the first web into a new web and then redefine all the linkages, or you have to copy the entire web and go through each copy, stripping out the parts you don't want. For the same PCW application, I decided to take the multiple web approach from the start.
New frames are created by splitting existing frames in two, a curious approach, but one which worked well enough. You make a new line at the end of the text of the preceding frame and then press the non-intuitive ALT/P (ALT/S is reserved for Searching, not Splitting). To be fair, most of WEB's keyboard short-cuts bear some relevance to the commands they represent. The converse of ALT/P, for example, is ALT/J, for Join frames.
You add new threads by pressing ALT/C for Create Thread and, like the frame entries, these can be coloured by selecting the colour attribute from an 'Attribute' dialog box. Thread attributes are simply a name and colour. Frame attributes include name and colour but also allow you to define whether the text is to be wrapped within the screen window (if not it can stretch to 1000 columns) and what its 'File Attribute' is.
File Attributes define what happens when the frame selector is activated by double clicking the mouse. The attribute can be a web name, a program name (COM, EXE or APP) another file name or a DOS command line. If, when the frame selector is activated, the File Attribute is blank, nothing happens. If the Attribute contains a program name or a batch file name then it will be executed. If you need to pass a parameter over to the program or batch file, then you need to put the '>' symbol into the first character position of the File Attribute. This causes WEB to treat what follows as a DOS command line.
Alternatively, the WEB parameter file, WEB.INF, can be tailored to associate particular file extensions with particular applications. This file is a straightforward 7-bit ASCII text file which you can edit with WEB, with a WEB utility or with your own word processor. You can include the name and path of each of your favourite programs, plus the extensions of the files each program will work with. The parameter file also lets you define things like whether you want carriage returns to be visible, how fast you want your mouse clicks, which printer port you're using, and so on.
When you activate a frame which points to a data file, WEB executes the program which handles that file. If several programs recognise the same file extension you are asked, through a series of dialog boxes, which one to activate. WEB passes the filename to the program for loading. Clearly, only programs which can already accept filenames from the command line will be able to do this under WEB.
I have a habit of naming my word processor files with the filename and the date of creation. The first two characters of the extension are the day of the month while the last character represents the month itself. (I refer to the last three months as X, Y and Z, respectively.) This means I can't execute my word processor by pointing to a data file. I overcame this by using the command line option in the File Attribute section. Since the filenames had to be entered into the File Attribute box anyway, this was no big deal. I would have liked an option to define excluded files, then I could have said 'all except EXE, COM, SYS, etc' for my word processor.
WEB itself recognises text files with the suffixes BAT, INF and TXT and will offer the option of importing the text in them. If you accept, WEB creates a new web and reads the data into it. From there, you can copy and paste it into your working web or you can edit it where it stands and export it back to where it came from. This is useful for changing batch files and for editing the WEB.INF file. Since WEB.INF is loaded when you start up WEB, you have to restart the program before any changes to that file will take effect.
If, as I did with the PCW web, you want to create additional webs, you simply put the WEB name in the File Attributes box. The first time you activate the Frame selector, the new web is created. By resizing the windows, you can get a lot of useful information on the screen at the same time. To make the best use of these smaller windows, you can cut down on the web information displayed. You could, for example, elect to display only frame information or just the first line of each frame. You can even elect to display the frame contents in half-height lettering. While this might save space, I fear it might wreck your eyesight.
You can switch between open webs by clicking on relevant parts of the screen or by going through the WINDOW option on the menu bar. One unfortunate aspect of WEB is that if you open a web for the second time, it re-reads it from disk. This means that you run the danger of having two incompatible versions of the same web if you update them independently of each other. Perhaps a future version of WEB could give the user the option of opening either a copy of the disk file or of reflecting the already open web.
FLESHING OUT THE WEBS
When you have created the mainframes, in my case the pointers to other webs and to my favourite programs, you can then start to use WEB properly. I started by taking a great heap of notes and checklists and simply throwing them into the appropriate webs without much thought for which threads they belonged to. Once I'd emptied everything into the webs, I then started creating new threads to match the ways in which I mentally connected the information.
At the level of 'Tebbo's life', I had all these formal entries (Magazines, Personal Computer Show, Training etcetera) which simply pointed to outside webs. I then had a frame for each of my favourite applications. I found it best to do this by setting the File Attributes to point to batch files in the root directory. These could then log into the directory expected by the application. If I didn't do this then the system stayed logged into the WEBS directory, which was not always convenient, especially if the programs called overlays.
New threads were added as needed. At the overall level I'd quickly added 'social', 'domestic' and 'other'. Social covered things like visits to the theatre and meals with friends. Domestic covered things like getting the telephones moved and the patio door fixed. Other was just bits and bobs which didn't yet deserve a full-blown web or thread of their own.
Once these threads are set up, you can select them by double-clicking and the display changes to show only those frames which belong to the chosen thread. Thus, I could see at a glance how many social engagements I had lined up (not many) and how many chores to do around the house (plenty). This process of changing the view is called 'turning' by WEB's authors. As far as possible, WEB tries to keep the frame from which you 'turned' at exactly the same position on the screen in the new view.
This web soon became the anchor point for my activities, both work and non-work. I must admit that it felt good to be using a program which could handle anything I threw at it, even if it was a little idiosyncratic in parts. For example, I had roamed off in the web somewhere and decided to add a frame and the name of an existing thread. I decided to type the thread name in, rather than duplicating it from the earlier one or using a 'Build Thread' command to link it in. Much to my astonishment, WEB allowed me to do this but made no attempt to link my new frame to the existing thread or to warn me that the thread name was already in use. WEB has a couple of date time related features. You can put the current date and time into a frame by pressing CTRL-D but, more interestingly, you can attach alarms to individual frames. In a typical Octavian move, WEB insists that you set your alarm at a five-minute boundary. You cannot set it for 8:42, it must be 8:40 or 8:45. I suppose this made the programming easier, but it does make the user feel as if they can't be trusted.
WEB provides a set of eleven 'dogears' to enable you to go directly to favourite frames within each web. These are displayed in the context which prevailed when you set the dog-ear. Dog-ears are set by pressing CTRL/Function Key and accessed by pressing ALT/Function key. The only exception is the Home dog-ear which is set to the opening frame when you first run a WEB. This can be accessed using ALT/H or changed by using one of the menu options.
The thing I like about WEB, apart from its general robustness, is the way it lets you do things in an ad hoc fashion. You want to add a note that has nothing to do with anything else? No problem. You want to start a new thread - just do it. There's no esoteric ritual involved. You want to run a program? Certainly, you can activate it by COM, EXE, APP, BAT, DOS command line or through a data filename.
Another thing I liked was the ability to automatically build threads based on the contents of frames or thread names. You could search for all occurrences of 'Editor' and make that a brand new thread. WEB gives you the option of skipping or selecting individual items, linking all matching items or abandoning the exercise. That is a powerful way of working, especially if you are importing and copying alien text into your web.
It has to be said, the documentation is a significant obstacle to learning WEB. No concession is given to the beginner or the person who hasn't much of an idea of how WEB works. The installation section was OK, it was what happened after that that left me puzzled, irritated and, frankly, floundering. The manual starts by giving you seven different ways to load WEB and then, before going on, suggests a further three alternatives. Just one would have done me at that stage.
Section two told me how to use the mouse and the keyboard. I felt this would be better as an appendix; after all, I wanted to start using WEB. Chapter three looked promising 'Getting started'. The trouble is that it started talking about 'dog-ears' and telling me that I could 'go directly to the dog-ear position without the need to go via the "Go to dog-ear ...N Dialog.' Oh good. I was totally bamboozled and I hadn't even finished the first page of this chapter.
Chapter four told me about using WEB with other applications. I would have been happy to learn how to use WEB by itself. Imagine being told that 'DOS commands can be accessed from within a web by entering the command as the file attribute of a frame' when you don't know what any of the words mean.
It wasn't until I reached chapter five 'Building a new web' that the manual began to make sense. This is where I think you should start after installing the program. All the other stuff can be referred to as and when you get stuck. Chapter five is like a breath of fresh air.
I have looked at many organiser packages and I honestly believe that this one gives you enough features to allow you to properly entrust your life to your computer. None of the other programs have remotely approached the feeling of complete control that WEB offers. It ties together everything in your computer and, I've no doubt, will accommodate many things you hadn't previously thought of computerising. But, as with all programs which try to organise your life, the biggest dangers come from a hard disk crash or a power cut. Regular backups and printouts of key day-to-day reminders are vital if you are to keep going in such an emergency.