askSam version 4. Perry, FL: askSam Systems, 2000. CD-ROM, plus User's Guide xi,  pp. and Getting Started,... $150 for the standard version, askSam Pro is $395.
I have used askSam off and on, for various purposes since version 1.0 for DOS. Those purposes have included qualitative analysis of open questions in interviews, creation of a music CD database, and information retrieval from a set of documents. The uses described by the makers of askSam are very much greater in number and a number of applications are demonstrated on the disc including a bibliography maker, with entry forms for different types of document; a software bug-tracking database - used by Seaside Software themselves; an address file; a personal information manager, and more. If you didn't know askSam, you would get the strong impression that this is a very flexible system – once you do know the package, you'll realise just how flexible it is and how much can be done under the umbrella of 'The Free-Form Database'!
Possibly because I started using this package in the DOS version, I preferred it to the Windows version that followed. One advantage of the DOS system was that it took up less space on the hard disc, had (to my mind, at least) a lower learning curve, and a pretty straightforward way of generating reports. In fact, recently, I went back to the DOS version to recover my music CD file, which I'd managed to lose from my disc in changing PCs and found it as easy to use as I recalled. However, time marches on and askSam has been in a Windows version for some considerable time and greater refinements have taken place and more features have been added as the years have rolled by (the system has been around since 1993 in one form or another - pretty impressive when you think of the other things that have come and gone since then!)
The installation routine for the package is straightforward - that is something that all software producers seem to have resolved over the years, and, following installation we have the usual offers of read-me file, tutorial, and sample applications. These are all well worth checking out.
The designation 'free-form database' indicates the essence of askSam: you create files of unstructured text, or you can create an input form to structure the data. Even in the latter case, however, the individual fields may contain large blocks of unstructured text. For example, I may wish to create an input form for a collection of web pages. To do so, I might set up fields for the URL, the current date, and the text of the page, or extracts from that text, or whatever. The input form would look like this (as you can probably guess, [ and ] are field delimiters):
Filled with data, a entry would look like this:
Yes, the hypertext link is live, and any links in the text would also be preserved, and doing both of these things - setting up the form, and transferring data took just about as long as it take to write about it. You could create similar forms for, say, recipes, e-mail messages you want to archive, your own letters, or technical papers, or whatever. The process is simplicity itself.
Import and export
Of course, with a 'free-form' database, as you may imagine, you don't actually need to set up a form - the straight text will do. So, for example, you can import all of your old word-processing files on a particular topic directly into an unstructured set of files. I did this with the text of a student dissertation: setting up the system and importing ten files amounting to over 700kB took about two minutes from start to finish. And what you get is a fully editable file, using askSam's own word-processor. Word files are not the only things that can be imported, you can also take in text, .rtf, WordPerfect, Excel, and previous versions of askSam files, and one or two more. However, I haven't yet had very much success in importing my old CD catalogue files into the new version - I suspect that when I transferred from DOS I didn't do it properly.
The import function is pretty stunning, but the output to HTML is even more impressive. All ten files were output in HTML in about one second. Of course, the output is not exactly ready to put on a Web site (otherwise the dissertation would have been there by now!), however, it does get you quickly to first base in conversion. One could imagine applying this idea to, for example, taking a whole lot of corporate human resource policy documents and putting them quickly on the Web, while retaining a searchable file. You can export to other formats too, of course: to text files, delimited text files such as .csv, to .rtf files, and to earlier versions of the program.
askSam has a very wide range of search capabilities built in; here's the list:
If you have a file of large documents, like the chapters in the dissertation I imported, you can search on either a single document, using the FIND routine from the Edit menu, or you can search on all of the files. The FIND routine is very much like the 'Find (on This Page)' operation in Internet Explorer - you type a word or phrase in the box and the appropriate terms are highlighted in the document. The Search routine is very powerful, with all of the possibilities listed above available. A small example shows how useful the different types may be: I did a Boolean search on the files (the dissertation is on Internet information sources for investors) and the system found forty-eight hits for 'portfolio' AND 'updat*'; however, when I used the proximity search feature, asking for 'portfolio' within one word of 'updat*', it found two.
The main window splits to reveal the search results and you can move from one hit to another by clicking on a button in the results pane.
Look and feel
This is a major revision of askSam and some of the idiosyncrasies of the earlier versions, dating to its pre-Windows days, have now disappeared and the package now has the look and feel of other Windows programs. The main window, for example, looks very like a Microsoft Word page - some of the buttons differ, but many, including the formatting buttons, are identical. One may mourn the passing of the old programs, which often had better ways of doing what Microsoft does, but there are undoubted usability advantages to be gained from common interfaces. It simply does not take as long to learn how to use a package that fits the de facto industry standard.
This program has now been a long time and it is, perhaps, the most successful of the free-form database programs. It has been used to organize the documents in US Congressional investigations as well as to maintain a contacts list in a home office. It is a very flexible system. It can probably cope with just about any problem involving unstructured files that you care to throw at it - particularly now that it supports file sizes up to 16 terabytes - yes, that's not a mis-print, and if you have a hard-disc that big I suspect your name is Cray!
One word of warning - when you import files into askSam they are copied, so if you don't need the original files you'd better delete them, otherwise you'll be filling up your hard disc faster than you may like.
Professor Tom Wilson