Is Boolean Dead?

This is the 20th anniversary of the introduction of the Macintosh computer and Apple's ground-breaking ad, "1984," shown only once—at halftime during the Super Bowl in January 1984. Apple has a QuickTime version of the ad on its site, with the hammer-throwing woman (updated so she is now wearing an iPod) sprinting down the aisle to the image of Big Brother. Seeing that ad with the addition of the iPod (one piece of technology I now cannot travel without) got me thinking. Apple has a 5% market share in the PC market, despite an architecture that has for years been superior to Microsoft's offerings. This is due to Apple's decision to maintain a closed system and not license their software. On the other hand, Apple's iPod has 30% of the market for MP3 players, and its iTunes service holds 70% of the market for legal music downloads. Why? Because Apple finally recognized that having a cool interface isn't enough; they also have to provide products and services that don't require a proprietary system to use and are accessible to Windows as well as Mac users.

Translating that into the world of econtent and information professionals, I wonder how many of us are behaving like Macs rather than iPods. The Mac info pros are the ones who know they have finely honed search skills, built through decades of experience searching the professional online services. They know their favorite online systems are not cheap, but they are the best, darn it, and that is what they will use. The iPod info pros, on the other hand, know that the way to build loyal clients is to offer a streamlined and frictionless interface, coming to the client rather than expecting the client to accommodate the info pro's special needs or requirements.

As we info pros—both Mac and iPod—watch the development of new information visualization tools such as Grokker, Mooter, anacubis, and even SmartMoney's Market Map, we see that user interfaces are going to be a lot fuzzier in the next couple of years. We will be able to clump information together, mouse over titles to get a sense of what's underneath, move the clumps around, reorganize them, rank them, sort them, discover similarities and new relationships—all of this without ever issuing a Boolean command.

The skills that I have been so proud of all these years—my technique in wrestling a complex LexisNexis search strategy to the ground, my ability to use Dialog's MAP feature, my knowledge of complex nested logic and field-delimited searches—make less of a difference when I am working with an information management system that relies on the 30,000-foot view of the information landscape. My Mac-info-pro mentality doesn't serve me well these days.

Both we info pros and our clients will need to learn how to manipulate and, well, get involved with information, rather than just typing in words and waiting for the search engine or research source to evaluate the syntax, consult its inverted index, sort the results, and present us with an ordered list of "hits." We will have to understand the nature of the information we are looking at in order to recognize the answer when we see it. In fact, we will have to evolve into Zen researchers, unearthing the answer from a myriad of options rather than simply scrolling through 10, 50, or 100 Web sites, articles, or patents served up by our search tool. Not only will we have to be good searchers, but we will have to be good intuiters as well, able to know where to look for information and how to sort through all the options presented to us.

This is a good thing, as Martha Stewart undoubtedly would say. Right now, most of our research tools let us see only the information that is on the surface. We can review the first ten sites served up by Google, and with the emphasis being placed on drilling down into the hidden Web, that means we see a much wider variety of material today. So of those ten hits, two are PowerPoint presentations in which we have no interest, one is an audio broadcast, one is an image that isn't really relevant, two are flames from a discussion group, and four are good old HTML pages that might be useful. What we really want is to be able to explore the sea of information hidden behind those first ten results, to be able to sort and manipulate the results in order to sniff out what would answer our question. Right now, most research tools just don't let us do that.

So Boolean searching isn't dead. The ability to say, "I'm looking for information on X or Y, but I'm not interested in anything that talks about Z," must remain. But powerful Boolean logic has to be buried deep within the user interface, rather than functioning as the steering wheel we searchers use to navigate through the info-sphere. Users should never get an error message like Questel's "Please check your search, you have not respected the operator hierarchy." After all, who's running the show, the user or the machine? I think the hammer-throwing, iPod-wearing sprinter knows the answer to that.