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Location: GUIs > Windows > Chicago Beta-1

The Info Center

As described earlier, the Chicago shell features a single namespace that represents all of the data accessible locally and on the network.  Through the new user interface, new users are protected from the complexities of a large hierarchy of information by Chicago's simple folder metaphor.  Advanced users can choose to make full use of this powerful namespace by using the Explorer tool to see the entire hierarchy at once.  The Chicago namespace is initially divided into three fundamental "places":

  • My Computer-all of the files, documents stored physically on the user's PC.
  • Network Neighborhood-all of the files and documents that reside on other PCs on the network.
  • Info Center-email messages, forms, documents, and folders that have been stored by some information service, such as an email system or workgroup application.  Items in the Info Center needn't be MS-DOS files on a hard disk-the actual storage mechanism can be an email system or a workgroup database server.
Messaging and information services "plug in" to the Info Center.  It provides a common interface in Windows where users access all of the services they use.  Users can choose to view the Info Center resources as regular folders (the default), or they may "explore" the Info Center.  The figure below shows the Info Center opened with the Explorer, in this case open to the user's Inbox folder.

Figure 79.  Chicago Desktop Showing Info Center

Within the Info Center, the user can:

  • Read and Send Email on a number of different email systems, while maintaining a single inbox for all incoming messages.  Drivers will be available from a wide range of vendors, including LAN-based systems, host-based systems, and various online information services.
  • Send and Receive Faxes electronically with the use of a fax modem supported by the Microsoft At Work Fax software.  Faxes are sent just like any email message, and incoming faxes are received in the same inbox with other email.
  • Access Workgroup Servers including email, shared databases, forms packages, document stores, and workflow systems with the use of appropriate MAPI drivers.
  • Easily Move Messages and Documents back and forth between folders.  Users can store information the way they want to-email messages can be mixed with word-processing documents and spreadsheets.  The Windows shell provides a common user interface and toolset for managing these different types of information.
  • Organize All Types of Information for most effective retrieval and use.  Folders stored under the Info Center allow the user to create customized views of their information-users can choose which fields (or "properties") to display in these folders, and how to sort and filter the stored items.
Info Center Components

Chicagoís Info Center system is the part of the Windows operating system that allows Windows to handle all these different types of information.  It consists of a number of components:

  • A Set Of Basic MAPI Drivers.  Chicago includes MAPI drivers for Microsoft Mail as well as Microsoft at Work Fax services. Additional drivers will be available from 3rd parties.
  • The Info Center "Viewer".  This is an advanced, extensible messaging and workgroup client that is built into the Chicago shell.  It can be the front-end to any email or information system that has appropriate MAPI drivers - including Microsoft Mail.  It can be easily customized to display advanced features when connected to an advanced messaging system.  It includes an OLE 2.0-compatible rich text editor used for composing and reading messages, as well as powerful custom views, searching, and filtering.
  • Common Address Book.  The Windows Address Book contains not only email addresses, but names, phone/fax numbers, mailing addresses, and other personal contact information.  Through the open MAPI interfaces, it is accessible from a wide variety of applications.  Through the use of MAPI drivers , the Address Book is also the user interface for corporate email and information services directories.  The Windows Address Book can store addresses for multiple email systems at the same time.
  • Personal Information Store.  The Windows Messaging System includes a sophisticated local "database" that allows users to store messages, forms, documents, and other information in a common place.  Its rich organizing capabilities include using long filenames, plus sorting and filtering on various fields of the stored objects.  Users can create and save any number of custom views on the information in their personal store.  It also functions as the userís Mailbox-including a universal Inbox and Outbox that work with any connected messaging system.
  • MAPI 1.0.  The core system components that connect the Viewer and other applications to the various information services.  MAPIís namesake component is the Messaging Application Programming Interface - the set of services that any mail-enabled or workgroup application can make use of.  MAPI also defines a Service Provider Interface (SPI) that allows drivers (or "providers") to be written for many different messaging and workgroup services.

A Chicago user can install a combination of drivers so that their Info Center can be used for multiple email or workgroup systems at the same time.  To make it easy to use different information services, Chicago allows users to set up profiles.  A userís profile specifies which messaging and information services the user will have access to, along with preference information and settings.  In the example below, the user has set up a profile that contains both CompuServe Mail as well as Microsoft Mail.  This user will be able to send and receive on both systems simultaneously-while sharing a common inbox and address book. Profiles are stored in the Chicago Registry on a per-user basis.

Figure 81.  Configuring a Profile with Multiple Services

A Quick Tour

To best understand the role the Info Center would play in a userís day-to-day access to electronic mail and online services, a sample scenario is presented as follows.

To read their email in Chicago, a user would first log onto Windows.  With many of the MAPI drivers under no separate logon is required for the mail system-it has been unified with the "system" logon.  For simple access to the userís common tasks, Chicago has a Start button.  One of the items on the Start button is "View Inbox."

This immediately takes the user to the inbox (see Figure 79 above) where he or she can read any new mail received.  Users can compose new messages or choose to reply to existing ones.  There is also a "Compose New Message" item on the Start Menu.  The Info Center includes an OLE 2.0-compatible rich text message editor that lets the user get the point across in an effective way using a combination of fonts, font styles, and font attributes.

Figure 82.  Rich Text Message Editor

Note that this same message editor can be used with any of the back-end messaging systems that have MAPI drivers available.  If the underlying messaging system doesnít support rich text, the message can be sent as plain text to maintain compatibility.  Or, if the destination reader also uses the Info Center Viewer the rich text information can be automatically encapsulated and sent as a binary file.

The user can address this message to any user on any of the email systems to which he or she is connected.  Additionally, the message may be sent as a Fax by choosing a recipient from their address book who has a Fax address, or simply entering [FAX:phone#] on the TO: line.

Messages received in the inbox can be saved for future reference, if the user so chooses.  The user simply drags the messages into any of the other folders in the mailbox (message stores)-or the user can drag the message to any folder on their local or network hard drives.  In the latter case, the message becomes a .MSG file-but maintains all of the messaging-specific fields such as Sender, Recipient, and so on.

Information Stores

Sets of folders in the Info Center are also called Information Stores.  Users can also drag items from the file system into information store folders.  Information Stores go beyond the basic MS-DOS file system in many ways.  They can be physically stored in local files, or represent a database on a network server.  One of the differences between the file system and an information store is the set of fields -- called object properties -- that are stored along with each item.  Object properties include not only messaging-related properties like Sender, Recipients, Date Received, Subject, and so on-but also custom properties including:

  • Fields Defined In Custom Forms.  MAPI provides an open method for forms developers to register their forms and related data fields.  Once registered, these fields become object properties suitable for searching, categorizing, and so on.  This facility is available to any forms package or development tool.
  • Standard OLE 2.0 Document Properties.  Applications that are compatible with the OLE 2.0 object standard can choose to store their documents in a standard compound storage format.  Compound documents of this type have a number of pre-defined standard properties, such as Author, Title, Keywords, Comments, and Number of Pages.  Users can simply drag a compound document into an information store, and the document properties are automatically extracted so they can be used in views, searching, and so on.

The figure below shows the OLE properties of a compound document that has been dragged into a folder in the userís information store:

Figure 83.  OLE Document Properties

  • Custom OLE 2.0 Document Properties.  Many applications allow their users to define custom properties; for example, Case Number for a law firm or Total for an expense report.  Like the pre-defined properties above, these will be available in the views, filters, searching, and so on.
The data in a Personal Information Store is kept in a single file, making it easy for companies to distribute rich documents and messages in a standard format.  Every Chicago user then has a built-in tool (Info Center Viewer) that can browse, search, and organize the information in rich ways.  Personal Information Stores can be encrypted and password-protected for security.  Besides the Personal Information Store, the MAPI architecture makes it possible to plug in many different types of servers and databases as information stores.

The Info Center - Summary

The Info Center architecture then, provides Chicago with a single toolset and user interface for accessing, exchanging, and organizing information-regardless of data type, including E-mail, faxes, documents, and others.  Through MAPI, it provides an extremely open platform-making the Windows desktop the "place to live" regardless of the back-end services in use.