If there's a software category more cluttered than photo organizers, I can't think of it. Thanks to digital cameras with cheap memory cards, we seem to be awash in photos - and chronically unable to sort them out.
Unfortunately, most of these organizers are more trouble than they're worth unless you're an obsessive-compulsive organizer to start with. Who else has the time or patience to go through 8,000 photos and identify every person and location?
Not being that compulsive, I wound up using Windows' folder system to organize my shots by year and subject. Having taken the photos myself, I have a good idea what's in the collection. If I get hit by a bus tomorrow, the kids can worry about sorting them out - or not.
At least that's how I felt till I found a nifty little program called PhotoMesa, developed by Ben Bederson, director of the Human-Computer Interface Lab at University of Maryland, College Park.
As its name implies, Bederson's lab looks for ways to make people and computers communicate with less hassle, and PhotoMesa was one of his projects.
It's free for downloading, starting this week. Originally Bederson sold it for $25, but he says so many outfits started giving photo organizers away - including Google's Picasa - that he joined the crowd and switched to an advertising-supported business model for his Web site.
PhotoMesa has a unique take-it-or-leave-it approach toward organizing your snapshots.
If you don't care, the program presents your photo collection as if it were a huge, old-fashioned slide sorter that spreads thumbnail images out in front of you, organized by folder at the outset - but you can change that.
According to Bederson, it's like viewing all your photos from the top of a mesa - hence the name.
"My initial motivation in creating it was to support my personal browsing of photos with my young daughter. I was frustrated with traditional interfaces because they didn't support what I call exploratory browsing, which means browsing without knowing exactly what folder you're looking for," he said.
By right- or left-clicking the mouse button, you can zoom in on any group of photos of any size. Pass the mouse cursor over any image and a slightly larger version automatically appears. This is one of the program's most interesting features because it gets rid of a lot of mouse clicking - but it takes some getting used to.
Bederson thinks most programs distract users with too much clicking and window management, and the pop-up feature is one solution to the problem.
He and his colleagues have their own name for this approach - a zoomable user interface, or ZUI, as opposed to the traditional graphical user interface, or GUI.
In this milieu, double clicking on any photo brings up a full-screen image or displays a somewhat smaller version in a preview pane, depending on how you set up the highly customizable viewer.
With a large image displayed, the cursor keys automatically display the previous and next images - but doing the same with the mouse requires a right-click and a menu selection, which actually creates more hassle than the Photo and Fax Viewer built into Microsoft Windows XP. So the design isn't perfect.
If you're interested in organizing, PhotoMesa is flexible and original. It's much easier to annotate and find photos that contain images of a particular person than other organizers I've seen. In fact, it lets you identify people in an image individually - a nice trick, if a bit of overkill.
The best way to start is by setting up a list with the names of people who commonly appear in your photos. The program displays that list in a pane on the side of the screen. As you scroll through your collection, you can select any image or collect a group of images containing that person.
To annotate the photos you've selected, just click on one or more names in the list. It actually takes more time to explain this than to do it. Searching is just as easy - when you click on Aunt Thelma's name, you'll see thumbnails of all the photos in which she appears. Click on Uncle Lou's name and you'll see all the photos that contain Aunt Thelma and Uncle Lou, and so forth.
You can organize your photos by setting up topics with their own hierarchy. For example, you can set up a vacation topic, with subtopics for each trip and each stop on that trip. Seeing your topics in a list makes it very easy to search.
You can do a lot of this organizing over time, in spare moments. The ingenious thing is that the more people and topics you create, the easier it becomes to organize future photos.
The scheme is at once simpler and more sophisticated than most of the organizers I've tried, and Bederson says that was the whole point.
"The photo industry says nobody annotates their photos, so there's no reason to develop good software to support that," he says. "We believe people don't annotate because there's no good software to make it easier."
Like many sophisticated graphic-oriented programs, PhotoMesa relies heavily on the muscle of today's PCs.
The minimum requirement is Windows XP running on a computer with a 1-gigahertz processor or better and 512 megabytes of internal memory.
You may want even more horsepower to manage a large photo collection. Mine, for example, has about 10,000 images in 250 folders. My main computer, a Compaq Athlon 3000 system with 512 MB of memory, isn't a speed demon but usually gets the job done.
By the time PhotoMesa finished indexing all those images, it was breathing hard - the drive was running constantly and switching from one view to another was getting sluggish.
More memory would go a long way toward fixing that problem - and so does turning off the display of folders containing rarely viewed images.
All things considered, PhotoMesa is a quirky and ingenious little gem. If you have a photo collection that needs taming, give it a try at www.windsorinterfaces.com.
If you have kids and want to provide a nifty reading adventure, there's another fascinating project from Bederson's lab waiting for a visit - the Children's Digital Library. Just stop by www.icdl books.org.