Features – Information Retrieval with ISYS Desktop 5.0

Paul E. Merrell is a lawyer in Eugene, Oregon who has used Isys since DOS version 3.0. His E-Mail address is [email protected] .

Suffering from information glut? All the search engines on the Web won’t help you find information on your own computer, but Isys Desktop will in a matter of seconds.

Now entering its twelfth year, Isys first appeared on the DOS desktop in 1988. It quickly became a favorite in the legal community because of its ability to retrieve information quickly, its command set that matched that provided by Lexis, its “don’t change anything” approach, and its ease of use.

Unlike other text retrieval packages, Isys handled files in their native format and existing locations, with no file conversions necessary. That tradition continues in the most recent version, which can index, search, retrieve, and view files as “what you see is what you get” renderings in more than 70 common file formats. Found files can also be fed from Isys to their associated applications with a single command or mouse click, allowing editing in the program that generated the file.

Supported file formats include popular word processing, spreadsheet, database, E-mail, HTML, and PDF file formats, even when stored in ZIP archives. Odyssey Development, the Isys developer, plans to add support for Win Help and CHM file formats in version 6.0, allowing all system documentation to be combined as a single searchable database.

Isys enables searches in a variety of ways. For the infrequent user, “natural language” queries take the pain out of searching. (Screenshot)

Beginners will appreciate the menu method for constructing Boolean queries, which also teaches advanced techniques by concurrently displaying the constructed command line.

While requiring more detailed configuration, the query-by-concept method allows creation of a “treed” table of contents to data, launching predefined searches from the hyperlinks. (Screenshot) Experienced users tend to favor the command line method, similar to that used by many Web search engines.

Were those the only search tools provided, Isys would still be useful. However, the package offers a host of other tools that may be used either on the fly or in standard searches through configuration. Those include fuzzy logic searches, conflation of search terms to their grammatical variants, and synonym rings for equivalent search terms.

Synonym rings are a particularly useful tool for experienced users. For example, if you notice that some writers frequently use different terms for the same or closely related concepts, such as “ipf” and “invalid page fault,” you can add both of those terms (and more) to your synonym rings so that a query for any term in the ring will automatically search for the others as well. Synonym rings are also useful to link common misspellings to correct terms.

Unusual for a free text retrieval engine, Isys uses a specially adapted implementation of its synonym ring feature to allow searching by dates or date ranges in documents or within the labeled “sections” of documents. While this may not sound like much at first blush, the inability of text retrieval engines to search by date or date range stood for a long time as the critical reason for choosing between them and database search engines. This Isys innovation dramatically improves its usefulness and allows creation of databases using normal word processing or text editor tools. It also allows Isys to work around a common limitation of database applications, the inability to add fields to existing records. While specific features of a database program may still be needed in many situations, Isys may do away with that need in a host of common situations.

Isys also provides a “word wheel” search tool, which allows “fuzzy” checking of a database for “sounds like” terms, or to determine valid search terms using a word completion, stemming approach. An intelligent agent may also be set to alert you when new information is added to databases that matches predefined query arguments, which may include nested queries.

Once a query returns its “hit list” and “document list,” Isys allows refining the search by several methods of file sorting and filtering including relevancy and date ranking, or by refining searches within the returned results. Queries may be saved either automatically or manually.

When viewing files, Isys highlights search terms, allowing you to quickly move from hit to hit. Isys queries may be set by configuration or on the fly to return hits in their textual context, with several settings for controlling the amount or type of context shown, such as number of lines surrounding the hit, entire paragraphs, or pages. Selected text may be instantly used for a refining “natural language” or be used to construct hyperlinks or embedded queries.

For database creation or export, Isys provides a range of tools for editing and exporting the query returned “document list,” including control over header information, the ability to move files from one database location to another, hit list editing, and direct faxing or E-mailing of the list or selected text. Edited Isys document lists may be exported for uses such as building batch programs to perform actions on selected files.

One of the major Isys innovations in the 3.X DOS version was the ability to annotate viewed documents. By the DOS 4.X version, annotations could themselves be indexed and searched. In the Windows 5.0 version, annotations now offer a host of features, including easy creation of hyperlinks among annotations, documents, graphic images, embedded queries for related documents, and user-customized hyperlinks that can launch applications. (SEE ISYS HINTS SIDEBAR.) Annotations are stored as separate files linked to corresponding documents, either in a designated directory or in the same directory as the documents. Annotations are particularly useful for constructing litigation databases.

Selected text may be sent to the Windows clipboard, gathered and edited in Notepad or WordPad, faxed, E-Mailed, printed, or used to frame another query. The gathering feature is an extremely useful tool for conducting research, for example extracting relevant information from deposition transcripts complete with headers showing file name and location, document title, witness name, document page number, and line number.

Isys databases may be as large as two gigabytes containing up to 32 million documents each, and up to 32 databases may be chained to be scanned in a single search, either on the fly or by configuration. Isys also offers a full complement of network administration and security configuration tools, allowing customizing for individual users and monitoring of usage.

Selection of documents to be added to a given database is controlled by a range of methods from individual file designation up to rules-based inclusion or exclusion. Files may be excluded or excluded by drive or directory, by file extension, by file type, or other criteria. Databases typically are between 15 and 20 percent of the size of the documents indexed. Because of the compressed indexing algorithms employed, even gigabyte-size searches execute in only a second or two.



Do you work for a law firm that has struggled with the complexities of creating a useful bank of old briefs and legal research? You can create a brief bank with Isys by changing a single configuration setting. No files need to be moved or reorganized. Just leave them where they are on your network or PC.

By default, Isys designates each letter of the alphabet used singly as a “common word” that will be overlooked in searches. Reconfigure the common word list so that the letter “v” will be treated as a searchable word by itself. Then update your Isys database so the change will take effect.

From now on, including the letter “v” as a word in your query ANDed to the rest of the query will delimit searches to files containing the letter “v” used as a word by itself, as in “Smith v. Jones.” In the normal law firm’s files, only a tiny percentage of files will use “v” for anything but legal citations. Instant brief bank!


Most Isys users overlook the enormous advantages offered by creating unique file type identifiers.

For example, look at some of the possibilities created by adding the “at” sign (@) as an indexed character and using it in annotations and/or in altering macros and templates so they automatically add a unique file type identifier at the end of each document in a non-printing “comment” or in “greeked” type too small to read. Batch programs or macros can be used to append the identifier to legacy documents. Thereafter, the resulting unique identifier can be used to limit searches to documents of that type.

Consider these examples:

Identifier File Type

@cor correspondence
@dep deposition transcript
@depsum deposition summary
@wittrk witness tracking form
@witsum summary of expected testimony
@filesum client intake and tracking
@cr clerk’s OCRd docket sheet
@exh exhibit list
@exhsum exhibit summary
@lrs legal memoranda or brief
@cap case caption file
@tnb trial notebook index or outline
@img graphic image of exhibit
@hlp file containing this key


Visit web sites that use it and try out Isys Web:




Despite its array of powerful tools, Isys crossed an ease of use boundry for text retrieval tools even in its DOS days. Prior to Isys, text retrieval engines were either too difficult to use or offered too limited capabilities. However, Isys offers a set of interactive menus and dialogs that require little training or study to be useful. Isys is one of the few desktop software tools that may legitimately be regarded as an investment rather than an expense.

The Basic Facts about Isys

The Isys ability to locate instantly a hard-to-find address or file quickly made it a favorite among legal assistants and lawyers. As they used it for limited purposes, they quickly learned that even more power was waiting at their fingertips, and made good use of it. Habits of frequent file house cleaning imposed by the capacity limitations of early floppy disks quickly disappeared as Isys users learned their queries would provide even more relevant information than sought as the amount of information stored on hard drives increased. Odyssey Development added more Isys tools to meet that demand for access to more information.

The Isys family has grown from its simple desktop beginning to include a highly scalable range of complementary and integrable products including an application programming interface for integrating Isys with other companies’ programs. All make use of the same Isys search engine and software development kit.

Isys Image adds to Isys Desktop the ability to scan, classify, and convert documents through optical character recognition (“OCR”) to an indexed and searchable database. Isys Desktop Spider is an Isys Desktop add-on that will “spyder” specified remote internet web sites, download their pages, and consolidate their text into searchable databases, giving users a customizable web search engine.

Isys Web is a server-based tool allowing visitors to websites or users on an intranet to search designated areas for information. It can function with its own entry-level web server for systems that have no existing server. A Web version of Isys Spider allows extension of Isys Web to index and search Web sites that are remote from the server. Isys Rich Text is a thin client solution that converts word processing files on the fly to WYSIWYG HTML files and dispenses them to clients from a server.

Isys Publishing Tools provide search tools for publishing information to CDs or floppy disks. Isys Y2K Assistant searches source code for date fields and provides tools for identifying locations and dimensions of Y2K or similar software issues. Isys Talisan is a configurable package of all the Isys applications for the enterprise.

Isys Hindsite is a free downloadable product that gathers web pages from your brower’s cache and transforms them into a searchable database of their text. A former COMDEX best of show finalist, Hindsite can be set to remove pages from its index by particular periods of time. In simpler terms, Hindsite keeps track of where you’ve been on the web and helps you to find your way back to sites you remember, lightning fast.

Product reviewed: Isys Desktop 5.0
Developer: Odyssey Development, Inc.
Trial download: Yes. Limited number of files indexable.
Pricing: 1 user $ 435.00
5 user LAN $ 1,800.00
10 user LAN $ 3,500.00
20 user LAN $ 6,500.00
Related products: Isys Desktop Spider
Isys Web Server
Isys Web Spider
Isys Image
Isys Publishing Tools
Isys Y2K Assistant
Isys Hindsite
Isys Talisan
Isys Rich HTML
Isys Software Developers Kit
Developer’s website: http://www.isysdev.com

Posted in: Features, Information Management, Product Reviews