About This Particular Outliner
A Progress Report
It’s been some time since you have heard from ATPO, and I owe you a progress report. I’ll combine that with a few mostly unrelated, incidental observations.
A New Outliner
If you’ve been reading ATPO in the past you might have noted confusing information at the end of the column about my affiliation.
Here’s the skinny on that. I used to run research that looked at rather challenging problems in what constitutes knowledge worth knowing, how we assemble it and make it live and matter. A key piece of this is how humans interact with the machine. In an ideal solution, the way humans think, the way the machine “thinks,” and the tricks the user interface would use to cross that boundary would all be based on the same notions, both intuitive and formal. That little statement hides many problems that will vex you if you let them into your life.
They’ve been needling me for 40 years. Some time ago I retired because my lab became politically driven. Many good people also left. In my retirement, those problems continued to haunt me, even down to matters of setting up my own personal infrastructure. I have some writing I want to do, and although I’ve been a longtime user of Macs, I now had to rely on commercially available tools.
ATPO began as a sort of open search for tools that I might use myself, using the insights I’d gathered over the years about the very wonderful technique of mixed graphic and text conventions that are the core of outlining. Much of what I know in this area is courtesy of public funding, and I think best when presenting to an intelligent audience, so it made sense to do ATPO the way I did.
In the last year and a half, I’ve gotten involved in some real, paying work again and successively worked myself into a situation too sweet to not be thankful for. ATPO has convinced me that although the set of tools we have now are robust and good, there really isn’t one that does everything I want and can imagine wanting. In fact, though most of the ATPO tools are great, there hasn’t been a significant advance in this area in ever so long.
It’s time for a major advance, and guess what? After daydreaming, designing, and proposing, I am now actually building something. It’s risky, it’s ambitious, and there will be parts we’ll have to adjust as we go. But I do think it’s a huge leap in the power of conceptual tools for personal and collaborative use.
I can’t say much at this point, but it is a media outliner, meaning you should be able to outline within media. It’s Web-based. It does some things you’ve never seen before. We hope to make it free. Stay tuned. You will hear it first in ATPO.
Our Writing Application Survey
It’s coming, but it will be much later than any of us would like. These things take a huge amount of time. Be patient. I am using all the candidate applications somewhat and three or four extensively.
The Macworld Show
It was larger than any in the recent past. It may be my faulty memory, but I believe in the OS 8 and 9 days these things were larger and more exciting. It was before the Internet was such a force, and physical presence mattered more. New products really were announced at the show and you could get very good deals. In fact, I would save money each year just on that score.
The people used to be cooler, but then all people used to be cooler, and the Mac was the platform of media creators rather than the dominant platform of media consumers. The old shows used to be mostly software; now way more than half of the booths it seems were either some hardware item or an “accessory.”
I saw nothing that amazed me, and that has never happened before. The coolest things at the show were from Apple, and that’s not the way it’s supposed to be; big companies don’t take the risks and explore the edges like the small, innovative guys do. I know of a few way cool things that are around or in the pipeline, but they weren’t at the show. When I complained about this to a friend, he asked me what I would consider “way cool,” something that I couldn’t leave the booth without and show to my friends back home with a swagger and flourish.
We came up with a couple of ideas, and one of them was so cool that I just couldn’t leave the show without arranging to make it happen. This would be a small utility that will do something obvious, cool and useful. It’ll be outliner specific at first, and cheap, with a plug-in architecture.
So that’s the third promise I’m making as forthcoming offspring of the ATPO experience.
One of the things I’d like to do in a future column once I get things out of the way, is to summarize the technical issues and then spend some time on the business issues. I’ve become more and more aware that what we have in the creative tool space is not a well functioning marketplace, and we are suffering because of it.
In a working market, people would innovate, prices would be determined by value, rewards would flow, and consumers would get what they want. There would be a spectrum of things out there ranging from solid to experimental, comprehensive suites to single utilities and accommodating all sorts of tailored workstyles.
As it is, we have little innovation. Part of the problem, as I have maintained since the first ATPO, is that outlining is a user convention and not a product category. But the problem is not limited to outlining; I believe that much of the problem comes from the fact that the pricing equation just doesn’t work. People aren’t willing to pay according to the value received, simple as that. As far as I can tell, it’s purely historical. One of the reasons must be the echoes of the dotcom boom that we are still living with. We seem to be getting a lot for free or nearly so as companies build market share. Another reason must be that the shareware of 10 or even 15 years ago had a sweet spot of 20 or 25 dollars, and that seems to have stuck.
Four things have happened recently to make me aware of this. I’ve already mentioned two: wonder about the lack of innovation, and thoughts about the value of the project I’m working on.
We also had the experience of Mori.
Hog Bay NoteBook was one of the first products we surveyed. It got very high marks from its users and always looked comparatively strong when we ran though a feature survey. At some point its author decided that he could do even better and wrote the first outliner to take advantage of technologies that first appeared in Tiger. This new outliner-notebook was called Mori. Mori always looked extremely good here at ATPO because it supported features that were rare. It also had a loyal base. Mori tried an innovative business model: the developer put the users in charge of development with a fairly elaborate feature request and voting system; he was extremely open, down to even reporting unit sales on his Web site; and he gave away the core framework of Mori in expectations that it would spawn an open source community.
This failed. Hog Bay Software is one man only, and he just could not make a living. He had to go get a “real job,” working on Mori after hours. Eventually, he sold Mori to another developer, Apokalypse Software, where it may thrive. Hog Bay Software now focuses on simpler products, where the effort-to-cost ratio is more sustainable.
What went wrong? I think he charged too little, but perhaps he simply couldn’t overcome expectations from the user community about what things are “worth.” It’s baffling to me. Everyone in this community paid at least a thousand dollars for their Mac, likely twice that. They pay a similar amount for their phone and Internet access. This is a community where the biggest selling suites are $400 and $900.
It is a community not anchored by children and gamers but by people who do real work and who create real value with this category of software we’re talking about. These products make money and save time for their users, sometimes lots.
Well, around this time there was a discussion on a small Google group dedicated to Mac PIMs. Now these things do tend to be dominated by blowhards and are probably not representative of the user base. Or are they? A thread was started that seemed to suggest that costs for something like Mori and the forthcoming Now Contact replacement should be much lower than they are.
And people agreed!
I think we need three big things to keep the outliner-using application community strong. We need better XML standards than OPML. We need a revolution in user interfaces, adding more advanced outliner-specific capabilities. And now I add a third: we need a wider range of workable business models.
We need to work on these things as a community.
Also in This Series
- A Progress Report · February 2008
- Some Perspectives on the Worldwide Developers Conference · July 2007
- Writing Environments, Plus Two New Outliners · November 2006
- Examining New Business Models · September 2006
- Outlining Interface Futures · July 2006
- Outlining Workflows and ConceptDraw · May 2006
- Dossier and Outliner Web Interaction · March 2006
- Two New Outliners: Mori and iKnow & Manage · February 2006
- Styles Revisited, Video Features, and a Proposal · December 2005
- Complete Archive