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ATPM 14.02
February 2008





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About This Particular Outliner

by Ted Goranson,

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.

Avenir has become StoryMill, and Storyist has appeared.

The Macworld Show

I got a lot of positive feedback on my report on the Worldwide Developer’s Conference last summer. So I thought I’d give some remarks on the consumer version: Macworld Conference and Expo, just held.

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.

Software Costs

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

Reader Comments (9)

Bill · February 2, 2008 - 01:36 EST #1
Competition is an issue too. I have a license already for DEVONthink Pro, VoodooPad, OmniOutliner Pro, TaskPaper, and Tinderbox (which I bought because of the ATPO article -- didn't like it though, it felt like a programming environment without a debugger). It's going to be difficult to cause me to want to buy another outliner type product.

In the outliner family, I also have OmniFocus, an older copy of Journler (it's going shareware now), Celtx, an older copy of Curio, and a beta of Things. At one time, I wanted to get either Mori, Notebook, or NoteTaker but couldn't really decide on one and now I just use what I have.
AC · February 2, 2008 - 02:35 EST #2
Looking forward to all this stuff in the pipeline Ted.

I remember you making the argument before about your Mac costing $1000 or more, while people are unwilling to pay for software. I agree it seems foolish, but there doesn't seem to be any good solutions, the market is what it is.

It's frustrating looking for the app that fills your specific needs, but on the upside there are a surprising number of good Mac developers. Let's just hope they survive (especially the apps I've bought).
Stephen Chakwin · February 2, 2008 - 11:03 EST #3
I read the thread that you talked about and was amazed at the abuse that your position got, both when you advanced it and when the current owner of Mori explained why a software developer needs to charge more than token money to stay in business.

I don't know whether the Mac community is especially resistant to pricing on software, it may be that the PC world has such comparatively sparse a population in this kind of application (outliners and the like) and has such strong roots in corporate America that people are used to paying over $100 for what applications do exist, that a real A to A comparison is not possible.

I remember that neither Lotus Agenda (an information manager with spreadsheet-database qualities) nor Grandview (an outliner very similar to MORE), two fine DOS programs, was cheap in its day.

Its very easy to get into a kind of quest to find the outliner that gets it RIGHT and wind up like the man in the proverb who had a clock and always knew what time it was until someone gave him another clock, after which he was never sure. I have OmniOutliner, Notebook, Tao, Mori, Hog Bay (ancestor of Mori), Tinderbox, and a number of other outliners. If I am creating a word processing document, I have Nisus Pro, Word 2004, Scrivener, Pages and a couple of other alternatives. Not to mention OmniFocus and Bento...

I think a lot of other users are in my position. For something new to make it onto my densely-populated computer at this point, though, its got to have something striking in its features - either features I don't already have a access to (unlikely) or a way of presenting them so compelling that it outshines what I have.

Also price is going to matter. I don't need (unlike the misguided folk on the listserve) a developer to commit financial self-immolation to get my attention, but I would have to be awfully convinced to spend more than $100 on an application.

On the other hand, I WAS convinced enough to spend $180 on Flying Logic, an application that helps you build and assess logical arguments, very important to my work. And I didn't mind sending Nisus the $80 they wanted for their Pro word processor after I spent some time with it.

My wish is to settle down into something approaching happy monogamy with applications. In practical terms, this means to find ten or so that, taken together, serve all my computing needs, learn them deeply and just stay with them over their development life unless there's a really good reason to change one of the components of, or add something to, the core group that I work with. Not there yet, still spread a little wide, but working on it...

All of that said, the idea of someone as deeply immersed in the world of information management and the various outliners and quasi-outliners that have populated it as Ted is developing a product is an exciting one to me and the Mac platform, with Spotlight, is a terrific environment in which to play with the back-and-forth between structure and lack of structure so important in getting a grip on ideas and their implications. (On the one hand, you want to go with some kind of way of distilling the ideas and understanding their relationships to one another, on the other hand, you don't want to start with a structure that's going to prematurely shape your perception into a particular way of understanding those relationships - cause and effect, for example, can be a nightmare for the human mind to puzzle out.)
Alan Yeung · February 2, 2008 - 14:56 EST #4
The big outliner news at Macworld for me was Circus Ponies Notebook 3.0. Despite all the outliner variety we've had, until now there really hasn't been a good alternative for people who need to mix in freeform diagrams and tables while outlining (usually while taking notes). OneNote on Windows has always had this, but its completely unstructured nature makes it a pain for serious, long-form outlining. I see Notebook 3.0 as really pulling together the best elements from OneNote while still maintaining structure... basically the best of both worlds. Very exciting to me.
michael mckee · February 2, 2008 - 19:20 EST #5
"this means to find ten or so that, taken together, serve all my computing needs, learn them deeply and just stay with them over their development life"

What a sweet dream. I wonder why I keep trying out new programs all the time. I even have a couple of more or less legitimate excuses. Yet I also find myself periodically going through my applications folder and deleting gigabytes of stuff. I think there may be an addiction on my part to new programs. There's always the idea of the perfect fit, the holy grail of applications that would make my workflow faster, easier, more efficient, etc..

I've have licenses for Tinderbox, DEVONthink, Notebook, Stickybrain and a couple of other information organizers. Yet, the one true program has always eluded me. Mori? Not quite. Yojimbo? That isn't it either. They're all good but not exactly what I'm looking for.

Now you bring up writing programs, you fiend. Ulysses, Avenir, WriteRoom, Jer's Novel Writer, MacJournaler and Scrivener have all stolen hours from me in testing, testing, testing. Now you say that Avenir has been bought and has features added and there's yet another worthy writing program?

It wouldn't be a problem if they were not all good and worthy contenders, but they are. I, like so many others keep looking for the champion to arise from the horde of merely excellent. I keep downloading demos and kicking the tires. Then when I do buy a license I still look for something better. Does that make sense?

Barry Schwartz, not a programmer, but a psychology professor may be my savior. I'm reading his book Paradox of Choice: Why Less is More and realize how much effort I put into looking for perfect instead of good enough.

Office, which I've used since version 2 is out. iWork is good enough for my simple needs. Avenir, Jer's Novel Writer, Tinderbox, DEVONthink, NeoOffice, InDesign, WriteRoom, Mori, all out. You are all fine, but love spread widely won't grow as deep. I'll settle on Scrivener for project file management and writing. No more academic papers so no more Word, Nisus Writer, Mellel or their like. Good bye End Notes, I loved you well. Pages will do fine for final formatting and club newsletters.

Maybe with all the hours I don't spend demoing new programs I'll get more writing done.
Bobby Warren · February 11, 2008 - 10:31 EST #6
I purchased Storymill at the macworld show and it has been incredible. I've finally got off my butt and started writing again. I haven't used it yet but this timeline feature looks very impressive.

Rich Shields · February 12, 2008 - 09:40 EST #7
Welcome back, Ted. I have thoroughly enjoyed your articles and insights into the thinking behind software.

Outliners have not been a major concern for me, because I do so much of it in my head and with scraps of paper or 3x5 cards; yes, I have been doing this for 40 years and it is hard to get beyond it. Yet, in my mind, I think maybe there is one program that will fill my own needs. So far, in limited testing (I haven't purchased any of them), none seem to work as well as what I want/need. Thus, what Mellel offers is sufficient for my needs (most of the time). Recently I began using Scrivener for planning and initial writing. For everyday writing I use Nisus Writer Pro, and cross-platform work finds me in Word.

I was intrigued by the split personality, so to speak, in your current article regarding pricing. You lament the lack of support for commercial programs, noting the small cost compared to the computer itself. Rightly you find fault with those who want a basically "free" ride. And yet, you are developing a product that will be ... essentially free. Is that contradictory? Or am I missing something?

Anyway, I always enjoy your thoughtful, challenging articles. Keep it up. We need more authors like you. And I look forward to your future products and writing.
Steve Lang · February 13, 2008 - 15:30 EST #8
Michael McKee's post sums up my experience pretty well. I've tried them all, and have registered a small collection of apps- Mori, NoteBook, TaskPaper, maybe a couple of others.

One thing about these apps is that there are so many different ways to create, organize, and look at your information, and typically the best way will depend on what you are doing right now. Do you want a loose journal type app to jot down notes freeform (with perhaps tags), or do you want an outliner in which you can put new information in their proper areas? Is it more important to be able to see all the trees (and even branches and leaves), or is the forest or main structure more important? Bonus complexity points if you need to keep manage different 'forms' of information (say business management vs. creative writing), like I do.

After getting started with TaskPaper recently for managing tasks, I've discovered the joy of plain text files (quick to work with, Spotlightable, super portable and cross-platform). But I know in the long run that text files and Finder alone isn't really going to work out in terms of organizing and browsing through information (Quick Look in Leopard actually helps here though).

I'm really looking forward to seeing what Ted comes up with.
James LaRue · March 2, 2008 - 13:40 EST #9
Good to see you back, Ted. Your comments, as usual, are astute and provocative.

On the one hand, I've moved to the Linux, open source world. On the other hand, in part because I'm no longer just starting out in the world, I regularly contribute financially to my Linux distribution of choice (PCLinuxOS) and bought a lifetime license to the most interesting Linux outliner I have found (Notecase Pro). I am willing to pay people to provide tools I like and use -- and do not have the ability to produce myself.

Yet PCLOS is more a hobby (for texstar, the lead developer) than a business concern. And despite the remarkably swift progress of the Notecase Pro developer (mark and gather, hoisting, synchronizing of files, printing, etc.), I don't think the author is making a living on licenses, either.

So the question of business models is not trivial. Open source may mean that I'm a little less likely to be stranded with good but unsupported software. But things do move on quickly, as we all pursue maximum gadgetude. That makes it tough for innovators to stay in the game long term.

I look forward to your next piece.

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