20.6.06. More OmniOutliner Pro Praise, and Other Tools

A nice post from 43Folders came across my desk today pointing towards a post by Eric Schmidt about Using OmniOutliner Pro and Kinkless GTD in Law School. Schmidt first covers how he uses OmniOutliner Pro to take and manage notes for his law courses. One significant Pro feature in OmniOutliner is the ability to have Sections - a navigable list of top level outline elements. Kinkless GTD uses these to separate the Inbox, Projects, Actions, Archive, Templates, and Setting portions of the kGTD document. As I’ve started to work on larger outlines again in OmniOutliner, I’ve started to make use of this feature in other documents.

Now, there are numerous outliners available for the Mac OS. A glance through the archives of About This Particular Outliner shows comprehensive coverage of various outlining and mindmapping tools. I’ve used quite a few of these over the years, often just in evaluation. The only additional ones I’ve purchased and gotten any real use out of have been Aquaminds NoteTaker, DEVONThink Personal, and Tinderbox.

NoteTaker is a decent application. I got a lot of great use out of it in a school setting as a math notebook. Using EquationService, I was able to take notes in a full Notebook paradigm and enter the math formulas in LaTeX and convert them to inline PDFs, with no knowledge of LaTeX or equations being required of NoteTaker. I’ve also used NoteTaker on a couple of customer projects that had clear releases. NoteTaker’s structure has many pages, grouped by sections. A section might be “WebSite 1.6”, with a page devoted to each feature request made by the customer for that next version. NoteTaker’s pages are outlines, but it often works best with big blocks of text. No problems - that worked great for these books. But while NoteTaker is steeped in Mac OS X’s NeXTStep heritage, it has a bit of a strange feel. More NeXTStep-ish still than Mac OS-ish.

Interestingly, NoteTaker has a very very very similar competitor: Circus Ponies NoteBook. They both have the notebook metaphor - the windows look like ringed notebooks (by default), they have index tabs on the side, and the document is a collection of pages. There are differences between the two, but they both actually share a common ancestry. AquaMinds (NoteTaker) and Circus Ponies (NoteBook) were started by two different principals that had previously made a similar [product for NeXTStep][http://www.simson.net/nextworld/93.2/93.2.ApMay.Notebook.html].

DEVONThink Personal is not so much an outliner as a personal database. NoteTaker and NoteBook position themselves that way too, but DEVONThink is much more like a specialized Finder implementation than an outliner. DEVONThink has a sort-of outline “mode”, but it’s nowhere near as fast or natural as OmniOutliner or NoteTaker. Instead, DEVONThink shines as a place to collect PDFs, web pages/archives, text notes (rich or plain), etc. It has excellent cross-referencing and indexing capabilities so any document can have a “See Also” drawer which shows contextually similar documents in the system. This is great for building reference systems, especially since you can drop a new note, text, web archive (great for keeping documentation around), etc, in and then use the classification tools. Classification works similarly to the “See Also”, but shows folders instead. Folders are matched based on their contained contents. I use DEVONThink at work to collect odds and ends from various projects, and (more often) to keep and archive web pages containing documentation for tools like SQLAlchemy, Markdown, etc. On my laptop I use it to keep archives of web pages I want to read in my spare time, whether or not I have internet access.

Tinderbox is an interesting system. Part of me thinks it could be so much more if only it were modernized. It just doesn’t feel that natural on Mac OS X. It’s such a powerful and flexible system, with the ability to think and work in different modes - outline, treemaps, visual maps - with multiple windows open in the same document even! Custom attributes, agents, and rules can make for pretty powerful and personal systems. But using it is like using [Squeak][http://squeak.org/]. It’s really cool and really powerful, but it’s also its own self-contained world. I had a hard time integrating Tinderbox into my day-to-day operations as it works less and less like the Mac OS X I know and love. No Services support, changing a font requires using a traditional font menu (which is a nightmare with my sprawling font collection). Hell - you can’t even save a file with a name longer than 30 characters! I don’t think I’m in Tinderbox’s target market though. If I wrote as much as I often say i’d like to write, I’m sure it would be a great tool. I’ve wanted to use it to start mapping and managing a lot of characters and places from real life and mythic life. But I have a hard time going into Tinderbox land.

OmniOutliner, on the other hand, is tremendous. Especially as of version 3 (and even more so with version 3.5). It is so deceptively simple. A fresh document is just a basic outline. Start typing, indenting, structuring, etc. Often that’s all you need to take some notes down or think something through. But it also has excellent multi-column support. The columns can have different value types with the ability to summarize values. In evaluating whether I could afford an impromptu weekend trip, I used OmniOutliner with two columns - Topic (the main outline/text column) and Price, with Price formatted as dollars and with a “Total” summary. The top level of the outline was “San Francisco Trip”, and then inside of it I had lines for flight, hotel, tickets to an event I wanted to go to, boarding the dog, train, etc. Very quickly I added borders on rows and columns, and within seconds I had a very small and simple document that many people use spreadsheets like Excel for - but with absolutely none of the complexity or long arguments that are involved when I use Excel (or any spreadsheet, for that matter). This was just a quick “I wonder if I could…” experiment - could I make a quick list and see the estimated total? could I afford to go? (The answers were ‘yes’ and ‘no’, respectively).

But OmniOutliner does even more, and all naturally. By using Mac OS X’s text formatting system, it gets access to the Ruler (NoteTaker and NoteBook get this too). The Ruler makes it possible for just about any Rich Text input area to be at least as powerful as a tool like WordPad on Windows. Named styles, tab stops, left / right / justification alignment, paragraph indentation, spacing, and more. OmniOutliner doesn’t show the ‘Lists’ option, but NoteTaker does, so bulleted and numbered lists inside of the text are available just about anywhere.

This is what amazes me about OmniOutliner: it can be such a fast and simple basic outliner, requiring practically no training or documentation to use. It’s smooth and fast and looks great to boot. But with just a little exploration of the menus, toolbars, and inspectors, it can be unleashed. Some sample documents look closer to a full Word or Pages produced document: the outline handles and checkboxes are hidden, the indention settings are massaged, the fonts and styles applied well. Other sample documents show its usefulness as a simple spreadsheet / database system: the kind where the main text is delightfully easy to enter and formats well against the other columns (spreadsheets do not do this well at all), and the supporting columns can have intelligent value entry and handling. The date support is wonderful - “tomorrow”, “monday”, “the 3rd”, “last friday”, are all valid values. Duration columns can be set with how to measure hours - is it a work day? is the work day 8 hours? then a total of 9.5 hours immediately displays as 1 day 1.5 hr.

The section support in OmniOutliner Pro invades some of the territory enjoyed by NoteTaker and NoteBook and the like. Suddenly a single large outline can become very navigable. I exported some of my NoteTaker books out to OPML and into OmniOutliner Pro and had a system almost as nice up and running within moments (aside from some lost formatting). Nicer still is that a co-worker has started using OmniOutliner pretty heavily and it’s nice to be able to settle on a single tool and share. I’m just amazed that this tool can be so simple and useful for the quick-notes while becoming powerful enough to support a system like Kinkless GTD.