Tuesday, February 21, 2006


having something to format

Multimedia is the poster child of software development. We seem obsessed with making media "richer": adding interactive graphics, data visualization, video, sound, ticker tape updates and entertainment like controls. Apart from some not terrible useful efforts in "experimental typography," old fashion words seem to get ignored.

Most text-related software seems devoted to navigating text, extracting concepts from text, and perhaps extracting snippets of text into an information manager. However, there seems little attention these days relating to tools to create text documents. I find this situation unsatisfying, as I believe existing text creation tools are wanting.

Microsoft Word does many things, but it does not necessarily do all of them well. Every competitor I've seen simply tries to copy Word, not to better it. Word experienced some genuine innovation in the 1990s, adding features like auto summary, but it has been stagnant since then.

One of the worst features of Word is its outlining capabilities. In the DOS era, there were several outlining programs that were interesting, but they never gained viability with Windows, as Word came to dominate word processing. Word's outlining is a basic hide-and-show hierarchy, a clumsy one at that. There are many other possibilities for outlining.

I like the some features of the Mac-based OmniOutliner program, particularly adding columns such as tick boxes and numeric fields, as exist with a spreadsheet. But OmniOutliner remains a hide-and-show program.

The most interesting outlining program I have found is designed for lawyers. Developed by CaseSoft, NoteMap has several nifty features. It allows gathering non-contiguous items, and putting them in another branch of the outline. This is very useful for connecting thoughts that have not thus far been related to each other. NoteMap has better annotation and formatting capabilities than many outliners, plus a basic sort facility (though more could be done with the sort.) But more important than its features, it offers smooth performance, where Word feels shaky.

It seems strange to me that something as basic as outlining receives so little attention in word processors. Too much attention in word processors is placed on formatting, and not enough on how users draft their thoughts.

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