I am addicted to outlining as a means of organizing my work and life. (And no, the outliner in MSWord does not count, it’s a clumsy, kludgy horror that has probably turned off millions to the value of outlining.) I still use Ecco Pro — a long-orphaned Windows outliner — every day. (This old post has links to some of my writing on the topic.) I used Ecco to compile the research for my book, and I use it, GTD-style, to keep the spheres of my life moving in harmony.
Ecco is a fascinating hybrid of the pure outliner that Dave Winer pioneered in the 1980s and the free-form personal database exemplified by Mitch Kapor’s Lotus Agenda, which let you recategorize and invent new categories for your information on the fly. (Today’s tagging phenomenon is a latter-day version of the idea.) Chandler, the product whose development my book Dreaming in Code chronicles, started with the ambition of bringing some of these ideas into the present, though it has since evolved in different directions.
I was reminded of this complex software genealogy recently as I read a page that Winer recently linked to — a detailed chronicle, written in 1988, of how his once-popular outliners (ThinkTank and More) came to be developed. (I found it because Winer linked to it from another page about thinking about the Internet as an idea processor — which is also food for thought.)
I’ve never understood why outliners never found wider adoption. Is it just the curse of Word (once Microsoft “included” outlining in Word, however poorly, the market evaporated)? Is it that people associate outlining with boring work they had to do in high school composition class? Is it that the number of people who like to organize their thoughts in collapsible hierarchies is just not very high? But the alternative model of idea-organization tools, which provides you with more of a 2D or 3D space to place and link words and concepts (cf. The Brain and other “mind-mappers“) has never caught on in a big way, either. Maybe the vast majority of people are still too busy figuring out how to wrestle their computers into submission to concern themselves with trying to use them as (in Howard Rheingold’s phrase) “brain amplifiers.”
Many contemporary outliners (like Shadowplan) feel more like checklist organizers than tools for organizing large amounts of text. With the more sophisticated programs, one problem I have (I’m thinking here of tools like Zoot and InfoSelect) is that they are built like e-mail clients with separate panes — a pane on the left where you expand and collapse nodes, and then a pane on the right where you read the text associated with the node that’s highlighted at the left. This separates the “thing itself” from the “relationships between things.” That’s not the way my mind works: I want to see the things and their relationships — all at once!
In Ecco, as in More, you’ve got the full text of each node right in front of you, in place in the outline hierarchy. This allows you to use the tool — as I understand Dave Winer does — as a primary writing environment; it also allows you to dump huge amounts of information into the outline efficiently, move big pieces around easily, and swoop quickly from a top-level overview to the finer details.
Today Mac users can adopt OmniOutliner, which has a feature called “inline notes” that begins to move it toward the model I prefer. If I were using a Mac every day I’d also check out Eastgate’s Tinderbox, Circus Ponies Notebook and VoodooPad. Windows users can still get Ecco for free. In the new world of web-based apps, there’s not a lot of activity yet — though there is a rudimentary AJAX-based outliner called Sproutliner. 37 Signals, the “small is beautiful” web app company, has a lightweight listmaker called Tada List, along with another product that’s sort of a free-form personal info manager called Backpack. And then of course we come full circle back to Dave Winer, who has created the Web-based outline format OPML (the OPML editor is here) for constructing and sharing Web-based outlines.
I don’t know if outlining software will ever take off, but to me it feels like a natural way to use a computer. I will keep using Ecco until they invent a version of Windows that won’t run it, and I suspect I will outline until the day I die.
POSTSCRIPT: Doc Searls’ technography from Bloggercon IV is a good example of outlining in action. He wrote about it here.
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BrainStorm http://www.brainstormsw.com is a popular choice among people who like to ‘outline’ in a free-form way with no restraints regarding structure because everything can be easily moved.
The ‘outline’ evolves from the content. It probably suits right-brain thinkers rather than left-brain.
Either write into it directly, screen-scrape (using BrainStorm’s Magic Paste, ideally) or open files. It does its best with any text file. Outlines can be recognised as such.
It was first published in November 1983, a couple of months before Dave started to popularise the outliner approach.
Disclosure: I wrote the original version in 1981/2 and it’s still a small part of my life.
The old free Frontier for Windows is what introduced me to outlining and blogging.
What I use these days to compose ideas and for outlining is a little off the beaten track: FreeMind.
I too use Ecco every day, and have since version 1. It’s a remarkably versatile program, and I continue to find new ways to bend it to my changing needs.
Even more incredibly, it is one of most bullet-proof, crash-free programs I use, despite the fact that it’s been discontinued, unimproved and unsupported for 9 years.
Who ever ended up with the rights to ECCO?
The program was a good one, but I am not an outline guy and never really used ECCO that much. I know, however, that there were many loyal users. Someone ought to find the current owner and update it. There is a market.
The first PC outliner that I used was a TSR version of More, known as Ready!. It did a lot of work in 32K, and I pretty well ran my solo law practice from it running on my first Compaq.
Far as I know ECCO is still owned by NetManage. Their site is where the binaries can still be downloaded. But despite rumors over the years that NetManage would open source the code, it has not happened.
thank you for the link to Ecco. I’ve used the Word outliner for technical and other writing ever since it was available, but it always felt rather primitive. I look forward to using Ecco..
Some food for thought. Outliners Considered Harmful
Takeaway: The world is mesh like, not hierarchical tree like. But humans are not good at making sense of meshes. So while Outliners are a good tool for humans to make sense of the world, they constrain our thinking into seeing the map instead of the territory.
In a nutshell, Outliners are harmful because they lead to hierarchy thinking. And hierarchy thinking is harmful because it leads to political hierarchies. And all of this is harmful because the world is actually mess(h)y and not structured into elegant trees.
And all of this is why RDF is important and also why nobody understands it.
ps. Wasn’t ecco a dolphin? ;)
Another data point: the Web isn’t just an Outline.
tkoutline (http://tkoutline.sourceforge.net/) is a decent single pane outliner that works on Windows, but I still haven’t found a robust outliner / information manager better than ECCO PRO. I have hopes that someday Mark Bernstein will ship Tinderbox for Windows or that Chandler will ship, but until then it is ECCO PRO.
I am also caught up in the search for the ideal outliner. When processing data, I like to think in an outline form. For example, I have multiple domains. An outliner comes in handy when I want to sort out subdomain assignments to which domains, for what purpose, and then folder assignments (i.e., public vs. private folders) under which subdomains. In this scenario, an outliner is a great tool for sort and resorting until I get the web-based structures right.
I also think Ecco Pro was an excellent product. I used it in the past. To bad they discontinued it. I read a rumor that they might revitalize the program as an open source? (ref: http://www.compusol.org/ecco/ )
Other discoveries I made which may function as very good contending alternatives:
ActionOutline v2.1 (developed by Green Parrots)
(free but with limitation. Get the full)
This one is actually a professional (and expensive) notes taking ouliner and is designed for use in the world of litigation to outline case studies. It is good when having to deal with voluminous amounts of information, the organization and reorganization of such data, plus added functionalities that can be appreciated. However, @ $149 bucks I think it’s ouch, for an outliner albeit very good one.
Then, there is also Inspiration (v.8) which does mind mapping and outlining.
For me, do-Organizer is essential for managing all my information. This data manager consolidates all your information in one place for quick and easy retrieval and covers almost all aspects for information management ranging from calendars to contacts, finance, journals, bookmarks, emails, mindscapes, planners, reports, tasks, notes, passwords, spreadsheets, user resources and various tools. You can purchase modules, which means you only buy what you need. I’ve tried hundreds of others but this one… I can’t live without! It’s really that good. I sincerely recommend this effective data organizer… give it a try… full 60 DAY trial period with no software limitations. Enjoy!
I am clearly in a very good company of people who understand the power and value of Ecco Pro. I consider EccoPro to be the all-time best application, hands-down, for easily managing all sorts of information, that is sometimes and sometimes not inter-related. It hits the sweet spot between outliner, spreadsheet and database. I have been long time searching for a new state-of-the-art replacement product, but am always disappointed to find none that is near Ecco’s equal. I have used many other programs, many that are Excellent for what they focus on. But none of them hits the sweet spot of functionality and capability that Ecco does. I always find it incredible that no one has adopted the code (written in assembler?) or the approach.
I did a little research on Windows outlining software myself and thought you might be interested in this open source Project:
I use it and like it a lot.
Nothing beats ecco pro, the best software ever made. The things that make it great include subtle user interface issues that no one seems to pay much attention to anymore.
Also, I’m tempted to give it a go, but I’m (ironically) a bit daunted by the comprehensiveness of the app (in the short term anyway — I have pressing projects and need to hammer out some real work pretty quickly with the application). Will eccopro play nice with my Treo90 running palm OS 4 and not disrupt my synchronization with outlook, etc… All thoughts are welcome! Thanks.
I share the same surprise regarding the failure of outlining software to catch on. Maple from CrystalOffice was my first introduction to this software class and I found it immensely useful for organizing my notes for a professional exam. I have since used it for research and writing projects.
I wonder if anyone is aware of a web-based outliner?
“Outliners Considered Harmful” :-). Seriously? I just finished my first year of law school, and I tried EVERYTHING. Mindmaps, databases, ALL of the tree outliners. Notemap was the best (I will try ecco). Notemap could be better, but there isn’t too much left to improve. I used it to study, but now I find myself using it for almost everything. And yes I used it to write my legal papers (this really improved my writing).
The would may be a mesh, but you can’t comprehend something without breaking it down. Thats why we have outliners. That’s why notemap (and I assume ecco) are so great. You can zoom out to see the big picture, then zoom in to the small details. You can take big chunks of “mesh” dissect them and order them into smaller peices that can be understood and recalled.
Just to add some more food for thought. Think about prejudice. That’s bad right? But why then does the brain automatically do it (even if we want to be “good” people). Why the grouping, why the heiachy? Despite the mesh ;-), our brains have to break down into comprehensible groups….then it can go about making exceptions, e.g. five Xs are As = all Xs are As…BUT one X is a B??? -> okay, okay, all Xs are As unless Y, then X is a B.
That’s the way it works – good or bad – it just seems that although not perfect, true outliners help in this grouping process more so than the trees and mindmaps.
I downloaded ECCO Pro 4.01 32 bit and try to install it on my Windows XP Home with SP2 computer. I come as far as ‘looking for install’ then it freezes.
Any ideas why?
There’s a very promising web-based outliner in development, called Thinkfold. It’s being done on a spare-time basis by a dev house in the UK, and it’s pretty ambitious.
For your collection, below are two outliners of my own.
One major advantage is they are both multi-platform, so you can edit the same document on any supported OS.
NoteCase outliner helps you to organize your text notes into a document, with individual notes placed in the tree-like structure. To ensure your privacy, encrypted document format is supported.
Project is multi-platform and open source (BSD license).
NoteCase Pro is an advanced commercial version of Notecase project. It’s an outliner that helps you to organize your text notes into a document, with individual notes placed in the tree-like structure, supporting encrypted document format.
You can read more at the respective websites.
Maybe you can look at this extremely verstaile outliner – and maybe, you won’t believe what you see…
It’s totally free and classed as an open-source project. It’s called TotalText Container. You can do anything (almost) with this interesting outliner. Check it out, you just might like this…
There is a “download latest version” link on this page. This is a very interesting development. It’s worth a look.
I’ve been developing a simple web-based outliner where items can have links, due dates and notes, branches can be shared and RSS feeds can be imported into the tree.
Requests for improvements are welcome!
Well, I downloaded Ecco Pro and took a serious look at it, and actually, it’s nice. They have an intuitive approach for managing information. It’s a very nice program. Nonetheless, I’m hooked on do-Organizer by GemX. do-Organizer goes way beyond Ecco Pro as an information manager. do-Organizer effectively consolidates all your precious info in one place. The price… well, that doesn’t really matter to me. do-Organizer powerfully links your information giving you easy access to your stored data. You can easily manage user logons with detailed permissions and access. For me, this is the best… you can outline information in many ways…
amazing new powers…
check them out (for free!!) at http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/ecco_pro/
Boy! You guys are really hooked on ECCO PRO! There’s nothing to pull you away, I guess… if that makes you happy, well, that’s fine.
Maybe you could also look at this multi-tabbed outliner: TreeDBNotes PRO.
Reading this thread, one thing is clear, you can’t all be wrong. So the outliners and the non-outliners both have valid points. Both 1-pane and 2-panes outliners have specific uses.
The ideal information management app must be an excellent outliner with multiple parents support (when required), an excellent linker (i.e. like the web), an excellent tagger, an excellent editor supporting rich text editing in the outline AND in a second rich text window, support flat and tree-structured display with or without a data grid, usable as a flexible database supporting calculations and reporting and an have excellent search engine. Plus it needs to have a customizable UI, support drag-drop and have links to all other major apps.
Only if you have all these features can you adequately organize all kinds of information, not just a specific kind.
Yes Ecco is/was an excellent outliner+data grid, but had no item to item linker, and forced structured tree representation, which may or may not suit the specific information or the way a particular person wants to work/organize its information. It had rich text outlines and customizable UI but for the rest, the above features were not great or not there at all.
This is where SQLNotes (code name) comes in. It has ALL of the above features. It was inspired by Ecco, but it took the concept much further. The current beta available at http://www.sqlnotes.net is very stable. You are all welcomed to download a free copy.
Count me an outliner fan to the max:
GrandView belongs in any history of Outliners btw as does FullWrite Professional:
(note how tiny FW is, still runs in Classic!).
In terms of WP/outliner integration things are truly weak now (curse you Microsoft Word!!), but the brand new Nisus Writer Pro has some interesting outliner like features. I’m still using Express, but I’ll switch to Pro after it’s had a few more months of testing (no great rush).
I do miss MORE, nothing like it today, really. I’d have loved Ecco too, but I was on a Mac when it was popular and now that I’ve returned to the Mac it wouldn’t help me. OmniOutliner Pro is very good, but it’s not enough of a wordprocessor for my current uses, and I never got the hang of its style model.
but I was on a Mac when it was popular and now that I’ve returned to the Mac
BTW SQLNotes runs on a Mac under Parallels. http://www.sqlnotes.net
I use a Mac and am a die hard IN CONTROL user which is long discontinued program that runs on OS9. Haven’t found anything yet that can touch IN CONTROL, so have been sticking with Mac computers that still run OS9.
If you haven’t already seen it, there’s a great recap of Outliners by Ted Goranson on ATPM http://www.atpm.com/9.11/atpo.shtml
I blogged a bit about IN CONTROL too:
Hoping that somebody (if I had the coding chops, I’d do it!), will revive IN CONTROL as there’s a bunch of ‘us’ who really don’t want to use anything else!
I use notemap at work. It’s a pc-based program that works a lot like MORE.
I have returned to Macs for personal use after a long absence They are still beautiful. But I would love to have IN CONTROL or ecco pro. Omni-outliner seems full featured at first glance, but I find it confusing and lacking very valuable tools that were present in IN CONTROL and ecco pro.
ECCO Pro and SQLNotes both run well under Parallels … ECCO Pro far outstrips any of the native Mac apps, most especially OmniOutliner.
I’ve been practicing law for 29 years, and need to make and modify outlines quickly. I’ve tried ECCO, Notemap, and other outliners, but the hands-down champion for speed, flexibility and import/export capabilities is GrandView 2.0. Although DOS-based, it works well on XP Pro.
Unfortunately, Symantic stopped selling and supporting GrandView in 1992.
I use a program called ConnectedText that includes an outline tool. So I have the best of both worlds: outlines and wiki. I can import OPML files and create wiki entries for each item in my outline, expanding information without the need to create new branches in the hierarchy.
Here’s another outliner for your inventory:
TreeBuilder, The Visual Outliner
Oh, and Julian, I’m totally unrepentant for having written it ;-)
Count me in the group left with broken hearts after MORE was discontinued. Every 6 months or so I go looking for something as good as MORE was, and have not found it so far.
Today I use Freemind a lot, and have fun shifting things on and offline with Mindmeister http://www.mindmeister.com since it imports and exports Freemind. And I use a 2-pane outliner called myBase from http://www.wjjsoft.com which has a Firefox adjunct called ‘save to myBase’ for adding clippings to outlines.
Wasn’t able to get ECCO going last time I tried but I think I’ll give it another go. I want to be able to hoist and de-hoist (remember that?) and be able to format outline subsections when needed to turn them into ad-hoc slide presentations.
For me, rather than forcing hierarchical thinking when it is not appropriate, outliners facilitate hierarchical organization when it is helpful, which is often. That’s one big difference between mindmapping and outlining. I like both, but for different reasons
Thanks for your post and sharing your insights.
I too have used outliners for several decades starting with Tour that ran on my Osborne, and later Brown Bag Outliner and PC Outliner running on an 8086 machine, before I switched to Grandview. I am running Vista. I use Ecco daily for projects, clients and general overall organization. I use Grandview daily (running in a DOS window) for note taking when I really need speed (key stroke manipulation) and classification; and Notemap for outlines that I need to share (one click to word). I also use Inspiration and Mindjet for graphical outlines and those I upload to websites, etc. I have started using SQLNotes (now InfoCube) and while I have not mastered all the features I like the Ecco/Grandview-like Outline with columns. I use InfoSelect for random notes. All in all, I have not found a product that has the keyboard speed of Grandview; or the power of Ecco, but I have hopes for InfoCube. Thx. for an interesting post.
Thanks for the blogpost. I was an avid Ecco user on my PCs in the past. But, having moved over to Macs since switching jobs two years ago, I’ve been frustrated to never find a high-quality Ecco alternative.
I hadn’t heard of Tinderbox but am downloading it as I type to try it out.
Nice article – I was sort of put off with the state of single pane outliners (or lack of) for Windows so in frustration I built my own: http://www.getume.com
My goal is to create an updated single pane outliner with updated tools for research.
My project is immature at the moment but I have a free version available.
A comprehensive outliner software is Memomaster 4. It is fully compatible with your Word, Excel, PDF, HTML, RTF, etc. documents, supports the writing of code snippets (syntax highlighting), the monitoring of the clipboard (automatic memo generation), sending of emails, referencing, tax calculation, word counting and many more.
There are still 2500 world-wide users of EccoPro (see http://www.creativeservices.us/clients.html). Our one-click 64-bit Installer of EccoPro is fully compatible with Windows 7/8.1 and Windows 10. We also developed the MyPhoneExplorer Ecco Edition for a two-way synchronization of all Ecco data including note outlines to Android Phones and Tablets.
If you miss Omni Outliner for Windows, check the newly released Visual Outliner https://www.visualoutliner.com/
It’s highly visual, you can easily build your own theme, it supports drag and drop and plenty of keyboard shortcuts. It uses OPML as native file format.