Ecco Pro — back from the dead, again

Longtime readers here know of my interest in the subject of outliners and in particular my dedication to an old program called Ecco Pro. I used it as my main organizer for my first book, and now, as I begin work on a new one, I find myself turning to it once again. (If you want to understand why, Andrew Brown’s recent piece in the Guardian offers a thorough explanation.)

Ecco devotees long hoped the program might be open-sourced, but the hopes never materialized. Nonetheless, in one of those twists and turns that keep the software world interesting, there has been much movement in the Ecco world in recent months — and, even without the code being open-sourced, there’s the first significant new work on the program in years.

Here, as far as I can tell, is what happened: A programmer who goes by the handle “slangmgh” posted a message to the Yahoo Group “ecco_pro” on April 16th: “I write little utility, have upload to the files directory! It’s only work for EccoPro v4.01.”

The file was called “EccoPro extension.” It included a half-dozen significant fixes and upgrades to the program. A day later, he’d uploaded a 1.1 version of his “little utility.” Today, he is on 3.6 or so. His furious pace of development has involved, if I understand correctly, the incorporation of the Lua scripting language into the extension. It’s all made possible by the essential solidity of the original program and the API hooks its creators provided — so that, even though the original Ecco code can’t be changed, it can still be built upon.

The only downside to the whole thing is that “slangmgh” is plainly not a native English speaker and so his explanations of the changes and features are sometimes difficult to follow. In recent weeks, other members of the Ecco support group have stepped forward to provide better documentation.

There you have it: an orphaned program that hasn’t been touched in a decade but that still has a devoted community of users suddenly starts evolving again in the hands of an energetic programmer. I don’t know where the Ecco story will ultimately lead but I’m delighted to see it still unfolding.
[tags]ecco pro, pims, outliners[/tags]

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Comments

  1. Oh; hi, Scott!
    I find the slangmgh story fascinating. He has a collaborator, too, with an equally unlikely handle, who speaks rather better English. But what he has done is a really astonishing piece of hacking/reverse engineering, since some of his extensions seem to mess with the guts of the program in ways that the API just doesn’t reach.

    If I can get him to talk, I will write the story up somewhere.

  2. Ehud

    I am curious. If the idea is so good, why didn’t anyone copy the functionality and produce a new product? Is there a patent in place? Otherwise I don’t see why the only option is to wait for the company to release the product as open source.
    It’d be interesting to here more details about this story.

  3. Well, the “goodness” of an idea is only one ingredient in getting a product developed. The general interpretation of the Ecco story, that you can find in this old column of mine as well as in Andrew Brown’s piece that I linked to in my post, is that once Microsoft won the PIM game, most software companies decided PIMs were over. Also, Ecco was a mature product: amazingly bug-free, solid, reliable (I’ve used it for a decade and *never* lost a piece of data to a crash). Getting a new program coded to that level would not happen overnight.

    More recently, anyone developing in the PIM space is doing Web-based stuff, mostly. Someday I think someone will do a Web-based Ecco and it will be astonishingly useful. (Backpack is fun but nowhere near as versatile. Jotspot looked like it was heading in the right direction, too, and now it’s part of Google, so we’ll see where that goes.) So, right, waiting for an open source version isn’t the “only option,” but the other option — building an Ecco-like client-based program from scratch — just seems highly unlikely. Though what slangmgh is doing suggests that his alternate route — of not building from scratch but radically renovating from the outside in — might prove surprisingly effective.

  4. Not sure I get the irony — maybe I’ve lived with it for too long to see it :-)

    One of the things that first interested me (and a lot of other people) about Chandler was its free-form-PIM concept (inherited from Lotus Agenda), though the product gradually evolved away from that idea. And the lessons learned from observing the Chandler story, to me at any rate (the danger of investing too much in reinventing a back end and building from scratch, the possibility that new trends like web-based applications will overtake your plan if you delay too much, etc.), are very much in sync with these observations about Ecco.

  5. Ehud

    That’s the irony!
    If this was clear from the Ecco story (as well as others), it’s ironic that people attempted the Chandler project…

  6. The thing that would be quite easy to copy from Ecco was the combination of an outline pane with a spreadsheet-type grid. There is a programme trying to do just that, called sqlnotes.

    What would be harder — and I think this is where Chandler came unstuck — is to fill in the missing bits of Ecco’s functionality, which are, essentially Email and other message hoarding. When the program was first released, keeping contact records was really a matter of writing down what people told you on the phone. Things are more complicated now. Most of my contacts with anyone today are electronic, and to keep up the usefulness and intuitive simplicity of Ecco there, it would have to handle email. That isn’t trivial.

    Curiously, Eco’s calendaring and workgroup functions still seem entirely fine to me. In any case, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch at all to synch Ecco’s Calendar with Google’s. There are apis at both ends. It is sad that this is what Chandler ended up doing.

  7. Thanks for the tip on sqlnotes — looks interesting, I’ll check it out.

    One of those program names that doesn’t exactly reach out beyond the geek crowd, though :-)

  8. “Outliner + grid” aptly describes one way of working with OmniOutliner, which is a great program from the Omni Group. It’s Mac-only, but I’ve seen people make platform switches for sillier reasons.

  9. (Sorry, premature post)

    That said, I was a user of Ecco back in the day, and I’m not sure that OO can truly replace it across the board. That’s not to say people aren’t trying; OO is being used as a platform for a variety of things, including implementations of David Allen’s GTD cult. It doesn’t have built-in PIM functions, though; it’s just a powerful outliner with scripting support.

  10. 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. If Ecco-Ext is an amazing effort to bring a second life to Ecco, even with Ecco-Ext, most of the above features are missing.

    SQLNotes development started 4 years ago and is now in beta tests. It takes the best of Ecco, and improves upon it, taking the concept much further. It has ALL of the above features.

    The current beta available at http://www.sqlnotes.net is very stable. You are all welcomed to download a free copy.

  11. If you have a problem installing EccoPro in the latest operating systems, or the Palm HotSync and the Vista/Windows 7 EccoPro “Help” problem, CompuSol created a brand-new 32-bit installation package and a 64-bit EccoPro installation for Vista and Windows 7 available at http://www.compusol.org/ecco/. The zipped packages have fully automated Windows installations which will create a desktop icon and also allow you to ad or remove your EccoPro program. Both packages will install all necessary registry entries including the Palm conduits, the for Vista and Windows 7 necessary MS Help programs plus the “default.ect” template fix.

  12. YSWT

    As the author/creator of the (free) “default.ect” template fix, note to the unwary– don’t pay compusol any money for it. (Nor for the EccoPro install, also available for free.)

    If anyone can’t find free, just ask in the ecco_pro forum.

  13. Good programs don’t die, the people using them do. Then the program dies. It’s a slow painful death. Ecco is still one of the most valuable programs on my computer.

  14. Mark Heleniak

    Been using Ecco since V1 and continue to use it today. A “most valuable app” on my Office machine. Amazing software even by today’s standards.

  15. Bob B.

    search for something else ended up here, so add this…

    previous comment was that “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”

    note that now, with latest versions of Ecco (updated through eccoext app [freeware]) Ecco now fully supports: multiple parents! (yes, its true!), linker (like the web), tagger, with EccoMV (magic view) extension, also supports rich text pane, rich text editing, supports calculations and customizable hotkeys, support for drag & drop, and links to anywhere & internal links and book marks and… its pretty cool.)

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