in iPad, Mac

Tree for OS X and a bit about workflows

I’ve been impressed with an outliner called Tree recently.

The selling point of it is that, instead of the normal vertical view, it expands horizontally, which I find much more space-efficient and natural. If you are writing whole paragraphs, a standard vertically-indented layout might be better, but mostly when I use an outliner each node is at longest one sentence, and usually just a couple of words. If I use a mindmapper, I usually set it to auto-layout and put all the branches on the right of the main node, which means it looks rather a lot like Tree with more lines and bubbles. (However, with Tree one can also set individual nodes to expand vertically rather than horizontally.)

It’s also very quick to use. The window layout is just a row of icons, a row of tabs, and then your outlines – no extraneous fluff. It has intelligently designed keyboard shortcuts and behaviours that appreciate that you have probably used outliners before; commands to move nodes around are familiar from OmniOutliner, Notebook etc, and their action is context-sensitive, with, say, Enter either editing a title, ending that title and creating a new node, or finishing note text on that node and moving back to the title.

It not only reads OPML but will happily write to it as well without having to mess about with the Export option (though this won’t preserve your coloured labels I suspect – notes, it will keep, as those are part of the OPML spec). I use this in combination with Dropbox and the iOS app CarbonFin Outliner, which doesn’t do horizontal unfortunately but does sync to Dropbox as OPML. I can transparently open, edit and save outlines on my Mac and both iPhone and iPad, now, without hoop-jumping being required, and OPML being an open format I know that I won’t be unable to read these files in a few years’ time, should I ever wish to read them again which is fairly unlikely given the rubbish I write.

I mentioned OmniOutliner before, which has a very good iPad client, which I would love to use. Unfortunately it won’t save to Dropbox or in fact sync to anything (it will export, but not actually sync) and I’m afraid that desktop OmniOutliner is basically abandonware, despite Omni’s repeated assurances that version 4 is coming out any minute now. OO for iOS really is a lovely piece of software, but unless you only want to write on the iPad it’s useless for any serious workflow, and the desktop version looks, feels and is ancient.

The combination of Tree plus CarbonFin Outliner, however, lets me work on outlines on three devices in a convenient and effective way, and, while it doesn’t have all of the styling features, multiple columns etc that desktop OO does, Tree is miles faster and more comfortable for just writing outlines. Something I sort of like to do with an outliner. The pair of them together also cost far, far less, to the point where I can happily recommend them to anyone with a Mac, an iThing and a hankering after outlines without suspecting that I might have wasted somebody else’s money.

  • The deal-breaker with Tree for me is that it can’t post peers laterally. That ridiculous sounding phrase just means that every item to the right is a step down in terms of hierarchy. I want to tell a story sideways, like a text filmstrip, and add lesser detail underneath. In this sense Tree is too simple. It is literally just an outliner turned 90 degrees and it needs to take better conceptual advantage of its innovation. I wrote the author of the program about this long ago, but I think my message fell on deaf ears.