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.

Omni frustrates me

Annoyed to the _n_th degree by yet another Things sync issue last year, I migrated to Omnifocus, as it seemed at least to have working OTA sync. Which it does. It also has a very clear and well designed iPad client, and a basic but functional iPhone one. The highly expensive Mac desktop client, however, is still a dinosaur that has barely changed since I first tried a demo several years ago and thought “this is way too hard to use”.

“But they’ve just written this nice new iPad client,” thought I, “so, fingers crossed, the desktop one must surely be in for an update soon.”

Similarly, I tried OmniOutliner for the iPad when it was released and found it to be easily the best iPad outliner I’d seen. It really is a superb piece of work, and I use outliners a lot, so thought that it was a reasonable investment to buy the highly expensive Mac desktop client as well, given that surely it was going to be updated. The potential OmniFocus upgrade, after all, was just speculative on my part, but they were actively promising that OmniOutliner 4 would be released any day soon, and outlines aren’t much use if you can’t also access them on the desktop.

Neither of the above have happened and I can’t see why. OmniFocus for Mac, I’m sorry, is a pain to use, and remains a pain to use regardless of whether I use it every day, which I do. I still find myself adding blank items that I didn’t want, creating new top level projects by mistake, accidentally completing things which are then annoying to find again and so on. OmniOutliner 3 is even worse – I tried hard to get used to it and simply gave up. Both of them suffer from Flaky Mode Change disease, where the exact editing mode one is in is both inobvious and hard to switch. I could go on at length but what is the point? Neither seem to have any development work associated with them at all any more – it’s hardly going to make a difference what I say.

If I spent a large proportion of my working life on iOS devices then I would happily use OF and OO regularly. As it is, I don’t use OO since I can’t bear the desktop client, and I am looking at the Things cloud sync beta and thinking “you know, maybe I will switch back if this gets to live”. When you are being outpaced in development by Cultured Code you really should worry as a company. (Things cloud sync has been promised for years, and the lack has led a lot of people including me to migrate, but is at least actually testably happening now.)