Category: <span>A Saga of Outliners</span>

Between work and home, I’m involved in a lot of things that require a fair amount of organization. My organizing applications have gone through several cycles…..

  • Datebook+ on the Palm Pilot and later compatible hardware. This application had a feature called ‘floating events’. If you placed an event on tomorrow’s date but didn’t complete it, the event would move to the current day each day, causing them to pile up and making it very obvious you were falling behind. You could easily move them into the future to reschedule things. When Palm went under…..
  • I moved to Outlook. While Outlook has it’s strengths for integration between mail, reminders, calendars and other data, I hate Outlook’s UI and email interface in particular. The difficulties in showing a properly threaded email tree (NOT what they call a ‘conversation’ thread) are painful to endure.
  • Today, things are a bit convoluted. I moved to Thunderbird IMAP for email 100% a long time ago and can not imagine switching to another email program. I use it on multiple machines and my mail always stays in perfect sync. Since I have an iPhone, iPad, Mac and Windows PCs, the only way to have synchronized, consistent reminders was using Outlook and the iOS Reminders applications, since they all can synchronize to a Microsoft Exchange account. iOS Reminders has only one feature I like, and that’s the ability to add items to it fully by voice (Siri) and not use any buttons. Since I am stuck with using a Gmail account for work, I resort to using it’s calender as well when I must. I use Thunderbird for my Gmail as well, as nothing on earth could make me suffer GMail’s web browser UI.

I needed something more robust that email and calendars, and OSX Reminders are very agile for manipulating more than a few dozen items.

I stumbled across Workflowy online one day while looking into outlining applications. It was the least expensive of it’s competition and I immediately loved it’s simplicity. I purchased a subscription and immediately began using it to supplement the OSX Reminders application.

I quickly discovered that the ability to outline (hierarchically) my information was very powerful. The only things lacking (for me) at the time were date support, notifications (Hey, this is due now!) and Siri voice support for quickly adding items. At the time I started using Workflowy none of this was available.

But what Workflowy did bring to the party was worth it for me. I made some suggestions, discovering that I wasn’t the only one clamoring for dates, notifications and Siri support and contributed to those ‘feature requests’.

Workflowy did add date support over the last few years (although not really reminders). I wasn’t the only one to continue to suggest other feature support. A few times over the years, people have suggested that perhaps Workflowy’s development pace had slowed, as we never saw any of the things we requested.

I recently added more comments to a thread on Workflowy development to which a few people agreed. Like most online discussions, some didn’t, including a Workflowy forum moderator. It was implied that development of the features we had been suggesting wasn’t on the table, yet no one had told any of use who had been asking for years. Of course, the developers are under no real obligation to tell anyone what they are planning, but since this was an active discussion it seemed like we were being a bit mislead. All the discussions were very professional, both from Workflowy and users such as myself. I decided to look outside the “Workflowy box” for alternatives……there were several, amongst which I discovered Dynalist. It did most of what Workflowy did, was a little different and was a bit more expensive, but had a very open dialog with it’s users about features, planned items, and development seemed to move quickly. This was very noticeable by a history they keep online of features and versions as they are added. Development seems constant (monthly blog updates), whereas as every couple years I would hear that Workflowy was ‘reorganizing’, ‘hiring all new people’ or some such thing. This stuff happens, to be sure.

I cancelled my Workflowy subscription and. migrated all my outlines & data to Dynalist in about 15 minutes.

Dynalist development was very rapid the first year I had it. Dynalist development quickly slowed to a crawl and even their own employees (of which there seem to be two) have implied a lack of development as they work on another application. At least they are honest about it, but the implications are that things that have been promised for years just aren’t going to happen. The only thing worse than hinting to your users “soon” and “right around the corner” all over your forums and Trello accounts is to never deliver on anything suggested.

When did it become so hard to say “Nope, sorry, that’s not going to happen (for whatever reason)”? Are we that afraid that everyone will jump ship?

I recently began researching Outliners again because of this. There are quite a few out there and they are in various stages of usability.

Here’s a quick synopsis of my research into alternative outliners…..your needs would, of course, be different….

  • Workflowy
    • Stable and solid, but development is slow. If you expect something to be added soon, don’t or you’ll be disappointed. Features take YEARS, and that is not an exaggeration. Follow some past suggestions on their forums for proof.
  • Dynalist
    • Stable and solid, but never got split views, development slowed then stopped in September of 2021. The developers have basically abandoned the product for another project (Obsidian). It is done and basically abandoned, but they’ll still take your money.
  • Notion
    • A very complex organizer with a ton of great features for cheap. But the outliner was pretty kludgy, and has no email to inbox capability (a deal breaker for me). Maybe one day, but too expensive for a weak outliner.
  • Omni Outliner
    • Really nice outliner, but not designed for multiplatform use. No Windows version (deal-breaker).
  • Omni Focus
    • Rather limited outliner, lots of organizational features but can be used in cloud. No Windows version (deal-breaker). Very nice people to talk with, shame they’ll never port to Windows.
  • ToDoist
    • More of a to do list than a real outlining application. Great for To-dos, but takes a lot of button clicking to do simple things. Typical of most web-type applications.
  • Roam
    • Seems to be making a lot of noise out there and I’m not sure why. Not a lot of features, several times the cost of everyone else, and it just doesn’t seem worth it.
  • LeoVUE
    • An interesting programmer oriented organizational wiki tool. We too complex for rapid the organization I need.
  • OpenToDoList
    • More of a to do list than an outliner.
  • LogSeq
    • Could be interesting one day but way too early in alpha development at this stage.
  • Transno
    • This looked great but couldn’t find a lot of info. I fear it may be dead as there were dead links on their web page and I never received responses to my inquiries.
  • GetOutline.com
    • Very interesting. Still communicating with this group to get features. Might be a bit early in its development yet for real world use.

UPDATES:

February 15, 2021:

I moved from Dynalist to Workflowy when development on Dynalist stopped cold.

February 1, 2022

Frustrated with (yet another) slowdown in Workflowy development, I decided to try Legend (formerly known as Moo.do). It has true Panes and a lot of other nice outlining features. At first glance I immediately thought I’d found my holy grail of outliners……however….

After a few weeks of testing, it was just too buggy. Bugs, bugs, bugs, losing data, not syncing correctly, showing things that had already been deleted. It was a great foundation but I just couldn’t trust it with my data. I was pretty disappointed. It looks like it’s made by a single developer who works on it part-time.

March 1, 2022

I moved back to Workflowy. Despite it’s slow development it remains the only one of the groups that is stable that can be trusted not to lose your data.

Something I’ve learned in my years of using these on-line, subscription-based Outliner apps…..

The development teams either are or seem like they are 1-2 people. They appear to be ‘companies’ with a product, but are all run more like a hobby application that was brought to market. This is obvious in the incredibly slow rate of development.

Do not buy one with the hopes that a feature that has been promised soon will ever be implemented. I’ve seen things that were labeled as ‘soon’ still absent after 6 years. Buy it for what it is at the time, then stop hoping for features. Then everything that does appear will be a nice surprise.

I’m an experienced programer. I’ve written very large, robust applications (see elsewhere on this blog) in several months of spare time. I refuse to accept the slow pace of development that has become acceptable by these companies of multiple developers, especially when they are being paid. Someone isn’t working full-time on these apps.

A sidebar here of some of my thoughts on software development over the last decade……

In the old days, when a user ‘bought’ a copy of software, you were then able to use forever. You owned it (technically, you owned a ‘license’ to do so, but that’s a detail) and that was the end of it. At that point, the company could improve upon their software and sell you updates with more features. A very simple relationship emerged from this delicate balance….they offer new things, you can chose to buy them. The converse of this is that they don’t get more money from you unless they create desirable features. A simple check and balance system that worked very well for decades.

Now, most software reaches a point in its development where it really ‘does everything it needs to do’. Yes, yes, there are always other things it could do, but they can run out of primarily desirable features and sell-able things to add. The application reaches a state of equilibrium, and development slows. Then people don’t buy updates, and it continues like this. A software developer then faces a choice: Stop developing something they aren’t making money on or get more creative about features. Many times this is why a software application disappears and a company goes out of business. No one buys it because it doesn’t do what they need, or doesn’t continue to add what they need. Enter the ‘subscription model of software’ aka Software as a Service/SaaS, as the current “final solution” for developers of software. Here was have the perfect method to get a continuous, guaranteed revenue stream from the user with minimal work from the developers over time.

For more on this, see the section of my blog named “A Change in Software Paradigm”.

A Saga of Outliners