A Saga of Outliners…

Work-flow-y, was a friend of mind (apologies to War).

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 move 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 a long time ago and can not imagine switching to another email program. I can use it on multiple machines and my mail stays in sync. Since I have an iPhone, iPad 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 forced to use Gmail for work, I resort to using it’s calender as well.

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 replace my Reminders application.

I quickly discovered that the ability to outline (hierarchically) my information was very powerful. The only things lacking (for me) were date support, notifications (Hey, this is due now!) and Siri voice support for quickly adding items.

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. I and other continued to suggest other feature support. A few time over the years, people suggested (myself included) that perhaps workflowy’s development pace had slowed, as we never saw any of the things we requested, and Workflowy didn’t do a very good marketing job of ‘announcing’ them when they did.

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 employee. 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, among 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 was offered a chance to join a Workflowy beta program but I passed. The moderator then locked the thread for any more comments by anyone. Why? To prevent anyone else from expressing disappointment or debating the topic? The thread had been open for three-plus years.

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

Now that I’ve had Dynalist for about a year, development seemed really fast for several months. Now, Dynalist development has 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 that hinting to your users “soon” and “right around the corner” all over your forums and Trello accounts would be never delivering.

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
    • Solid, but lacking in color highlighting, dates (finally got these later), slowed development, no true API. Color highlighting is ‘right around the corner’ supposedly.
  • Dynalist
    • Solid, but never got split views, slowed development. Still haven’t implemented WYSIWYG. Basic dates are finally working. The app just doesn’t appear to be a future priority for them.
  • 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.
  • 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, 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.
  • 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 this type of use.
  • OpenToDoList
    • More of a to do list than an outliner.
  • LogSeq
    • Could be interesting 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.
  • GetOutline.com
    • Very interesting. Still communicating with this group to get features. Might be a bit early in its development yet.

As of this moment (February 15, 2021) I’m at a loss for a new app. If Workflowy would implement Color Highlighting and clean up dates a bit more I would probably move back to it. For now I’m stuck with Dynalist.

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 feature. A simple check and balance system that worked well for decades.

Now, most software reaches a point in its development where it really ‘does everything it need to do’. Yes, yes, there are always other things it can do, but they can run out of primarily desirable 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.

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