Tinderbox 4.6
March 7, 2009

Tinderbox Mind Map

Tinderbox Mind Map

Tinderbox 4.6 was released this week.  Tinderbox continues evolve and add new and interesting capabilities. What I find most interesting about Tinderbox is the application’s usefulness across time: periodically I’m tempted by new software that claims to perform some subset of the tasks that Tinderbox performs, and/or present information in a new and better way. I’ll try these applications for a short period of time…and always end up realizing that Tinderbox performs the task or presents the information more effective.

I just spent a couple of days experimenting with Zengobi Curio, for example. Curio is a beautiful application, very Mac-like and attractive to look at. I was seduce by the concept of “Idea Spaces” and so gave it a try first as a means of mapping out the strategy for an article on a product announcement and then to gather notes during a managed services discovery engagement. Some time later I was in a meeting and needed a quick means of extracting my discovery notes and sharing them with colleagues. Simply exporting the text of my notes in some useful format in Curio turned out to be more difficult than I needed it to be while in the middle of a meeting. Curio provides a number of export options, but none of them easily generated simple text output that I could paste into an email or a wiki for sharing. In contrast, the notes that I had gathered just a week or so earlier during a disaster recovery assessment using Tinderbox were easily shared with a few mouse clicks, as plain text that I could easily reuse anywhere.

A note to makers of note taking and outlining software on the Mac: just because its so easy to export everything as a PDF doesn’t mean doing so is always the best thing to do.

Of course with a little bit of reflection I realized that an “Idea Space” is really just a Tinderbox map view, and that the relationships between all of the different Tinderbox views actually makes a map view more useful in many cases than Curio’s Idea Spaces. That small epiphany was as transformative to my view of how I could use Tinderbox in my work as was my very first “a-ha!” moment with Tinderbox back in March of 2002:

Now, here’s the cool part and the “aha!” moment. After we discussed what I was trying to achieve, Mark commented that I might be able to get the results I was really after not by doing any sort of HTML export, but simply by using Tinderbox’s Explorer view. It was like a light bulb went off. While I’d looked at Explorer view before, I’d never really tried to use it. A quick glance, however, revealed that Mark was right; with a little arrangement of my notes, I’d be able to easily see what feeds were being gathered by what agents, and I’d be able to navigate and read those feeds with a lot less clicking around and drilling down.

I’d been so caught up in two paradigms that I literally couldn’t see the easy solution that was right in from of me. To begin with, my propensity to always use the very graphical Map view blinded me to the other, very useful views available. Worse, my experience in recent years has been very server oriented, primarily using things like PHP and MySQL, so I naturally gravitated toward an implementation scheme that worked in a similar manner, blind to the fact that Tinderbox is a client application.

This sort of thing happens to me all the time with Tinderbox. Seven years after I had my first epiphany that if I just saw the software this way I would significantly transform my view and use of this particular tool I’m still regularly having that sort of experience with Tinderbox. I can’t think of a single other piece of software I’ve been using for any length of time that I’ve had that experience with.

Don’t get me wrong, Curio seems well-written and sophisticated, and may be just the thing for some people. Certainly I’m more familiar and facile with Tinderbox after years of use than I am with Curio after only a few days – but to some extent, that’s my point. Across the years Tinderbox has continued to be so amazingly useful and well-adapted to my work that any software that might be positioned to displace it will need to be a order of magnitude better at what it does and how it does it.