Being obsessed with the flexible storage and retrieval of information, I use an outliner all the time – Symmetry Software’s Acta. Being an academic, I use Acta mostly to hold my notes on books that I read, and to prepare and update notes for lectures I intend to give.
You know what an outliner is: it holds text in a form that looks like – well, an outline. Let a piece of text be called (for historical reasons) a topic; conceptually, it sits at some hierarchical level, indicated by how much its left margin is indented on the page. If we create another topic to follow the first, it might be at the same hierarchical level, in which case it is shown on the page below the first, and with the same indentation. Or, we may make a new topic subordinate to the first: it will then sit immediately below the first and with greater indentation. If topics A and B are at the same level, and topic A has subtopics, then topic A’s subtopics will follow A (be just below it) on the page, before B, thus showing that they belong to A.
I am not addicted to outlining because all thought can be usefully arranged into outline format. On the contrary, an outline’s combination of linearity (the topics run sequentially down the page) with hierarchy (some topics are subordinate to other topics) can render such arrangement quite artificial. A simple example is a proof: from a hierarchical point of view, what is proven "governs" the steps that support it, so the demonstrandum should be the topic and the premises its subtopics; but from a sequential point of view this looks backwards.
Rather, I use outliners because of the way they allow you, within a traditional page-like medium, to view, navigate, and rearrange material.
First, you can "close" a topic, so that its subtopics are hidden. Suppose I have four topics at the top level of my outline: I can start with all their subtopics (and therefore the subtopics of those subtopics, etc.) hidden, so all I see is those four topics, one right below the other. I go to the one I want and "open" it, revealing its subtopics at the next level down. I go to the one of these that I want and "open" it, and so on. If my topics are well named, I can thus quickly find my way into my document and get right to the piece of information or subject area that I want to read or modify or whatever.
Second, a topic "owns" its subtopics. If I decide I don’t like the way I have classified a topic, I can move it to another place in the outline, and all its subtopics (whether visible or not) will travel with it. If my hierarchy is logically contrived, this makes rearranging a lecture, say, much easier than trying to figure out in a word processor how many paragraphs need to move in order for the text to keep making sense.
Compare and Contrast — Inspiration Software (formerly Ceres Software) has come out with version 4.0 of Inspiration, inspiring me to compare it with Acta. You may recall that Adam reviewed the previous version of Inspiration (3.0) in these electronic pages not long ago; I wondered whether the new version deserved to be considered as my own new outliner of choice.
As an afterthought, I also glanced at Symantec’s More, which is Inspiration’s chief competition as a "high-end" outliner. The only copy I could wangle for this review is outdated (version 2.01); but that’s okay, since the purpose of introducing More into the picture was not to compare Inspiration with it, but just to help put Inspiration’s capabilities into perspective.
Be warned: I ignore here the graphic diagramming facilities that characterize More and Inspiration. From one point of view this seems unfair. The Inspiration folks see the program as "centered on visual planning, brainstorming and idea development, not outlining." I’m not trying, though, to misrepresent Inspiration: it does have outlining capabilities, and I was genuinely curious as to whether I could use them to move up from Acta.
Nitty Gritty — All three outliners share basic abilities to implement the concepts of viewing and arrangement described above. They distinguish a topic itself from the text of the topic in an intuitive way. They let you simply hide a topic’s subtopics (so that when you "open" the topic again the visible structure below it is as before) or fully collapse those subtopics (so that when you "open" again you see only the topic’s immediate subtopics). If a topic has features that are not currently visible (say it has hidden subtopics) they provide some visual indication of this. They let you move a topic (with its subtopics) to a new position by dragging. I could compare the implementation details of all these facilities, but one’s preferences here, though strong, will be personal, and all three programs are perfectly adequate in these areas.
Text entry is a major shortcoming in both Acta and Inspiration. Acta relies on TextEdit. Inspiration apparently does not, but its text entry is not much more sophisticated. In some ways it is quirky. If you double click in a word, then drag down a few lines (to include more words), the word you double-clicked in is sometimes (if you change directions while dragging) no longer included in the selection. Shift-click extends a selection, and Option-Right-arrow moves to the start of the next word, but Shift-Option-Right-arrow selects JUST the next word (it does not extend the present selection). In contrast, More provides extremely powerful shortcuts for selecting and navigating text, similar to those in Microsoft Word.
Acta beats Inspiration slightly in facilities for navigation amongst topics via keystrokes. One glaring example: both programs have a keystroke to let you move to the topic sequentially preceding the current topic, but Acta also has a keystroke to let you move the cursor to the topic hierarchically governing the current one, wherever it may be; Inspiration does not, and it’s a serious shortcoming (see below). Neither program lets you merge a topic into a topic just above it and at the same level (as More does); instead, you have to copy the text of one topic, paste it into the other topic, then go back to the first topic and delete it manually.
On the other hand, Inspiration gives you some great tools for rearranging your material quite unheard of in Acta. In Inspiration, there is a Demote command, which grabs all topics sequentially below the current topic but at the same level, and makes them hierarchically subordinate to it; and there is a Promote command, which does just the opposite, grabbing all topics hierarchically just subordinate to the current topic and bringing them up to the same level. (More also has these.) What’s more, you can select multiple topics (not necessarily contiguous), including or not including each topic’s subtopics, as you please; you can then move them all en masse by dragging, or cut them (and paste them), or cause all to be moved or copied into subordination under the first one selected (called "collecting"; you can do this with More as well. When this is done with topics from disparate locations and at various levels, the results are implemented in an extremely sensible way. Inspiration also lets you "focus in" on a topic, bringing that topic to the upper left of the window and showing only it and its sub-topics. (More has the same thing, called "hoisting".)
Inspiration provides a fundamental device lacking from Acta: within a topic, it distinguishes the topic itself from a "note" attached to that topic (like "body text" in Microsoft Word). If you are in a topic and you hit Return, text following the Return will be a note; the note is part of the topic (it has no independent existence), but it can be hidden, so that you can view your document without any notes visible. I like Inspiration’s implementation of this; you can enter a mode in which all notes are invisible unless you click within the text of a topic, when that topic’s note appears, only to vanish again as soon as you leave that topic. More has notes too (oddly called "documents"), but in some ways I actually like Inspiration’s implementation better. Unfortunately, though, Inspiration misses a chief point (in my view) of having such a feature, which is, to be able to export JUST THE NOTES; this would allow you to use topics as signposts to plan and build a long continuous piece of normal text and then leave yourself with just the text. (The copy of More I looked at apparently couldn’t do this either.) Both Inspiration and More do, however, let you print just the notes, which is something.
Inspiration gives you much better control over fonts and formatting than Acta, which is relatively primitive in this regard. In Inspiration you have flexible control over the appearance of the outline qua outline (e.g., whether topics are to be numbered, and if so, how) – although this applies only to the outline as a whole, whereas More lets you apply different numbering formats to different parts of the document. Also, in Inspiration you can set the default font characteristics for notes text, and for topics at each level, separately (up to level 8, since 9 through 99 are clumped together). You are also permitted right- and centered-justification. However, you do not get fully justified text (whereas in More you do), and Inspiration does not provide style-sheets (whereas More does).
Other than the omission of a "Notes Only" mode, Inspiration is splendid at exporting. Not only can you, for example, export to Microsoft Word format, but when you do, you get Word’s outlining styles: your top-level topic ends up in Word’s "heading 1" style, your next-level topics in "heading 2" style, and so forth, which is tremendously convenient. Acta, on the other hand, can export to RTF, but it just provides indentation without styles – everything comes out as nested modifications of "normal". (More has strong exporting facilities as well, but I was unable to test them with my borrowed copy.)
The facility that most intrigued me in Inspiration is its capacity to give a topic a "child." This is an outline in its own right, which is attached to the topic but represented by a square in the document margin; when you double-click on it, it opens as an outline in a separate window. I was hoping that this would turn out to be a hypertextual facility, but it isn’t; you can’t link any topic to any child, but rather, a topic can have just one child. Remarkably, though, a topic within a child can have a child of its own; and you can open any child by name at any time. So even though it isn’t hypertext, it does make the outline, as it were, hyper-dimensional: instead of a topic having only the subtopics that appear below it in the main outline, running linearly down the page, it also has the subtopics that live in its child outline, running in some virtual direction (into the screen, perhaps?) – and so on.
Alas, when you export, children are not exported (can you think of a sensible way to do it?); you can, however, "disown" a child, making it an independent Inspiration document – and, just the other way, you can copy an Inspiration document into the present document as a child of any topic that doesn’t have one. But note that this is still not hypertextual: you cannot link a topic to a different document, such that clicking on its child icon causes an independent document to open from the disk.
Inspiration is System 7-savvy, and you can use System 7 to publish a topic or topics. What is publishable, though, is not an outline or even a piece of an outline; because Inspiration is a graphic tool, it’s a graphic representation of the topic title (published from the graphic view of the document), in which notes and subtopics are not available. From an outlining point of view, it would be neat if the text were publishable as well.
One aesthetic gripe about Inspiration: it messes up my screen’s appearance, basically turning my 16 greys into simple black-and-white. (Being a ResEdit nut, I tried to fix this by altering the program’s PLTE resource – it worked for Word 5.1! – but failed.) This really gets my goat, and seems to me to be a sign of bad programming (though, to be fair, I am well aware that handling colors in a Mac application is tremendously difficult). I find this behaviour so upsetting that it almost sets me against Inspiration despite all its other good points. Almost, but not quite…!
Conclusions — My imaginary ideal outliner derives from my experiences with ThinkTank in its old Apple ][ incarnation. This program showed me what an outliner can be, and in some basic ways neither Acta nor Inspiration quite measures up. ThinkTank had wonderful navigation facilities for swift and convenient interface with your document. An example: it distinguished between "navigate up" (move the cursor up into the topic just above the current one, regardless of its depth in the nesting) and "navigate up at the same level" (move the cursor up into the topic above the current one at the same depth), with a single keystroke for either. Both Acta and Inspiration can do the former; neither can do the latter.
This is not a minor point. Imagine a large and complex outline with many of its topics at many levels expanded. You know (because it’s your document) that you have a topic "Greek Goddesses," and two of its subtopics at the same level are "Artemis" and "Demeter." Suppose "Artemis" is higher up sequentially, and you happen to be working in a subtopic of "Demeter" when you realize you want to say or consult something about Artemis. But "Artemis" may be way off above the screen somewhere. In ThinkTank, you could navigate quickly. A keystroke meant, "go to the topic to which this one is subordinate," so you clicked that a couple of times until you had moved up the hierarchy and the current topic was "Demeter". Then a keystroke meant, "go to the topic above and at the same level as this one," so you clicked that, and it took you instantly to another goddess; if this is Artemis, you’re done, and if not, click a couple times more. Now you’re at "Artemis," and you can work your way into the subtopics to find what you wanted.
In Acta, you can’t do this, but the workaround is acceptable. The first keystroke does exist, so you click it until you are at "Demeter," and then once more, so that you are at "Greek Goddesses." Now, if you don’t see "Artemis" in the tangle of subtopics, collapse "Greek Goddesses" so that none of its subtopics show at all, then open it so just its immediate subtopics show – and there are your goddesses, sitting in a nice column. Now you can go right to "Artemis." It’s true that you had to go way back out, and close a lot of stuff you might have wished you could leave open, but at least you can get where you want to go.
In Inspiration, you can forget it. Neither keystroke exists. You probably will end up scrolling painfully through your document, searching by eye, just as if you weren’t in an outliner at all.
Since ThinkTank was brought over to Macintosh and evolved into (guess what?) More, it is not surprising that More turns out to have this and other abilities that ThinkTank had and that Acta and Inspiration lack. Although I find Inspiration’s many special features intriguing, such as multiple selection and children, its poor performance at the most basic level, such as navigation and text entry, makes Acta a better choice for me, despite its simplicity in other respects. I’m much attracted by Inspiration’s notes facility, but since it doesn’t export just the notes, if I want to extract them I have to export to RTF, import into Nisus, and massage with a macro, and at that point I’m not doing anything I couldn’t do with Acta in the first place, especially since Acta, though it doesn’t have notes per se, does have the ability to hide all but the first line of a topic.
On the other hand, preparing this review has had the accidental side-effect of making me want to investigate More, which even in the earlier incarnation I looked at did nearly everything Inspiration did, only better. (The comparison is fair, since More lays tremendous emphasis on its graphic capabilities, as does Inspiration.)
Presently, if I decide I want more than just Acta’s basic vanilla outlining features, I won’t spring for Inspiration when More provides the power of style sheets, excellent text entry, and superb basic navigation. Price plays a role here, though. In street-price terms, More weighs in around $265, Inspiration goes for around $160, and Acta comes a bit lower. The only price I can find for Acta is a list price of $145, and the street price should be even less. That $100 difference between More and Inspiration may matter to some people. Also, More’s future is uncertain – I have heard rumors about Symantec ceasing development on new versions (when we asked Symantec this, we were told that Symantec has neither announced plans for a version 4.0 nor said that version 3.0 will be the last version). If Inspiration decides to develop its basic outlining features more strongly, it could stand poised to take over More’s sector of the market, while also beating Acta at its own game. Might the next version of Inspiration be the answer to my outlining prayers?