Inspiration 5.0: Surprising Survivor
Being hopelessly addicted to the use of powerful, interesting structures to store and manipulate text, I’ve had a gloomy time of it lately, watching support dwindle for some of my favorite applications. To be sure, a computer program does not, for the most part, grind to a rusty halt or cease to exist because its manufacturer ceases to sell or upgrade it, but I find it sad that users can no longer obtain such fascinating, powerful programs as In Control (TidBITS-191), Info Depot, and MORE (TidBITS-198).
That’s why I found it heartening to hear, in September, that Inspiration Software, Inc., had upgraded to version 5.0 its flagship product, the diagrammer and outliner from which the company takes its name: Inspiration. My last look at the program was in 1993 (TidBITS-180), and it’s great to see Inspiration return with a vengeance after all these years. The company has positioned Inspiration for success by producing it for Windows as well as Macintosh, and by targeting both K-12 and higher education markets with special editions.
Draw Me a Picture — You can work with an Inspiration document either as an outline or as a diagram. Although diagrams are not usually my cup of tea, Inspiration’s diagramming facilities are quick, easy, and fun, while at the same time powerful and flexible enough to satisfy most imaginable needs; so it isn’t hard to see why the company’s Web site stresses this aspect of the program.
An Inspiration diagram consists of "ideas" connected by "links" – an idea is a piece of text, usually within or next to a graphic; a link is a line, perhaps with an arrow, perhaps with a text label. Imagine, for instance, a flowchart, or an organization chart, or a process flow diagram – these are the sorts of things you might diagram with Inspiration.
Inspiration provides lots of power to customize the diagram. You can alter the default features of new ideas or those of selected ideas. You can position and resize an idea, change its fill color, line color, or text color, its line and fill pattern, its line thickness, and the character styling of any part of its text. You can do the same for links (of course they have no fill), plus alter the arrow at either end, reposition the text label, set the precise point at which the link leaves or arrives at an idea graphic, and give it various shapes, including custom zigzags and curves.
Inspiration comes with a large library of graphics, or you can supply your own; in fact, you can just paste a picture onto an idea to make it that idea’s graphic, though it won’t have the same "intelligent" features as certain supplied graphics, such as a demarcated interior text region. Also, you can add graphic elements to the diagram background by drawing them with tools provided – though, curiously, you can’t import a background graphic.
Thoughtful features make it easy to modify a diagram. You can zoom your view of the diagram in or out. When you insert or delete ideas within an existing link, the link rearranges itself intelligently. You can change which idea is the main idea. You can align ideas, and neaten them en masse into various schematic structures.
Subordination and Insubordination — The diagram is also a hierarchy. There is a main idea (to which all others are subordinate), and links have directionality, so that if a link leads from idea A to idea B, idea B is a sub-idea of idea A. This hierarchy is what ties together the diagram view of an Inspiration documentand its outline view, which is why a diagram can also be viewed as an outline.
Certain clever features of diagram manipulation take advantage of this hierarchy. A particular idea’s sub-ideas (or all its sub-ideas deeper than a given level) can be hidden; or, everything except a particular idea and its sub-ideas can be hidden.
However, there’s a problem: you can do things with a diagram that you couldn’t possibly do with a simple outline-type hierarchical structure. For instance, in a diagram, you can link A to C and also link B to C and also link B to A and also link C to B – whatever helps to express the notions and relationships you’re trying to convey. But such multiple and reverse relationships can’t appear in an outline.
I find Inspiration’s solution to this paradox a bit confusing. There is always a basic, underlying outline hierarchy, which you see when you switch to outline view. Unfortunately, it might not be what you expect (I think it depends somehow on the order in which ideas were originally created, but I honestly can’t determine the algorithm). Also, ideas need not be linked to the main diagram at all; such "loose" ideas appear in the outline as subtopics of a special "Miscellaneous Thoughts" topic. Finally, if a diagram becomes so complex that the outline view becomes irrelevant, you can always just give up on the latter altogether: Inspiration supplies a special "text view" which lets you read and edit idea texts without a hierarchy.
Inside Outline — The outliner, which enables you to view and manipulate documents in outline view, is full-featured, and thus is greatly improved from the version 4.0 outliner, which was on the whole so crude and lacking in basic navigational shortcuts as to be downright impractical for serious use. In 4.0, there was no reason why one would ever make Inspiration one’s outliner of choice; in 5.0, there are very few reasons not to do so. Inspiration now has all the keyboard shortcuts and facilities you expect for navigation and reorganization of an outline, such as navigating to the parent topic, moving a line, demoting and promoting of subtopics, hiding all but a particular topic and its subtopics, and so forth. (Oddly, there is a command for splitting a topic into two, but none for joining two topics into one.)
There are facilities for setting the default text styling of various levels, which I would describe as good but not great (particularly in comparison to MORE). You can alter and customize the outline prefix that precedes each topic. A topic can have an attached note, which can even contain a graphic, and may be displayed or hidden (notes can be displayed in diagram view also), and a topic can include carriage returns (remarkable for an outliner). You can consolidate multiple non-contiguous topics under a single topic. A "summation" feature inserts a number into a topic which is the total of all numbers in its subtopics having a certain format; I have found a similar feature in MORE useful for maintaining categorized inventories.
Inspiration 5.0 retains an intriguing organizational feature with which I was much impressed in 4.0: each outline topic (or, in diagram view, each idea) can have a second, almost hypertextual dimension of hierarchy by means of an attached "child" window, which can be made to open at any time. These windows look like separate Inspiration documents, though in fact they are part of the same document. Of course, any topic in a "child" outline can have a "child" of its own. An Inspiration document thus can contain a swarm of sub-documents, each of which is summoned through a particular topic (or idea) of the main document or of a sub-document. That’s what I call a powerful, interesting structure to store and manipulate text!
Balance of Trade — Inspiration’s export and import features are remarkably good. A diagram can be exported as a PICT or a GIF. As for outlines, Inspiration opens MORE outlines directly (flawlessly, as far as I can tell). It also opens text files, interpreting tabs as topic levels and untabbed lines as notes. And it opens Microsoft Word files saved in RTF (Rich Text Format), using Word’s built-in Heading styles as indications of topic level and maintaining character styling pretty well. An outline can be exported in these formats and a number of others. (Alas, Inspiration still lacks the ability to export just the notes.)
It is de rigueur these days to tout one’s product as Internet-savvy, and Inspiration is no exception: outlines can be exported as HTML. I like this feature, since an outliner can be a convenient milieu for constructing and maintaining certain kinds of Web pages. Inspiration provides four choices: a single Web page that uses lists to imitate the look of the original outline; a single Web page where the outline without notes appears before the outline with notes (the former functioning as a live-link index to the latter); two Web pages (one is an index to the other); and multiple Web pages, one for each Level One topic, tied together by an index page linking to the others.
Unfortunately, the implementation lacks options for formatting the resulting HTML pages – all topics end up in boldface, and all notes end up as plain text (though you can include your own manual HTML if you like). Also, international characters are incorrectly handled.
Ingenuities, Oddities, Uglifications, and Conclusions — The overall interface of Inspiration 5.0 is admirable, a well-conceived and notable improvement from the clunky, confusing 4.0 interface. Various commands and modes make it easy to "brainstorm" or construct a diagram or outline rapidly, without using the mouse. Frequently used commands are available through modifier-clicks and double-clicks, and through well-implemented palettes (they are part of the window, and can be hidden); yet you can still do everything with just menu items and a few navigational keyboard shortcuts.
On the other hand, a few rough edges remain. Here are some Inspiration weaknesses that I have not mentioned already:
In my review of 4.0 I complained that the interface for manipulating text was faulty, and although most of my criticisms no longer apply, some surprises remain. For instance, given the phrase "hello there", if you double-click just after the "o", Inspiration selects the word "there".
If you switch from diagram view to outline view and then back to diagram view, the diagram has scrolled to a different position from where you left it, which is confusing.
If text in a diagram is truncated or too small to read, positioning the cursor over it shows the text legibly in a "status bar" at the bottom of the window, which is good; but, if the text is too long for the status bar it is truncated again, which is silly. (The status bar should expand to show the whole text).
The Undo command doesn’t undo a number of actions.
Inspiration is not scriptable. Imagine the power, if only it were!
On the whole, however, my impression of Inspiration 5.0 is highly positive. Inspiration 5.0 is a quantum leap up from the weak 4.0 I reviewed four years ago; it is now, at last, a serious and valuable program for diagramming or outlining, and deserves consideration on both counts.
Inspiration 5.0 is priced at about $100, and a free demo is available online.