Is Tinderbox worth the expense?

I used a Tinderbox map when I was trying to make sense of my Markdown Shakedown thread from last summer.

thread on the forum started out as just an announcement that Tinderbox 8 had been released, but turned into a discussion (in part) about whether or not Tinderbox is worth the investment of money and time. Someone wrote the following:

Tinderbox is too expensive. It looks useful and complex but it is too expensive for what it is… Annual pricing of nearly £100 is ridiculous.

That commenter also compared the price of Tinderbox with that of DevonThink.

I am not going to contend that that opinion is wrong. Everyone should judge the “value” of software based upon her or his needs. But I’ll tell you why that judgment does not fit my perspective.

A simple outline helped me manage the production of a book for our local historical society.

The financial cost

Maybe it is because I started personal computing when most software cost over $200, but I am not shocked that Tinderbox costs $249. What shocks me is that any software only costs $10 or $20. That has always seemed unsustainable to me, which I think has proven true, as attested by the number of apps going to a subscription model. Still, $249 is a lot of money to spend on software that has a reputation of being very difficult to master, and even harder, perhaps, to figure out what in the world you want to use it for.

That $249 only gets you one year of updates. After that, the software keeps on working fine, but if you want updates, you’ll have to pay another $98, which buys you another year of updates.

Justifying the cost

Tinderbox is unlike any other app on the market. It does things no other app does, and it makes possible the manipulation of notes in ways no other single application does. So it is not possible to compare the price of Tinderbox with that of any other application in any way that is logical. If, as the commenter whom I quoted above, you see Tinderbox as just another DevonThink alternative, of course it would not make sense to spend the money for the more expensive app. Choosing DevonThink makes perfect sense for that person.

But that is ignoring all the other things Tinderbox can do. The map view itself could justify the cost. I have written about how I think Tinderbox is the best outliner. You can add custom fields to your notes. There are multiple other views of your information in Tinderbox.

(Yes, there are lots of things Tinderbox fails at: no iOS companion and clunky exporting to name two.)

The decision about whether the initial cost is worth the money should not be made by comparing it to other applications that do less, but whether Tinderbox can help you manage and make sense of your data in ways other applications can’t and whether that is worth it to you.

Tinderbox appears to be the main source of income for the software’s lone developer, Mark Bernstein. If it becomes financialy unfeasible for him to continue to develop the app, it will gradually whither on the vine. For those of us who get great benefit from Tinderbox, that would be a hardship, so we pay the $98 update fee, seeing it as an investment in the continued growth and availability of Tinderbox. Many users may not pay the update fee until a new feature comes a long that they want. Tinderbox keeps working just fine even if you don’t pay the update fee.

The investment in time

The one criticism of Mark Bernstein that may be valid is that he doesn’t provide enough guidance for getting started with the app. He has tried. There is a 111-page “Getting Started with Tinderbox” PDF tutorial that comes with the app. This is helpful. But a series of video tutorials would be even more help — especially since there seems to be a gap between “how Tinderbox works” and “what should I do with it?” I’ve put together my own amateurish videos, and people have commented that they have helped them get started with Tinderbox.

There are a lot of dispirate resources on the website that give informtion about using Tinderbox, but there feels no rhyme nor reason to them. And there is no real user’s manual, though there is a getting started reference on the website. But there turns out to be plenty of help figuring out new features, which is how I managed to figure out a little something about Hyperbolic View in version 8.

But the truth is that all the documentation in the world would barely reduce the amount of effort needed to master all of Tinderbox’s functions. It’s just that complex. If you approach the app at the start with the notion that you need to learn all it does before you use it, you’ll almost certainly become frustrated and give up after a while.

The key to Tinderbox happiness is understanding that you can just start slowly. Almost all my posts and video tutorials are about taking this approach with the app. If you haven’t looked them over, check them out. The short version is that you can do many remarkable things with your information just be mastering the basics of Tinderbox. As you discover the efficacy of Tinderbox, you’ll start to expand your knowledge of its functions, one step at a time.

The bottom line

I am by no means trying to convince anyone they should spend the money and time to start using Tinderbox. Every opinion on this topic, from “it’s crazy expensive and too hard to learn” to “I’d pay twice as much for Tinderbox if I had to,” is valid.



10 thoughts on “Is Tinderbox worth the expense?

  1. Beck Tench has done a series of helpful videos that help to address the what and why of using Tinderbox.

    I think Bernstein’s strategy is to let people figure out how Tinderbox will be helpful to themselves. By doing so, he avoids pigeonholing the application into something that people might incorrectly perceive as not being helpful for them.

    ps. Thanks for your blog. I’ve read it for quite a while, and it’s very helpful.

    1. Thanks, John. I suspect you are right about Mark Bernstein’s strategy. And I love Beck Tench’s videos.

  2. I have owned Tinderbox since version 5 and have updated (I think) twice. Each time I am keen, get suckered into buying it (my own fault,) and then quickly get bogged down. The manual, all 111 pages would be considerably smaller if the font were the standard 12 points, and not the font used for a powerpoint presentation. It is a good teaser, that is it. I do not see the virtue of charging a lot of money for a product and then charging more for a self-promoted Tinderbox Way which I gather is supposed to help me learn Tinderbox. Tinderbox really needs several COMPLETE real-world examples of how one can use it and what makes it unique.

    Compare the TB manual to the Scrivener Manual which approaches 1000 pages and describes most aspects of Scrivener in detail. And it is needed, because Scrivener, while miles ahead of Tinderbox in user-friendliness, is still difficult. Tinderbox is the poster child for user unfriendliness.

    So, while you might like it, it has a long way to go. I do wish it well. I just wish I could use it effectively.


    1. There is no question that Tinderbox takes a determined user to find and read all of the help resources, and then to make sense of them for his or her own needs. It doesn’t help that the “Getting Started” file is now two versions old. There is a pretty good Help file, when you can find it. I just tried opening it from within the Tinderbox Help menu and nothing happened. (I had referred to it when first writing about version 8, so I don’t know what happened.) And there is no link to a Help file from the Eastgate website — or at least I couldn’t find it. The Tinderbox Way is not an instruction manual. It is more of a manifesto. Reading it can help you to figure out how to use Tinderbox for what you want to do, but no one should buy it to learn how to use the application. In short, your frustration is understandable.

      That’s why I started writing about Tinderbox. Not to convince people to buy it, but to help people who have bought it to actually be able to get value out of it. If you haven’t looked at my modest screencasts, you should take a look (see the Tinderbox menu on the blog) and see if they can help.

      1. I appreciate your efforts; however, it should not be up to you to do what a responsible developer of an expensive piece of software should do. The developer touts the wonderful aspects of his product that he has created but seems to lack the ability of explaining how it works and how to use it. Many people, myself included, are attracted by the ‘sell’ when we should be saying ‘show us.’

  3. Dear Steve,

    I was wondering what color scheme are you using in the first screenshot: is it the Standard? I don’t seem to recognize the blues… Thank you for your consideration.

    Best regards,

    1. That document was created in version 7 of Tinderbox, and I just selected the colors manually. Version 8 does seem to have a softer feel regarding colors, but I think you can choose any that you like.

      Thank you for reading my blog.

      1. Thank you for your prompt and helpful reply, Steve. And thank *you* for writing it: yours is one of the very few I read, and I always do it with pleasure.

  4. Dear Steve,

    I was wondering what color scheme you are using in the first screenshot: it it the Standard? I don’t seem to recognize the blues… Thank you for your consideration.

    Best regards,

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