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 outlinersoftware.com 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.



Tinderbox 8 is now available

It came out of the blue (as far as I am concerned). But Tinderbox 8 is now available. Here is the list of major new features:

  • Hyperbolic Views let you explore complex link networks
  • Filtered Outlines help you focus your attention
  • Maps are faster, more elegant, and more responsive
  • Brainstorm even more quickly: just drag a link to an empty space to create a new linked note
  • Tinderbox is now scriptable and cooperates even more smoothly with even more tools.
  • Faster. Sleeker. Better.

I have no idea what “Hyperbolic Views” does. But I look forward to using the new brainstorming feature.

A terrific video series about note-taking and Tinderbox

One of the participants over at the outlinersoftware.com forum recently directed our attention to a great video series by Beck Tench about using Tinderbox to organize notes. You can find this series here:


I love Beck’s approach to Tinderbox, not trying to understand the whole thing and using every feature she can. I agree with her that that would be a recipe for frustration and abandonment. Rather, she makes use of some of Tinderbox’s most basic features, and as you can see in the videos, that still allows her to build complex and useful sets of notes.

Thanks for sharing, Beck.

The 3rd Edition of The Tinderbox Way is now available

Mark Bernstein, the force behind Tinderbox, has announced the publication of the third edition of The Tinderbox Way — which could also be called the Tao of Tinderbox. It isn’t a manual, but more of a philosophy behind the ideas that Bernstein has used to develop the application. Here’s what he says in his announcement email:

The Tinderbox Way explores an approach to artisanal software and the design of a powerful tool for making, visualizing, and thinking about notes. It’s an idiosyncratic and personal look at why software works as it does, and a meditation on the craft of software design.

The Third Edition is greatly expanded and includes a new set of Design Notes edescribing many alternative design ideas. It’s about 30% longer than the first edition, and has been comprehensively revised for Tinderbox 7.3 .

I think Bernstein undersells the book here. There is a lot more than just what was in his head as he conceived of and built Tinderbox. He writes a lot about the art of note-taking, and describes how Tinderbox can help you in your own note-taking. I found the first edition very interesting reading. You don’t get many books ruminating on the practice of taking, managing and harvesting notes.

I bought the second edition too, but only read parts of it. The new edition is over 500 pages, where the second edition was 382. Just comparing chapter 2, “Building Tinderbox,” the third edition is greatly expanded and, I found, more interesting, providing more of the background philosophy about Bernstein’s choices. That’s as far as I’ve gotten so far.

The price is $34.95 and you get PDF and ePub formats.

Good introduction to exporting from Tinderbox

At the blog Ordinary Human Language, Brian Crane has put together a series of tutorials on how to export from Tinderbox. As he says about his approach:

… what I’ll try to do is show how working backwards from the desired output rather than forward from a note is a useful (and manageable) way to think about export. In my opinion, working this way resolves a lot of the difficulty I initially experienced.

I always found exporting from earlier versions of Tinderbox to be somewhat baffling. Tinderbox 6, however, made it a little easier, though I confess that I do not do a lot of exporting from Tinderbox.

Tinderbox 7 is now available

Composites -- collections of related notes in a map -- is one of the big new additions to Tinderbox 7.

Composites — collections of related notes in a map — is one of the big new additions to Tinderbox 7.

Tinderbox 7 has been released by Eastgate Systems. It is jam-packed with new features (find a list here), but the biggest addition is the “composite,” a collection of notes that are all associated. Think of a note as an atom and the composite as a molecule. Tbx 7 comes with four composite prototypes, two of which I’ve displayed in the screenshot above. You can easily build your own composites just by sliding notes up against each other. When you do so, they become joined and a gray-lined box is created around them.

I haven’t tried to put this feature to practical use yet. When I do, I’ll try to create a screencast.

The other most significant addition is that you can create a kind of wiki link in the text of a note to link one note to another. As usual, the upgrade is free if your annual subscription to Tinderbox is active. Otherwise, it’s $98 for an upgrade, $249 for a new purchase.

My first Tinderbox video tutorial

Huzzah! After thinking about this a long time, I’ve finally made my first Tinderbox Tutorial. As you’ll see, it is a little rough around the edges as I get used to the features of Screenflow. And I’m no James Earle Jones with the voice over. But I hope this video can help novice Tinderbox users and those thinking about becoming novice Tinderbox users get a sense of the very basics of the program. I hope to be adding more videos in the future, ones more polished and which expose more of Tinderbox’s great features.

UPDATE: The first version of this video had some editing errors in it. I’ve fixed those.

Introduction to Tinderbox 6 from Stephen Zeoli on Vimeo.

Tinderbox Labor Day Sale – save $50

This just in (from an email from Eastgate Systems):

This weekend only, Tinderbox is on sale. Save $50, and get started on that big push. Whether you’re writing a thesis or a novel, planning a new product, running a campaign, or planning your big trip, Tinderbox will help you get the most from your research.
Tinderbox is the tool for notes if you’re working on a Mac.

Outlines and inline notes

Nearly a year ago, I wrote an article about using Tinderbox as an outliner. My conclusion was that the outline view in Tinderbox is a terrific outline application. Just about the only feature it lacked is inline notes. The conversation that cropped up today about this feature prompted me to think about how I might implement a workaround in Tinderbox that would at least approximate inline notes. Before I get to that, I first want to talk a little bit about my opinions regarding inline notes.

This feature mostly only matters in single-pane outliners. That is, those outliners where all the relevant information is presented in one pane. Why it matters is that you want to see the notes relating to a topic displayed “inline” with the topic and not in a separate pane. This allows you to view the notes for all the nearby topics at one time. A little more about why this is important a little further down.

I feel like inline notes are an under appreciated feature of a sophisticated outlining application. That’s probably because most people have never actually been able to use an outline that handled inline notes. Either the app doesn’t have inline notes as a feature, or the feature is rudimentally implemented.

Two definitions before continuing:

  • Heading or topic – Each individual item in an outline is a heading (or call it a topic). That is, if it has a bullet or an alphanumeric label, it is a heading.
  • Note – In some outliners, the note is merely additional meta data. In a small number of other outliners, it can be the main text that describes the heading under which it is associated. Every note is associated with a heading.

OmniOutliner is one of the more fully featured outliners on the market, including the ability to add notes and view them inline. Its approach is pretty standard, so it will serve as a good example of the current state of inline notes.

These screen shots demonstrate how inline notes work in OmniOutliner:

Sample OmniOutliner Document.

Sample OmniOutliner Document. Don’t confuse those long paragraphs as inline notes. They are each a separate heading.


To add a note to an OmniOutliner topic, click the note icon.

To add a note to an OmniOutliner topic, click the note icon.


By default, the inline note is made to have a lower-level of importance by appearance.

By default, the inline note is made to have a lower-level of importance by appearance.


The note now appearing in the note pane. You can toggle this action.

The note now appearing in the note pane. You can toggle this action.

Notes in OmniOutliner are clearly intended to be meta-data and not the substance of the heading the notes are associated with. This is a fine approach for a lot of purposes, but it is not ideal for writers. I suspect anyone using OmniOutliner for writing will take the approach demonstrated here; which is to just write paragraphs in the headings instead of using the notes for the content.

Grandview’s take on notes

The best application of inline notes that I have ever seen or used was that of Grandview, the DOS outliner I wrote about here. With Grandview you created your outline headings and could associate a full-text document with each heading, as demonstrated below:

Document text viewed "inline" in the GrandView outline

Document text viewed “inline” in the GrandView outline

Grandview treated notes as full-fledged documents in their own right, but allowed you to view them in the outliner or not, as you chose. If you wished, you could isolate the text of the document to focus solely on composing. Like this:

Dedicated document window in GrandView

Dedicated document window in GrandView

Here is what I had to say about why I feel this is important for writers:

An important point here is that this text is not a separate headline or node. It is directly associated with a headline and can be viewed inline, in its own window, or collapsed and not visible in the outline. This visual flexibility is a powerful feature for writers, because it allows you to switch from a focused view of your writing to the big picture. You can work on getting each section of the text right, then make sure the entire work flows smoothly with appropriate transitions. Two-pane outliners… force you to keep your writing in separate, discrete blocks. To this day, no other application has matched GrandView for providing this combination of powerful outlining tools AND single-pane, inline text. I have yet to find any outliner that matches Grandview for handling these this inline content.

I wrote that over six years ago, and it is still true. (I hope someone out there can show me I’m wrong.)

An inline notes workaround for Tinderbox

So my Tinderbox inline notes workaround. You can add columns to an outline view in Tinderbox. The columns can display any of the attributes for the headings in your Tinderbox outline. One of those attributes is “text”, which is the notes content.

Tinderbox with outline view selected. I have only populated it with a few notes.

Tinderbox with outline view selected. I have only populated it with a few notes.

If you’ve read my article about Tinderbox as an outliner, you know that you can add columns to the outline view, and fill those columns with data from any of the notes’ attributes. The text within the note is the “text” attribute, so you can add that as a column. So you can minimize the notes pane and view the text in the outline view as demonstrated in the screenshot below:

Outline view in Tinderbox with the "Text" attribute displayed in the outline as a separate column.

Outline view in Tinderbox with the “Text” attribute displayed in the outline as a separate column.

As you can see, the result isn’t exactly “inline” notes. And, sadly, the text doesn’t wrap to multiple lines so you can only read the contents as far as you can stretch the column. But this does provide an overview of content in a single pane, so it might prove useful to some.

My conclusion, however, is the search goes on for a single-pane outliner that can handle inline notes effectively for writers.