2020-07-20 12:25: Roam has reinvigorated the space of knowledge management apps, enough to inspire me to try to pull together a list of what’s out there. The last directory I did on something like this was A Directory Of Outliners which was in 2004, updated in 2007. Gulp. A lot has changed in the intervening years, and a lot hasn’t. Markdown has definitely made things easier, meaning that raw files can be formatted in a way that is readily understood by other apps, so that document has a life beyond the app, both in terms of longevity but also portability.
This time I’m not going to narrow things down too much. ‘Outliners’ was good shorthand to gather the prevailing dual- and triple-pane view, which is still in many ways the structure. But there are overdue innovations that were visible before in some apps, but have not been applied with such vim as Roam has done — visualization, graphs, easy wiki-style linking, and automatic backlinks (bidirectional links).
I’m not going to be too fancy with this list; you can go crazy trying to compare features and list all the platforms they are available on. All of them could fall into the category of adding notes, organising notes, searching for notes, but may also include features like sharing notes, automatic back-linking. If you’re not sure of some of the background to this revival of interest, I touched on it in a post in May: How A Twitter Scrap, and Covid-19, Reveal a Disruption In Process
To me the value of these tools lies in being able to do as many as possible of the following:
- allow me to add data easily, whether it’s writing it, dragging stuff in or pointing the app to a folder of existing data
- allow me to link to other data, elsewhere in the app, outside the app on my computer(s), on the web, and to pages and items that don’t exist yet (i.e. new pages)
- allow those links to be intelligent. That means bidirectional — if I link to a page, that page knows and shows the link — and visual — I want to be able to learn from those links, to see the links in different ways, and also, where possible, to suggest to me links and connections I might not have made or noticed myself.
- allow me to export the data easily, in different formats — to a blog, say, or a newsletter — or to another application should I choose to
- support existing standards such as Markdown, so I don’t have to learn new formatting techniques and the data can easily move around and be read by other apps (Spotlight, say)
- work on all platforms. I would like to be able to access the data via app, web, desktop and mobile.
- charge a fee that is reasonable — to both sides. I want to pay because I want the app to thrive, but I don’t want to be charged an arm and a leg unless it changes my life. I for one use lots of different apps, some for only a few minutes per day. and don’t want to pay the same as someone who uses only one app for 99% of their work.
Roam and its competitors
(I use the term loosely; Roam has definitely shaken up the market, pushing others to build alternatives and incumbents to up their game)
Ulysses (I use this a lot; they say they’re not a markdown editor, but it’s a technicality.)
Who thought this would make a comeback?
Long-time players that are still around
Tinderbox — a personal favourite that I use quite extensively.
TheBrain: The Ultimate Digital Memory (another favourite of mine, still in use more than 20 years on)
MyInfo This was my outliner of choice when I was a Windows guy. Still going strong.
DEVONthink, professional document and information management for the Mac and iOS I also use this a lot, but not as a note taker or information organiser. More a library, storing anything I might need later.
Artificial Brain Networked notebook app (much more detailed than this list, but a slightly narrower definition of what I think is a somewhat broader church.