Idea Keeper 2.0.8 Reviewed

By Applelinks Contributing Editor Charles W. Moore

Idea Keeper 2.0.8, which bills itself on its splash screen as "A Browser For Your Brain," is a difficult application to categorize. Is it a text editor? Yes. Is it a database tool? Yes again. Is it an outliner? Also yes. This unique and powerful little application does all these things and more.

Idea Keeper 's author Glenn Berntson describes it as "a free-form database and idea manager for your Macintosh," which "provides a place to do everything from storing clippings and URLs to preparing complex assemblages of inter-linked documents and outlines of any size."

Idea Keeper is the sort of program that some users will fall in love with, especially those who like the hierarchical database format for storing and retrieving information and its support of hypertext links. IdeaKeeper's ability to create formatted standalone documents will also be a very attractive feature to some. Others may find its relative complexity compared with text editors and word processors cumbersome. I guess I fall into the latter camp.

Checking out Idea Keeper so soon after Z-Write, the new little writer-oriented word processor that I reviewed here last week, got me to thinking about how different people think differently. I was always terrible at math, and I would probably make a terrible programmer too. I tend to think in broad, big-picture concepts and am inattentive to and forgetful of precise detail. Consequently, I gravitate toward software solutions that allow me to exercise simple, intuitive, manual control over stuff that I do. That's a big part of why programs like Z-Write and Tex Edit Plus appeal so strongly to me.

On the other hand, my son is good with both math and detail. He can remember phone numbers that he hasn't used for years. He memorizes URLs and IP addresses and serial numbers effortlessly and accurately. I am in awe of this, since I have trouble remembering any number sequence longer than a seven-digit phone number, and those only if I use them regularly, although I can remember phrases of words that I wrote 10 years ago.

The relevant point here is that I think Idea Keeper is the sort of program that my son would be able to use and get the best out of almost effortlessly, while with me it is another story.

I decided that a good and appropriate way to educate myself about Idea Keeper would be to use it for writing this review, so here I am, typing into an Idea Keeper "Idea" window. Now, perhaps it's just my unfamiliarity with the program's nuances, but already it keeps occurring to me how much easier it would be to be using Z-Write, which is as simple and straightforward as Idea Keeper is complicated, but it's probably not a really fair comparison, since, as noted, I infer that the two programs are aimed at different categories of users. A perspective from a user who is totally smitten with Idea Keeper as a tool for his style of computing appears at the end of this review.

Idea Keeper's key features include:
• Powerful and Sophisticated Outlining Capabilities
• Hypertext support to create non-linear, dynamically linked sets of documents
• Extensive support for drag & drop within and outside of Idea Keeper
• Automatic text formatting for "Internet" text (e.g., email)
• Embedded objects (URLs, pictures, sounds, file links & more!)
• IK can Create dynamic multi-media standalone documents
• Stickies-like multi-window display - but with virtually any number of sets of windows.
• Extensive formatting capabilities & Style Templates
• It can even Remind you of important dates & times and dial your phone!
• Powerful Search function

The emphasis in Idea Keeper seems to be more on the database and organizational features than on text manipulation, which is my main interest in a text-crunching application. And indeed, that emphasis may make Idea Keeper just the ticket for many users, but not as likely for journalists and creative writers.

While Idea Keeper has the usual basic text modification commands pertaining to Font/Size/Style/Color -- case change commands, which I simply could not live without on a day to day basis, are missing.

There is also no option to export as HTML, although you can export text documents. One neat feature of the Export function is that you can specify the Creator code for all exported Text files. By default, exported Text files have Idea Keeper's signature, but Idea Keeper provides several common word processor and text editor creator signatures in a convenient popup menu in the Preferences window.

The lack of a spell checker is not a big deal, as comparable applications like Z-Write, Tex-Edit Plus, Style, Textworks, and BBEdit Light don't have spell checkers either. I tried Casady & Greene's Spell Catcher and it works fine with Idea Keeper, as I assume Excalibur or SpellTools would also.

Idea Keeper does have useful text cleanup commands that remove DOS linefeeds as well as several other options. When toggled "On," Idea Keeper's Auto Normalize button causes Idea Keeper to process any text pasted in or dragged & dropped in via the Macintosh clipboard. In processing the text, it will use the parameters set in the Import pane of the Preferences menu. These parameters include:
• Strip Extra Spaces
• Strip Extra Returns
• Strip Line Feeds
• Strip Email Quotes

In order to get your mind around how Idea Keeper works, you have to familiarize yourself with its metaphorical structure of Ideas and Topic Files. Topics are the main document root, and Ideas are sub-categories. Idea keeper does not by default create documents in the motif of most computer applications (although it will export text files, which have a way cool icon).

Idea Keeper's document Hierarchy works like this:

• Idea Keeper
Idea Keeper itself is the base-level within the hierarchy, and all of the Ideas, etc., are organized within it. At any given time, Idea Keeper has a single Topic Folder Active.

• Topic Folder
A Topic Folder contains a Set of Topics. Topic Folders are saved as actual folders (which you can view from the Finder), and can be stored anywhere on your local computer (or network).

• Topic
A Topic is a set of Ideas. Activating/Deactivating a Topic will automatically activate/deactivate all the Ideas it contains (depending on which Ideas were active the last time you used the Topic). However, you can still use Ideas in Topics which are not active.

• Idea
An Idea is a window containing text, objects, pictures, etc. The window which contains these words is an example of an Idea.

When in Normal mode, a paragraph is the next level within the hierarchy. When in Outlining mode, we use the term Branch.

• Branch

When in Outlining mode, paragraphs are called branches. Unlike normal paragraphs, however, you a branch can consist of multiple paragraphs, with "daughter" branches nested inside "parent branches.

When Idea Keeper starts up, all of the Topics within the active topic folder are automatically loaded. This makes access to all the ideas in any of the Topics very fast (no disk access required) and Ideas from multiple Topics can be opened simultaneously. The downside of this is its complexity. Idea Keeper confronts you with a whole new metaphorical model -- different from the Mac OS standard, and with different terminology (Topics; Ideas). Trying to get myself up to speed on how it all fit together reminded me why I have never cottoned much to database programs like FileMaker or the database module in AppleWorks. I know that many people think databases are the greatest thing since sliced bread, but my mind simply does not track along those lines.

Topics can be either active (checked in the list in the Organizer Window and marked with a small red bull's eye in the Topics & Ideas submenu in the Navigation menu). When made active, all of the ideas which were open the last time the Topic was active are reopened. When deactivated, all of the open ideas belonging to that Topic are closed.

By default, Idea Keeper creates and uses a folder called "Idea Keeper Topics " inside the same folder as Idea Keeper itself.

You can add new Topic Folders (where Idea Keeper uses a folder which already exists or create a new folder for you) via the options in the "Topic Folder" submenu in the New submenu inside the File menu. The "Topic Folder Browser..." feature (in the File menu) allows you to quickly view, delete, add, and move Topic Folders. Additionally, you can quickly switch between multiple Topic Folders (Idea Keeper can keep track of up to 20 different Topic Folders simultaneously) via
(1) the Topic Folder submenu in the Open submenu inside the File menu
(2) the popup menu of Topic Folders the bottom of the organizer window
(3) using the Topic Folder Quick Launch window.

This last option was designed for mouse-free navigation between Topic Folders. You can activate this feature by pressing Command-Option-o

The currently loaded Topic Folder is indicated by a small light-bulb next to the folder. You can use the mouse to select items within the list -- but you can also use the up/down arrow keys and, more conveniently, pressing any printable character using your keyboard activates a search which selects the next item in the list (after the selected item) that starts with that printable character. Repeatedly pressing a single letter will cycle you through all the items in the list that start with that letter. Hitting the enter (return) key will switch to whatever Topic Folder is selected.

After switching to another Topic Folder (including the Help Topic Folders), you can automatically switch back to the Topic Folder you were previously in by selecting the last activated link option from the Navigation menu. Speaking of links, when you type or paste a Web URL into an Idea Keeper document, it automatically becomes a live link that will open a browser and try to bring up the Website if you click on it. I found this annoying, because I am offline most of the time, and a I do a lot of URL cutting and pasting in my work. Idea Keeper is able to do many things with URLs, including importing bookmarks, but I prefer working with them as plain text or html markup language.

Ideas can be copied or moved between Topics in four different ways.
1. Organizer Window to Organizer Window
2. Organizer Window List to Open Idea Window
3. Drag & Drop from Open Idea Window
4. Using Contextual Menus

There are also various protocols for searching, sorting, and renaming Idea files.

Most of the description in the immediately previous paragraphs is taken from Idea Keeper's documentation. I gradually began to grasp of how it all meshed together in theory, and I suspect that if I used the program long enough it might become second nature, but I doubt that I will persevere that long. If this sort of linking and working with multiple windows, folders, and links appeals to you, you're gonna love Idea Keeper. However, the proliferation of separate folders, windows, and idea files makes my head spin.

One Idea Keeper feature that may appeal to Palm users is its ability to exchange documents with a Palm unit via a file format called the Palm Database format. The specific type of "PDB" file which Idea Keeper can create is called a Palm Doc file. Palm Doc files are the standard "document" type for Palm Pilots. Doc Files can be Viewed and Edited on Your Palm handheld.

Idea Keeper can create standalone documents. You don't need any special software to be able to read these documents. In your Standalone Document you may include working links to Internet Websites, audio annotations, pictures, alarms, and, of course, your text and outlines - fully expandable and collapsible. All this is organized into chapters and pages in an application that will run on any Mac OS computer running System 7.5 or later.

When you create a standalone document, it can be saved as a Power PC only, 68K, or FAT application. If you know that the only people who'll be reading the document you're creating have PowerPC's, you should save it as a Power PC application. This application will run faster (better scrolling) and have more features (e.g., proportional scrollbars) than the 68K application. If you don't know who'll be reading the document you're creating and you want it to be as small as possible, you should save it as a 68K application. 68K applications can be run on all Macintoshes running 7.5 or later. If you don't really care about how large the document is, and you want it to run with optimal performance on all Macintoshes, save it as a FAT application.

You can "personalize" the contents of the "About" window within your Standalone Document via the Personalize "About..." Window button. From there you can import a picture from the clipboard or from a file.

Another of Idea Keeper's main features is its support for two modes for each idea window: Normal and Outlining. Normal mode is the default, and it is typical of how most text editors and word processors operate.

When you switch an Idea to Outlining mode, the text window changes its appearance, how it formats text, and how it groups and manipulates text. In normal mode each paragraph is an independent block of text and the only organization is linear sequence. In Outlining mode you can create a hierarchical structure that allows you to logically group and manipulate your information. In a sense, the hierarchy of the outlines in each Idea Window is a continuation of the greater hierarchy which is the structure of Idea Keeper itself. From Archives to Topic Folder Sets to Topics to Ideas to Outlines to Branches, on and on, Idea Keeper's organizational span is broad like a database, yet retains the expansive and flexible properties of word processors.

There are three changes that take place when you switch between Normal and Outline modes:

(1) When switching to Outline mode, Idea Keeper changes the formatting of the entire idea in the following ways:
• Idea Keeper guesses the "hierarchy" (the indentation level) of the all the paragraphs within the idea. If Idea Keeper finds paragraphs formatted with different levels of indentation, it determines how far to nest each paragraph's heading (or "branch") within the outline using the following rule: The current indent of each paragraph is compared to the setting called "Spacing Between Levels in Hierarchy" () A simple algorithm then determines the branch level, or nested level to which each paragraph will be promoted within the outline. This means that the original appearance of the paragraphs in Normal Paragraph Mode will have some effect on the levels used in Outlining Mode. After this, Idea Keeper then imposes a set of Hierarchy Rules to enforce a simple hierarchical structure.
• Idea Keeper inserts "collapse" markers <Obj>PICT</Obj> at the start of each paragraph.
• Initially, these markers are all in the "expanded" or open state <Obj>PICT</Obj>.

(2) When in Outline mode, Idea Keeper can recognize and work with paragraphs either individually or as entire branches within the outline hierarchy.

(3) The Normal/Outline toggle button changes from Normal (<Obj>PICT</Obj> ) to Outline (<Obj>PICT</Obj> ).

There is also a dedicated Outlining Menu on the main Menu bar.

I'm sure this mode is a powerful organizational tool for those who like outliners. However, I'm not one of them. I've tried in the to get my mind around the outliner functions in Microsoft Word 5.1, MacWrite Pro, and Claris/AppleWorks, but to no avail. They just don't click with me and the way my brain processes and cognates information. My preference is to work with raw, plain text during the creative process, and then format as needed later, these days usually with HTML markup in my case. I acknowledge that many people swear by outliners. I'm more inclined to swear at them, but to each his own. If you like outliners, Idea Keeper's appears to be a good one with lots of powerful wrinkles.

Idea Keeper provides basic support for AppleScript such as basic commands including GET, SET, OPEN, PRINT, DELETE. Included with Idea Keeper are several sample scripts which demonstrate how to write scripts to take advantage of several of Idea Keeper's features. However, there is no handy AppleScript menu similar to the one in Tex Edit Plus. Glenn Berntson says that expanding AppleScript support is a high priority for the next major release of Idea Keeper.

Idea Keeper has four separate toolbars -- one main toolbar and three Idea toolbars, the Status Toolbar, the Actions Toolbar, and the Outlining Toolbar. The Main Toolbar is always a floating toolbar, while the Idea Toolbars can be either embedded within your Idea Windows or floating. Once again complexity reigns. These toolbars can do all sorts of cool things, but there is a steep learning curve to climb, and then you have to remember what seldom-used functions do.

There are no image editing functions in Idea Keeper, but you can choose a specific external editor in the Preferences and Idea Keeper will henceforth use that editor for all image editing. If you do not specify an editor, Idea Keeper will ask you to choose an editor each time you want to edit an image. An elegant workaround.

Speaking of the Preferences dialog, like everything else in Idea Keeper it is very thorough, with lots of customization options. There is also a Window Color dialog in the Format menu that changes the color of the text field in document windows, if that appeals. I would have preferred a case changer.

Usually at this point in a review I note things that I didn't like about the subject, but this review, like the Idea Keeper application itself, is different. Most of my criticisms and complaints have already been articulated in the main body of the review. I will note here that while Idea Keeper seems to be reasonably stable, it did manage to crash my PowerBook once, and seemed to be on the verge of crashing several other times, but recovered.

I'm finding Idea Keeper a very tough application to evaluate. I am tremendously impressed by the amount of thought and work that must have gone into it. On the other hand, I can't imagine *myself* using it on a day to day basis. My more chaotic and simplistic method of storing and retrieving data ( that would be keeping all the stuff I'm currently working on out on the desktop in individual files, and the non current stuff in folders elsewhere) may not be elegant, but thanks to Sherlock II it works for me. However, I don't want to leave a negative impression of this program. It is very interesting, unique in concept, and very good as what it does.

If a more structured and systematic approach to data management appeals to you, I encourage you to check out Idea Keeper. It's shareware, so there is no cash commitment up front, and it is so interesting that it's worth a look even if you have no real need for its capabilities.

The registration fee for Idea Keeper is $30. The Current Version 2.0.8 includes significant improvements to editing and navigation within Ideas in Outlining mode, added ability to use tab indents to construct an outline hierarchy, and additional small enhancements & minor bug fixes. To download Idea Keeper, go to:

Moore's Views & Reviews Rates Idea Keeper 2.0.8: 3 1/2 stars out of 5

While I was writing this review, I received another interesting mini-review of Idea Keeper from Applelinks reader Bill DeVille. As I noted earlier, Bill really likes Idea Keeper, and I thought his comments would provide a good counterpoint to my considerably more critical impressions of the program. Bill graciously agreed to let me publish his article along with my Idea Keeper review. I think you will find it interesting.

This link will take you to Bill's essay: WBD re: Idea Keeper

Charles W. Moore

Moore's Views & Reviews Homepage <--> Moore's Views & Reviews Archive



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