September 13, 2004

Can open source software free your mind?

Author: Sean Michael Kerner

How do you organize all those little notes and ideas that you have spread out all over the place in a way that you can actually use them and make have them make some sense? That's one of the goals of a class of software known as mind mapping. Once
the realm only of high-priced commercial applications, there is now at least
one open source option. It's called FreeMind and it's licensed under the GPL.

Wikipedia defines a mind map as "a picture that represents semantic connections between portions of learned material." Instead of a
linear approach, where you write a bunch of stuff in no particular order
on a piece of scrap paper, a mind map organizes ideas from a central
theme into a tree-like branch structure, sort of like a table of contents
but much more fluid and dynamic in that the map "folds" and can also be
linked in non-linear ways. The general premise of mindmapping software is
that it will help you to organize, link, and integrate thoughts. Mind mapping software can be used for brainstorming and conceptualization, where you've got ideas you need to put down,
structure, expand and connect.

FreeMind is a Java application; you need to be
running Java 1.4. It's available for Windows, Mac OS X, and *nix
platforms with simple installers (a .exe for Windows, and on *nix,
freemind.sh). The core documentation is readable in a mind
map format, so right from the get go you can be exposed to this different
way of looking at ideas. I'm used to simple README-type
documentation, so it probably took me longer to scan the FreeMind docs to
figure out what I was supposed to be doing than it should have. The File
Mode on FreeMind allows you view any local folder structure as
a basic mind map as well (though I'm not sure why you'd want to do
that).

One the most daunting things I face everyday is a blank screen that needs to
be filled with content. I'm used to just spewing a jumble of thoughts into
a text editor (or the aforementioned scraps of paper that I never can find)
and then afterwards starting the process of organizing those thoughts and
ideas into a structure that makes sense for whatever project I'm
working on. With FreeMind, the process forces you by the very nature of how the mind map is created to connect your ideas as part of the process.

FreeMind starts with the same blank screen that a text editor
starts with, so if you haven't got anything in your mind it's not going
to automagically provide you with inspiration.

Adding content is a simple matter of having a start point (root) and then
adding branches and then nodes. A reasonable array of style and formatting
tools is part of FreeMind so your mind map doesn't need to look like an org
chart or simple table of contents. These styles range from the simple "fork"
(much like a dash) and bubble to a full-blown "cloud" that can engulf the
style of an entire branch of your map. A map can also include local or
external links and can import data from other sources (e.g. from
other mind maps or directories on your local hard drive). The mind map also
"folds," which is a fancy term for expandable (and contractible)
menus, or in this case tree/branch structures.

FreeMind includes an Export to HTML feature, which
essentially turns your mind map into a standard
hierarchical text structure. If you want to preserve all the hard work
you've done and show and share the mind map that you've created on the Web,
you should use instead the
FreeMind-browser applet, a separate download, which allows your maps to be shown in all their
glory. You cannot edit the mind map through the browser applet, however.

FreeMind currently lacks the ability to export a mind map in an
image format, and doesn't have a direct mechanism to print PDF files either. Perhaps
most seriously though, FreeMind does not have any undo functionality.

>From a practical point of view, FreeMind does allow you to
try out a different way to structure and visualize content, which for some
may be interesting in and of itself. By visualizing your content and its various connections in a fluid way you may be able to gain a better grasp of it all.

However, it's important to note that FreeMind is not a content creator. It
does not integrate with any sort of project management or code versioning
(CVS) tool. It also currently does not have any sort of permission-
based Web-editable map functionality, which makes Web collaboration on a
FreeMind map using FreeMind tools impossible.

Though the FreeMind project shows promise, it is definitely lacking in
a number of critical areas. There are a few other open source mind mapping
application out there, but none of them compare favorably to FreeMind. If
you're willing to open your mind to non-free software, there's always the
commercial mainstay Mind Manager, which claims
to integrate well with other office productivity tools and project
management applications.

Of course if you really want to free your mind, you could always seek out a pointy-eared humanoid and suggest a mind meld.