Mind that mind map!

Some months ago in a Backspin column Gibbs mentioned an application that he really liked called MindManager 2002 from MindJet, which he had discussed in detail in his Network World Web Applications newsletter. Well, MindJet has just released a new and significantly upgraded version called MindManager X5 Pro that has impressed us.

But before we discuss MindManager we should explain the background of this software. It is all about a technique called mind mapping that is used for gathering and organizing your thoughts on a subject. Mind maps were invented in the 1970s by Tony Buzan, who went on to build a business around the technique (read more).

Buzan realized that trying to organize thinking in a linear fashion (such as a list of notes) is not as effective as a free-form web of associations and that text is not as effective as a picture in aiding recall of an idea (the old "a picture is worth a thousand words" idea).

With mind mapping, you begin with your central idea, say, building a better mousetrap. Starting in the middle of a blank sheet of paper you draw a bubble with "Better Mousetrap" in it. Then you draw more bubbles linked by lines to that central bubble, each bubble a connected idea such as "Technology," "Manufacturing," "Marketing," "Sales" and "Support."

Then you focus on each of the secondary bubbles and surround them with tertiary ideas and so on. Sometimes you'll find two or more ideas (or nodes) on different branches that are somehow related so you can connect them with a line. Check out Buzan's how-to story.

Thoughts as diagrams

What you've got at the end of the exercise is a breakdown of your thinking about that subject - in our example, an entire business plan for the better mousetrap. And if you are planning to write about the subject you could translate the mind map into a hierarchical outline or, alternatively, if the map is your notes for a meeting, you might just leave it as is.

Well, such a concept just cries out for translation into software and several outfits have done just that. While we have played with most of the products available, MindManager is the best of the lot, and the latest release, MindManager X5 Pro, adds even more to an already powerful product.

For a start, of all the competition MindManager is the most sophisticated in terms of the flexibility and quality of the graphics it produces. The output of many of the other products is somewhat unpolished (and in some cases downright ugly), whereas MindManager's results look good, and you can tune and tweak the look of your mind maps to a fantastic degree.

You can attach symbols to any node to indicate function or priority, as well as task information and export your maps in Microsoft Project Exchange (MPX) format. MindManager X5 Pro also offers Map Parts - nodes that can read RSS news feeds; submit and retrieve Google queries; list files and subdirectories; and link to Outlook to retrieve tasks, contacts, appointments and notes. Map Part data gets embedded in the map and can be updated automatically or whenever required.

This integration of live data sources in a structured outline is a novel idea. It could be very useful, for example, to generate reports by pulling data from Web searches and services and Microsoft Office documents, and then exporting the results back to Office documents for formatting and distribution or to HTML for Web service deployment.

You also can output maps to a printer or a PDF-formatted file or you can save them in native MindManager format as bitmaps or Portable Network Graphics (PNG) images, PowerPoint presentations, Word documents, HTML (both graphical version of maps and hierarchical page versions can be output) or XML files. MindManager also lets you create and execute macros using Windows Visual Basic for Applications so the possibilities for integration with other resources, servers and services using macros with PNG, HTML and XML input and output are intriguing.

But under all the fancy features (and we've not covered everything) MindManager's basic functionality is a terrific way to develop ideas and projects, and there's nothing quite like it. MindManager X5 Pro costs $299, and MindManager X5, which doesn't have XML extensibility, costs $199.

Map your thoughts to gearhead@gibbs.com.

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