A week with the Fargo outliner

I’ve been using Fargo, the new outlining tool that lives in the browser, pretty heavily for the past week. As this semester winds down, I’m busy preparing to teach my summer session class and train about five research students in the lab for the summer. Both of those activities require a lot of thinking and planning, and because Fargo solves my biggest problems with other outlining tools, I’ve been using it fearlessly.

One of my observations over the past week is that I appreciate having an ambient writing space. By not having to think about where to write something, I’ve tended to write more. This may seem dorky, but I think there’s something to it. Also, having a scratchpad outline where I can both collect research fragments and string them together into paragraphs feels powerful.

It doesn’t hurt that Small Picture has added two power features over the past week, either. Both the ability to post directly to a WordPress blog and support for Markdown on export make Fargo an even more appealing writing environment. What I like about both of these features is the implicit acknowledgment that Fargo is not necessarily a final destination for ideas, that it is happy to help give birth to them and send them on their way.

Despite its strengths, Fargo is still young and has some rough edges. One minor annoyance is the way the dialog boxes that open when entering a link or exporting to Markdown don’t respond to the ‘Return’ key consistently. Maybe this is a limitation of programming an application in the browser, but it seems if I can dismiss one dialog with the Return key, I ought to be able to dismiss others. For example, I always seem to be able to ‘OK’ the Link dialog by pressing Return, but not the Attribute Editor dialog.

One issue I encountered while writing this very post is with cutting and pasting. I wanted to split a paragraph, so I created a new node, cut the text I wanted, and pasted it into the new node. No problem, except all of the links that were in the text went away. Toggling into non-render mode avoided this, but I doubt I’ll remember to do that before editing text.

Another complaint I have is that I can’t edit the attributes of more than one node at a time. I’d like to be able to select a few nodes and add an icon to them, as described by Jeffrey Kishner at imissmymac.com. This converts the stock wedge into something more visually descriptive. All of the icons in the Font Awesome collection are available, but right now they have to be assigned one-at-a-time.

Fargo solves outline syncing and sharing

I love outlines. One of my favorite writing and thinking tools is OmniOutliner. Most of my teaching notes start life in an outline, and some complete classes live within a single outline. Every research paper I’ve written in the past 8 years has started as an outline. I can’t imagine a better tool for organizing and re-organizing ideas as I think through the best way to explain something. There are two problems with outlining software, though: sync and sharing. Both of these problems are solved by Fargo, an outlining application that lives completely in the browser.

In my dream world, the outlines I keep on my Mac would automatically sync with the outliner on my iPad. Even though they’re working on it, the Omni developers don’t yet have this working between their Mac and iPad clients. I can use Dropbox to act as a middleman, but that’s not the same as real sync; I have to remember to manually update to the latest version of the file when I’m using the iPad, and to export changes before I open the file again on the Mac. Ugh, might as well use a floppy while you’re at it.Watch Full Movie Online Streaming Online and Download

fargoAppAs a native web application that runs in the browser, Fargo is never not in sync. Here is how it works: when you first load http://fargo.io in your browser, you are prompted to grant access to your Dropbox, where it stores your outlines in a folder. From that point, any outlines you open or create in Fargo are always in sync. I was able to export my topic outline from OmniOutliner as an OPML file, move it into the Fargo folder in my Dropbox, and open it from within the Fargo app running in my browser on my Mac and iPad. I like to teach with my notes on my iPad, and this has been a perfect solution. Editing on the iPad has already improved significantly from the first days after launch to detect the touch interface and allow single taps instead of double-clicks, for instance.

The other major bummer with outlines is that I’ve never found a good way to share them. I can’t send an OmniOutliner file and expect anyone else to know what to do with it, and even the open OPML format is not widely known. I complain when somebody sends me a Word file, so I surely can’t be so hypocritical as to distribute an even more obscure file type. This means that at some point in the life of an outline, I have to give up and export to plain text or HTML, which means, from that point on, I lose most of the advantages of a real outliner.

Fargo has an answer to this problem too, with a built-in ‘Reader’ mode. In Reader, the outline is read-only and outlines can be shared through the Reader with anyone through a public link. For example, have a look at my outline on plant reproduction. I haven’t tried this with students yet, but I think it might be a solution to the sharing problem for teaching outlines while I am still editing and building the outline.

Fargo is being developed by a startup of two called Small Picture, one of whom is Dave Winer, who is, in my opinion, the prototypical blogger, but I’ll write more about him and how he has inspired me some other time. Suffice to say, I think the small team at Small Picture is onto some big ideas.