A Call To Action: The Need For A Common Mind Map File Format
Where We Are
Call it a case of stating the obvious, but It seems like mind mapping has become more popular than ever. With the recent explosion of web-based mind mapping products (MindMeister, Mindomo, and others), there is going to be a great opportunity to bring mind maps to the masses. Mind mapping is not a new concept, and there is already a plethora of products in the market today (Just check out the list from MindMapping.org). But, I believe this new generation of web-based applications is going to significantly lower the barrier to entry for people wanting to start creating and sharing their mind maps.
As of today, I believe there are 2 main factors that are going to limit mass adoption of mind maps:
1. Cost involved in obtaining the software to create mind maps
There are some great products out there like Mind Manager and Concept Draw MindMap. But, these great features do come at a cost. Don’t get me wrong, I *love* both of these products. But, I’m a fan of the “power” features and am not your typical user. I’m willing to spend at least a couple hundred dollars for a well-rounded mind mapping application. And have been known to spend a *few* hundred dollars for some more advanced features: Outlook integration, Export to PowerPoint/Visio/Word, Export to a dynamic web page, Export to XML, etc.
For people not willing or able to purchase a full-featured product, there are some great free alternatives out there. FreeMind is one such example. However, (and I don’t have exact numbers yet) it doesn’t appear that FreeMind is being used by a large number of users as of yet. Using Chuck Frey’s mind mapping survey (September 2006) as a sample of users, 72.6% of survey respondants listed MindManager as their primary mind mapping program used for work. Only 10.4% indicated that they used FreeMind. Ten percent market share from that sample survey is clearly not insignificant, however it does indicate that there is a huge gap between the clear for-charge market leader (MindManager), and free alternatives.
Clearly, the web-based competitors (especially MindMeister and Mindomo) have the advantage in this area over the traditional for-charge desktop applications.
2. Difficulty in enabling people to easily share, publish, and view mind maps
In my personal experience, sharing mindmaps is not always the easiest task. The lowest common denominator for the majority of applications is to export to a JPEG/GIF/PNG. However, something is definitely lost in this translation. The interactive appeal is gone, there is no ability to edit/update/collaborate, and this just does not work well for very large mind maps. Some applications like MindManger do offer a free mind map viewer, as long as the mindmap is saved in their format. But, this an installation hassle and only solves the viewing problem. What about collaboration?
Some applications do give the ability to save as OPML (Outline Processor Markup Language) and XML (which can be transformed to other formats with XSLT), but these type of solutions do not scale well. OPML does fit the paradigm of representing hierarchical data, but can’t capture many of the mind map specific attributes (detailed information for each node/concept: links, icons, graphics, color, etc). And, transforming XML for developers can be time consuming and frustrating. What about average end-users?
It looks like the trend is that most other mind map applications support importing Mind Manager’s .mmap files. Should this be the end of the story? All mind map applications should support .mmap files and call it a day? I’m not sure this is the best approach.
In an ideal world….
There exists a standard mindmap format (Simple MindMap Notation?) that isn’t tied to one particular product. This new format can be easily authored on multiple platforms (web, windows, linux, mac, and handheld devices), and can also be quickly created by average humans. Users can easily share their mindmaps with others, collaborate in real-time, and not be tied to a particular product (desktop or web-based). Users can host mindmaps themselves, and choose from a number of innovative mindmap presentation libraries that will allow them to embed their map in their website, blog, or intranet portal. Users can easily link their mindmaps together in a distributed fashion (no need for a central hosting provider). World-wide mind maps can grow organically, benefit from advances in the social and semantic web, and allow users to visually link, search, and share.
“Innovation is key: competition is a *good thing*, and users reap the creative benefits”
In an upcoming post I’m going to go into a little more detail on what this format should look like, and what technology would be the best fit (XML, JSON, RDF, N3?). In the meantime, I’m eager to hear some feedback:
* Is the need for a new standard an accurate observation?
* What needs to take place in order to make this vision happen?
* Who needs to adopt this format first, and what will be the major motivators to make progress in this area?