A Call To Action: The Need For A Common Mind Map File Format

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.
The Hurdle
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.
The Vision
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?

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    16 Responses

    1. Lisp used as data rather than code would fit perfectly.
      (“Need to learn some server-side stuff sometime”))
      (“Need to get better with macros”)
      (“I wish emacs didn’t look so awful”)))

    2. I think the idea has merit, but there is no precedent. Word processor documents haven’t adopted a uniform extension (Word, Wordperfect, OpenOffice, ext.), neither have spreadsheets or other programs. That may finally be changing with the new ODF standard, but MS is end-running this.
      The only way I see it working is for a standards board, (IEEE for example) to oversee this project, but one doesn’t exist.
      I use FreeMind and MindMap on several computers, as well as MindMeister online, and none share with the others. It is frustrating! And don’t even get me started with sharing on the websites. JPG is not a good option.
      So, what do we do?

    3. Mind Map Interchange
      Eric Blue is looking for a standard format for mind maps: 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…

    4. Eric Blue says:

      Larry, thanks for your comment. Yes, I agree that there probably isn’t a precedent of this sort. Off the top of my head, here are a few ways a new format can be vivificated.
      1) Some standards organization (OASIS, W3C, ISO, IEEE, etc.) drives the initiative. I don’t believe the mind mapping market is saturated/mature enough to get momentum in this area.
      2) A few mind mapping companies (MindJet, ConceptDraw, and Mindmeister or Mindomo) create some sort of mindmap format consortium and co-author the common file format. As far as the software companies are concerned, there needs to be an economic insentive and significant customer demand to make this happen.
      3) There needs to be a visible value-add to the customer. The new common format has to provide something that isn’t possible (or is prohibitive) with today’s formats.
      * MindMeister allows users to host files themselves (in Simple MindMap Notation) and provides them with some JavaScript code to render the map inside their blog.
      * Some new company creates a massive mindmap repository and allows users to upload, collaborate, and search.

    5. I think it would be an excellent idea to define an interchange syntax for Mind Maps – and what better formalism to use than Topic Maps. It’s an ISO standard (ISO 13250), so it’s stable, trustworthy and supported by multiple vendors. It has a simple, human-understandable model that is based on cognitive principles, so it will be easy for Mind Map users to relate to (those that want to, that is). And it has a standard interchange syntax based on XML.
      I would be happy to help you with this. I’m not an expert Mind Mapper, but I’ve done lots of topic maps.

    6. Danny says:

      Hi Eric, I’ve responded at length over here.

    7. AlexTG says:

      Thank you Eric, very interesting post.
      There is one more difficult you’ve not mentioned: almost any mind mapping software supports project tasks information. The common file format should support this deeper integration between mind mapping and project management software since it’s market demand. But there are no common project task info format and that could be a problem.

    8. I think you have several valid points, and so does Steve on his website. Chuck Frey also make some good points today on the subject.
      Probably the best thought from Steve is the difference in what mind maps are to different companies. Each works different and uses different terminology. For instance, if I make a stand alone comment in Concepts MindMap, what does FreeMind do to handle that bit of code. It doesn’t have that function (that I know of).
      This could become an interesting topic as it moves forward.

    9. Eric Blue says:

      I appreciate your advice, and thanks for the pointer to topic maps. I actually spent a short amount of time researching XTM last year. But, for some reason I was fixated on the visual/presentation side of the mindmap format, and didn’t see this as an obvious candidate. See my follow-up comment on Danny’s blog regarding this presentation challenge.
      Believe it or not, I was originally inspired a few months ago when I came across a post on JTM (JSON for Topic Maps).
      I was thinking that it would be a neat idea to take some visualization library (maybe something like JSViz, but without the force directed effect) and render a mindmap using the JTM notation.
      Topic maps (XTM in this case) definitely looks interesting and I plan on digging into this further. And, I’ll certainly take you up on your offer to provide some help in this area.

    10. Eric Blue says:

      Great point on saving the project task info. I personally don’t use this feature a lot, but I know quite a few people who do. This is certainly something to consider when defining the format.

    11. Eric Blue says:

      Thanks for the detailed response. See my commentary:

    12. Actually, there is a precedent for this – MPX, a public project file exchange format, intended to solve a similar issue in the project management software world. The issue arises because there are so many different tools around to create maps. We don’t use two or three different types of word processor, otherwise the same issue would arise there too. Mindjet publish their XML file format, but vendors will probably resist a common format not to “lock users in” but to ensure that the format natively supports the features that are important in their product. Where interoperability issues have been solved by standardisation and common protocols, the market force driving it has always been that the vendors need to interoperate to sell their wares. Currently this force does not exist within the mind mapping software marketplace (apart from enabling product migration), whereas there are clearly forces driving vendors to integration with Office and so on.
      Although it would be desirable for a common file format to include decoration and task information, for example, this depends heavily on individual product capabilities. Common standards will gravitate towards the lowest common denominator, which could be pretty low. Standards Committees can end up unable to agree on anything that gives anyone even the slightest advantage.
      The lowest common denominator is a plain text outline. This orphans many additional features, but has the advantage of portability to other formats too.
      To create an interoperation standard for software mind maps I think you have to go beyond physical attributes such as colour, icons, callouts and so on, and instead encode the meta-information that they represent, such as importance, action, risk etc. Establishing this common conceptual language would be a significant challenge, but a worthwhile one.

    13. Vic Gee says:

      Coming in late here, because I’ve been exploring various avenues on this including emailing all mind map software authors, but I’m now able to announce something useful and this is a relevant thread.
      No, not a common format – I did volunteer to try to at least build an abstract data model but there wasn’t enough support and the likely problems, well outlined in comments here, were clear.
      So as a half-way house, I decided to build an information repository covering what already can exchange with what, where to find information on the formats of files, XSLT files where someone has already built one an made it public, and so on.
      It’s here:
      Any additions, corrections or suggestions gratefully received. (vic at the domain below)
      The master list of mind mapping &
      information management software

    14. Mind & Concept Mapping Software Interoperability
      Vic Gee at mind-mapping.org has spent the last few months collecting information on a various mindmap formats, and how to import/export between them. Vic’s site is: … collection of information about how mind mapping software can communicate. Some pac…

    15. […] For quite a while, I’ve been advocating the need to bring mind maps to the masses (read my Call to Action), and have taken steps to create an experimental Universal Mindmap Viewer. One major pain point of […]

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