He may not have the same kind of public profile as the teenaged founder who sold his company to Yahoo for $30 million, or the founders of hot apps like SnapChat or Instagram, but Dave Winer has done a lot more for the world of online media and publishing than many people realize, including pioneering both blogging and podcasting, as well as the development of RSS. So it’s worth paying attention when he comes up with something new, even if it’s not immediately obvious how that service fits into our lives — because it probably will.
So when he announced earlier this week that he was launching a new company called Small Picture and had a new product called Little Outliner, I was interested, even though I didn’t really understand what it was. So I called Winer up and asked him to describe what Little Outliner is and what it is designed to do — and there is a clear thread that connects this new service to the other things he has championed: namely, the idea of having control over one’s content, and of being fully open.
A browser-based notepad, but also much more
In a nutshell, Little Outliner is a kind of notepad, and it runs in a browser window so no software has to be installed, and it allows a user to keep notes or text content of any kind — but also allows them to structure that content in a number of ways, so that it becomes a kind of brainstorming tool. Says Winer:
“It’s basically a note-taking tool that becomes a writing tool. So if you’re a reporter, as you’re putting together a story, you might talk to a few people and take notes while you’re doing that, and maybe you do a little research and gather some quotes and put that in your outline — but the structure is malleable, it’s fluid, things just flow into it and you don’t have to worry about where you put them because where they are is easily changed.”
This kind of thing comes naturally to Winer, because he said he has been using some form of outliner ever since he first became a programmer. “People think, ‘Oh he’s the guy who started RSS, podcasting or blogging,’ but that’s not really what I do,” Winer said. “What I really do is outlining. It was my entry into the tech industry — I wasn’t even a programmer until I realized computers could be used for these things, and it’s still what I do to this day.”
In addition to being used as an organizational tool while programming (which Winer says he does with his new partner, Small Picture co-founder Kyle Shank), one potential use for Little Outliner is as a blogging tool, the former Weblogs.com founder says. The product as it currently exists is just an entry-level thing, Winer said — with more features to be added later, as users discover new uses for it. And one of those features will likely be integration with blogging platforms like WordPress (please see the disclosure statement below).
“I have a really incredible blogging system, far in advance of what anybody else uses, I’m pretty sure of that, and this gives me a way to deliver that to people on the terms that they want it. They want it in the browser, so now it’s in the browser — and now it’s about hooking it up in very simple ways to things that can take advantage of it, like WordPress. I want to integrate — that’s my religion: interoperability.”
Open standards and interoperability
While Little Outliner may seem competitive with other tools such as Evernote or Google’s new Keep service, Winer said it differs from these in two specific ways — the first being that it incorporates structure into the notes or content being saved. The second is that Winer is dedicated to keeping it as open as possible, in part so that users don’t suffer the same fate they did when Google shut down Google Reader. That’s why the content is stored locally on a user’s computer (although web sharing is coming) and it is based on OPML, an open standard.
“For some people, Keep will probably be a wonderful tool to use. If it were my type of tool, the questions I would ask would be the obvious ones in light of the Google Reader thing — what does the future look like, how open is it — if things were open, if you could replace them and their data was accessible to other pieces of software, then it wouldn’t matter if they withdrew. But if you have to worry about them dropping the product and they don’t make the data accessible to other pieces of software, you really don’t have any upside.”
Whether Little Outliner becomes a must-use product for millions or not, Winer’s dedication to open standards — which has included promoting the idea of a distributed version of Twitter, rather than relying on a proprietary platform owned by a single company — means that those who prefer open and interoperable web tools will always have an alternative.
Disclosure: Automattic, maker of WordPress.com, is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, GigaOm. Om Malik, founder of GigaOm, is also a venture partner at True.