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Summary:

Dave Winer is the father of RSS and a blogging pioneer, so it’s worth paying attention to him when he comes up with something new — which he has, in the form of a browser-based note-taking and blogging tool.

Winer

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.”

Little Outliner

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.

Post and thumbnail image courtesy of Flickr user Joi Ito

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  1. I like the local first approach.

    It is increasingly becoming clear that cloud first isn’t trustworthy especially for data you want to use well into the future. So, using more of a Dropbox approach where the cloud is more of a facilitator than the source of truth seems a more durable model.

    1. steve_macdonald Madlyb Tuesday, April 2, 2013

      Well put.

      Apple’s iCloud problems are becoming more obvious each day, but my Dropbox “just works”.

  2. A more robust, more full-featured outliner already exists at http://www.workflowy.com – which makes me feel bad for Dave Winer. A little Googling before investing time and money seems like great advice for veterans and rookies alike.

    1. @Jon Aston: thanks for the tip on Workflowy. Checking it out right now and wondering if 500 items a month is more than enough for a casual user or not? Guess I’ll have to try it and see.

    2. I second Jon’s comment. Workflowy is simply superior in every aspect. It’s not even close.

      The navigation and keyboard shortcuts of Dave’s app are so incredibly clunky that its easier and faster to just use notepad. Yes, it’s that bad.

    3. Dave already knows Workflowy for at least a year. I recall the thread where it was pointed out. I use Workflowy and like it but it does not even support OPML as far as I know. And the vision of Dave’s stuff is truly much broader than “web based not-taking”.

      So in this case, you should take your own advice, Jon ;)

    4. And for those without …. atb Mr Winer we need choice and positiveness

  3. Ha. I use notepad on windows to do the same thing. Although it’s not as user friendly it does the job :) Hope Dave builds out a beautiful product on top of this base.

    1. Lionel Valdellon bhanuk Friday, March 29, 2013

      Been using a portable freeware app called Minipad to do just that: create and manage multiple texts. Tree structure gives something that Notepad++ doesn’t have.

  4. Jeremy Pepper Friday, March 29, 2013

    Seems ripe for Uncov.

  5. Richard Millward Friday, March 29, 2013

    With all due respect, Dave’s been making and remaking and re-remaking this outliner since… well, at least since the appearance of Inter Application Communication (IAC) in Macintosh System 7 with his UserLand Frontier. It’s gone through many different brandings over the years but to position this UI as something “new” is REALLY a stretch.

  6. jake reynolds Friday, March 29, 2013

    The only reason anyone is paying attention to Dave Winer’s latest product is because he’s Dave Winer. As already said, he’s been talking and developing and promoting outliners for years. All this shows is that he has no new ideas.

  7. Tom Foremski Friday, March 29, 2013

    Put this in your web browser address window:

    data:text/html,

    And you have a ready made note window. It’s a feature of html 5 on which Dave’s outliner is based on. It’s a very simple thing, more of a feature of html5 than an “app.”

  8. This is great for something like chromebook where you absolutely need browser based apps and can’t rely on downloading software and programs.

  9. Louis Nauges Friday, March 29, 2013

    During 20 years, I have been an avid user of Dave previous tool, “More”, available on Macintosh.
    It allowed me to organize, prepare and give thousands of presentations because you could automatically transform your text view into a presentation view.

    I really hope this will come quickly to little outliner; it would be really useful for millions of people still using Powerpoint…

    Louis

  10. Reading some of these comments… I think people just don’t get it…

    Dave Winer sees the world in outline and over many iterations has been constantly improving his ideas… but because other people have followed in his footsteps or working on similar ideas he needs to stop?

    Really? Why? Why isn’t he allowed to work on his own ideas anymore?

    If this is like his previous efforts like Frontier or Radio Userland, or his River of News… this isn’t some simple web based outliner.

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