Where Apple Harvests Some of Its Innovations

If you want to know where the big guys find inspiration, take a look at this pair of nifty ideas from independent developers

By Charles Haddad

We Mac enthusiasts may be relatively small in number but we cast a big shadow across the PC landscape. Face it: The Mac remains the platform of choice for innovators. I'm not talking about the cadre of developers at Apple and Microsoft, although there are many who stand tall among their rank. I mean the lone wolves who continue to be drawn by the high moon of the Mac's elegant simplicity and ease of use.

Indeed, Apple and Microsoft have long borrowed -- or coopted, depending on your point of view -- features pioneered by rebel programmers. Their creative engines stoked by cola and candy bars, these developers continue to infuse the Mac OS and its standard-bearer programs with innovation after innovation. Apple's acclaimed spring-loaded folders and pop-up windows? Both pioneered by the programmers at the former Now Software.

And don't get me started on Microsoft. Most of the new features added to Word in the past several years have been cribbed from Nisus Writer, although Microsoft execs would probably deny it publicly. Unlimited "to-do" lists, multiple clipboards, a built-in dictionary -- all introduced by Nisus' small but hardy band of innovators in Solano Beach, Calif.

I'm glad that Microsoft finally added a built-in dictionary in Word 2001. But please, this is yesterday's innovation. The Mac's ever restless community of maverick developers have moved on. They're rethinking the whole process of gathering, organizing, and presenting information -- the bread-and-butter functions of any word processor. What they want to do is remake the sheet-of-paper metaphor of today's word processors and organizers into a layered cake or a 3D chessboard, where each layer is linked.

It's a concept inspired by the Net's ability to link documents and text from around the globe. Some initial forms of this "nonlinear" thinking have already cropped up in Microsoft and Apple software, such as the ability to jump between linked files. But these features are primitive compared to what some small developers are toying with. While a bit rough around the edges, some of this stuff is pretty interesting -- and useful. Let's take a look at two examples.


  The first is a program called Z-Write, written by Marc Zeedarof Stone Table Software. It lets you keep notes, outlines, and multiple drafts as separate files, or sections, as Zeedar calls them, in a single document. If you're like me, creating endless files for a single final document, this ability is a major timesaver. There's no rooting around the back corners of your hard drive trying to find where you stored that important file with source numbers.

Z-Write looks like a Word document with the map feature (which splits the document into two windows) turned on. There's a main writing window, flanked on the left by a list of sections. Click on a section name and it opens in the main window. Z-Write, however, is document map on steroids. Unlike Word, Z-Write lets you rename, duplicate, and rearrange its sections. You could save each chapter of a novel in a section and then rearrange the whole manuscript just by moving the sections around. Or you could open two sections side by side and drag and drop text between them.

With its boxy, metallic look, Z-Write is no beauty. Nor does it have such high-powered features as an outliner, thesaurus, and table maker. But that's O.K., Z-Write has just the right tools, including bookmarks and simple text styling, to be fast and useful as a brain-storming or organizational tool. You can also export any Z-Write document into Word or Nisus for final polishing.


  I first wrote about Idea Keeper from developer Software from Plum Island last year (see BW Online, 5/3/00, "A Powerful Shareware Rival to Mighty Microsoft Word"). Now, there's an upgrade in beta testing that may prove to be a further enhancement to an already cool product.

Idea Keeper isn't quite so Spartan looking as Z-Write. Nor is it as easy to use and understand. But that's because it's more a database than a word processor. With Idea Keeper, you can store anything from a novel to a video clip. And anything you write can be published as a stand-alone document. You can also create complex outlines and turn them into documents, or vice versa.

Like Z-Write, Idea Keeper features a rectangular window divided in half. On the left side are what Idea Keeper calls topics, or headings, that represent groupings of information. Click on a topic, and what it holds is displayed in the right panel. Each item displayed is called an idea and it can hold just about anything. Ideas also can be linked to one another and dragged among topics.


  One of my favorite features is the ability to use a simple keyboard command to grab text, whether off the Net or another document, and save it within Idea Keeper. That's incredibly useful when doing research. Idea Keeper and Z-Write represent a future in which the functions of word processors and personal information managers are going to merge.

I suspect one day the latest version of Word will let me use a simple keyboard command to grab and save Web text and flip through several files from within one document. But if you're eager for such features, too, why wait for Word to rip off the lone wolves?

Haddad, Atlanta-based correspondent for BusinessWeek, is a long-time Apple Computer buff. Follow his weekly Byte of the Apple column, only on BW Online

Edited by Thane Peterson

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