A Blast from the Past:

Classic Outliners

by James LaRue
September 2001

The "classic" period of outlining preceded Windows. Outliners thrived in DOS and on the Mac. While most of those programs are orphaned now, abandoned by their developers, they can still be found on various shareware sites.

There is much to be said for these pioneering programs. They had small memory footprints. They were fast. Most importantly, they were precisely focused on something too easily lost in today's software: the flow and relations of ideas, not just of words.

What is an outliner?

An outliner is both more and less than a word processor. It is focused on editing not just words, but their underlying structure.

The trick is accomplished by leveraging the power of hierarchy in two ways: (1) structural indentation, and (2) the selective hiding, revealing, and manipulation of text by hierarchical level.

Structural indentation. You type a line or paragraph of text. This is called, variously, a topic or heading. Then, an outline processor lets you add text at the same level, or at an indented level. Later, this text can be moved “up” or “down” a level.

That’s simple enough, and is easily replicated by most word processors. But outliners do something most word processors do not: allow you to see only the text at a particular level. “Collapsing” an outline under a heading hides the indented or subordinate text. “Expanding” the outline reveals it again.

Editing commands that are common to any word processor now take on more force. Collapse the text under a heading, and drag the main heading up or down the outline. All the associated text goes with it.

This, too, can be done with any word processor. But it takes a lot of scrolling. Outliners make it easier both to keep track of where you are, and to stay focused on the structure of text.

Full featured outliners offer many specialized and powerful options, among them: automatic numbering (according to a variety of outline numbering systems, all immediately adjusting themselves to your editing changes), mark and gather commands (allowing a rapid reorganization of even fiendishly intricate lists), sorting, cloning (where change in one part of an outline automatically affects cloned sections), and hoisting (which zooms in on just one thread of an outline).

Outliners have many applications: to do lists, calendars, contact and project management, presentations, computer programming, the organization of complex documents, and just ... thinking. They can also be used for handy “textbases.” I stash my newspaper columns in an outline file. My daughter uses it to keep track of some 5000 names she might want to use for fictional characters.

DOS outliners

I can recommend three.

KAMAS: A swift and powerful outliner, it’s still one of my favorites. It has two modes: outline editing (in which headings are limited to 88 characters) and “text leaf” editing (notes attached to each heading that have a 32K file size limit). But each KAMAS file can be 8 megabytes in size, and the manipulation of the file is amazingly fast. Outline editing commands are wonderfully elegant-usually involving only one or two key strokes. Leaf editing uses WordStar commands, still among the most powerful for touch typists. It is available here. I haven’t been able to locate anyone still connected with KAMAS, so don't know who you'd pay, exactly.

PC-Outline - produced by Brown Bag software, PC-Outline was well known and well used. It is modeless-meaning that there is closer integration of text and outline editing. It is fast and powerful, using a familiar pull down menu structure. Available from www.umich.edu/~archive/msdos/database/pcoutline/. I believe shareware fees still apply. (Note: a relatively recent Windows version of PC-Outline is available, but is reported buggy.)

ThinkTank -  based on the old Lotus slash (/) command structure. It is considered by many to be the most powerful of DOS outliners. ThinkTank, like MORE for the Macintosh (see below) is now available, for free, from www.outliners.com. Symantec acquired rights to both ThinkTank and MORE, then made the stunning decision to put these classic programs out for the public without charge-or support. Kudos to Symantec; outliners deserve a second crack at the modern market.

Macintosh outliners

There seem to be only two classic outliners (although today’s market also offers IdeaKeeper, Inspiration, and Z-Write, all fine and remarkably inexpensive products).

Acta. This early Macintosh outliner (although in its latest and best version) is also being distributed at no charge. You can find it at www.a-sharp.com/acta. It too, comes without support. It’s my current favorite in the Mac world, a wonderfully easy program whose command structure is so right, so logical, that it is utterly transparent.

MORE. As mentioned above, this is distributed free from www.outliners.com. This is the grand champion of the Mac world, truly offering “more” in the way of outline processing prowess. In addition to a thoughtful implementation of every outline processing command you could wish for, it also does tree diagrams and math. One user reports that MORE actually sold his car for him: placed the ad, interviewed applicants, and negotiated the final price! Well, no, not really. But this altogether impressive program retains a large and devoted following, particularly among lawyers and doctors.

Windows outliners

While not really within the scope of this article, there are many more Windows outliners out there than I first suspected, ranging in cost from free to very reasonable. For a cogent and comprehensive overview, I recommend "An Overview of Windows Outliners," available at john.redmood.com/organizers.html. It includes a host of well-organized analyses and links.


Is an outliner for you? In my experience, people either try it and joyfully exclaim, “I’ve needed this all my life!” Or ... not. If you find the notion intriguing, you’ll never find it easier to locate topnotch software products at minimal cost than you will today.


James LaRue is director of the Douglas Public Library District, headquartered in Castle Rock, Colorado. He can be e-mailed at jlarue@jlarue.com.

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