How I wish I could organize my thoughts August 10, 2022 on Drew DeVault's blog

I keep a pen & notebook on my desk, which I make liberal use of to jot down my thoughts. It works pretty well: ad-hoc todo lists, notes on problems I’m working on, tables, flowcharts, etc. It has some limitations, though. Sharing anything out of my notebook online is an awful pain in the ass. I can’t draw a straight line to save my life, so tables and flowcharts are a challenge. No edits, either, so lots of crossed-out words and redrawn or rewritten pages. And of course, my handwriting sucks and I can type much more efficiently than I can write. I wish this was a digital medium, but there are not any applications available which can support the note-taking paradigm that I wish I could have. What would that look like?

Well, like this (click for full size):

A mock-up of an application. A4 pages are arranged ad-hoc on a grid.Handwritten notes and drawings appear in red across the grid and over the pages.A flowchart is shown outside of a page.

I don’t have the bandwidth to take on a new project of this scope, so I’ll describe what I think this should look like in the hopes that it will inspire another team to work on something like this. Who knows!

The essential interface would be an infinite grid on which various kinds of objects can be placed by the user. The most important of these objects would be pages, at a page size configurable by the user (A4 by default). You can zoom in on a page (double click it or something) to make it your main focus, zooming in automatically to an appropriate level for editing, then type away. A simple WYSIWYG paradigm would be supported here, perhaps supporting only headings, bold/italic text, and ordered and unordered lists — enough to express your thoughts but not a full blown document editor/typesetter.1 When you run out of page, another is generated next to the current page, either to the right or below — configurable.

Other objects would include flowcharts, tables, images, hand-written text and drawings, and so on. These objects can be placed free form on the grid, or embedded in a page, or moved between each mode.

The user input paradigm should embrace as many modes of input as the user wants to provide. Mouse and keyboard: middle click to pan, scroll to zoom in or out, left click and drag to move objects around, shift+click to select objects, etc. A multi-point trackpad should support pinch to zoom, two finger pan, etc. Touch support is fairly obvious. Drawing tablet support is also important: the user should be able to use one to draw and write free-form. I’d love to be able to make flowcharts by drawing boxes and arrows and having the software recognize them and align them to the grid as first-class vector objects. Some drawing tablets support trackpad and touch-screen-like features as well — so all of those interaction options should just werk.

Performance is important here. I should be able to zoom in and out and pan around while all of the objects rasterize themselves in real-time, never making the user suffer through stuttery interactions. There should also be various ways to export this content. A PDF exporter should let me arrange the pages in the desired linear order. SVG exporters should be able to export objects like flowcharts and diagrams. Other potential features includes real-time collaboration or separate templates for presentations.

Naturally this application should be free software and should run on Linux. However, I would be willing to pay a premium price for this tool — a one-time fee of as much as $1000, or subscriptions on the order of $100/month if real-time collaboration or cloud synchronization are included. If you’d like some ideas for how to monetize free software projects like this, feel free to swing by my talk on the subject in Italy early this September to talk about it.

Well, that’s enough dreaming for now. I hope this inspired you, and in the meantime it’s back to pen and paper for me.

  1. Though perhaps you could import pages from an external PDF, so you can typeset stuff in LaTeX or whatever and then work with those documents inside of this tool. Auto-reload from the source PDFs and so on would be a bonus for sure. ↩︎

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