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Shaping The Future

The last two years have been an exciting and high paced journey for our Mindjet team. We not only accelerated our growth tremendously, but moved beyond a small company that simply sells a visual business mapping software for brainstorming and planning. Our latest product launch in January 2005, the MindManager Accelerator for Salesforce.com, marked an important milestone in our history: we entered the enterprise application market with a whole new way to visualize and engage with existing enterprise data, a CRM system in the case of Salesforce.com. This interface allows account managers to see the big picture, associate the different pieces of a puzzle make annotations immediately with the end-purpose to quickly make informed decisions and close deals faster. Jim Banks (VP Sales, Movaris) said “It doesn’t make a difference whether we use … as long as I can use MindManager to visualize my sales process.”

In the future those visual front-end integrations together with team collaboration features will become the major direction of Mindjet’s products. The validity of this direction as a future industry trend was underlined by two recent articles, one from IDC and one from Ventana Reports that makes us confident that we are on the right track.

The IDC article describes the Enterprise Workplace as the future user experience for information workers, "an interactive infrastructure to support the intersection of people, processes and information". In some ways it’s the extension of today’s Enterprise Content Management systems (ECM), with an additional natural, intuitive and adaptive user interface. The Ventana Research report about Application Landscaping describes our Salesforce.com solution as "the first of a whole kind of visual enterprise application front-ends and that those front-ends to visually landscape existing enterprise data have a big future ahead."

Both articles put together in context demonstrates the major evolution our MindManager product and technology went through from it’s infancy until today. And they lay out the path for our future. We believe it’s now time to take on more thought leadership in the industry and start shaping not only our own Mindjet future, but the future of visualizing enterprise information. Some more insights can be found in Chris’s blog Visualizing information for improving productivity & collaboration.

This Blog will talk about this new Mindjet direction, discuss usage scenarios of MindManager, feature ideas and also topics like our new Extreme Programming process we introduced last year. It will be driven by whatever posts we will get.

Today I want to go back in time and show how we transformed the initial Mind Mapping method into something much bigger than I had anticipated a decade ago.

The Journey
More than 10 years ago I started working on MindManager in my small hospital room to be treated for a leukemia relapse (check out www.cancercode.com to read more about “How a journey through leukemia led to software that changed the way people work”). Since then years flew by very fast and I created 6 major releases and lots of service packs, first alone and later with more and more people in my team. My life always seemed to be organized around those releases. If someone asks me what happened in 1998 or 2002, I tell them "This is when I worked on MindManager 3.5 or X5" and not "Yeah, we had this great vacation in Hawaii with those huge waves and …".

While in every new release we added more features and value to the product, the real value was the evolution from a very simple Mind Mapping application to a generic business mapping platform.

Before Mind Mapping software existed, people used it on paper with colored pens. But hand-drawn maps have the big disadvantage that they can only be used by you. They are very personal. If you hand them out, others will normally not understand them and feel overwhelmed. So specifically in a business context they are not very useful, since you cannot share them.

The first two releases of MindManager already changed that dramatically. After the initial map creation, the map could be edited as often as necessary and then printed nicely. Sharing maps was not a problem any more and early adopters quickly picked up MindManager to use in their business.

We immediately went beyond that and started to add "computer functionality" to the traditional Mind Mapping. We added hyperlinks to link to other documents or web sites, and we added text notes to store more background information for each topic. We also started to deviate from some of the Mind Mapping laws (why has something so flexible and open laws at all? Nick has also written about this topic). Especially the one that allows only one keyword per topic was a major hurdle in sharing maps with others. To understand other people’s maps, you need some more context than keywords only. So using short phrases (not complete sentences) resulted in a much more effective communication when sharing maps.

In release 3.0 that was launched 1997 we not only laid out the basic feature set you still find in today’s product like images, icon markers, relationship arrows and task information, but also introduced our first real-time collaboration feature that allowed shared editing of maps between multiple remote teams based on a peer-to-peer technology. At this time, it was a really advanced feature and it worked perfectly even over slow modem lines.

The following two releases 4.0 and 2002 focused on integrating MindManager with MS-Office. This was a critical piece of the puzzle and positioned MindManager as a front-end tool for Word, PowerPoint and Project. We added an SDK and scripting tools to MindManager to provide a platform for 3rd party developers to add own custom features.

In 2002 we side-stepped and jumped on the Groove.net train. The Groove platform intrigued us as a great future model for team collaboration with some very new and impressive concepts. And injecting our map view was very easy since we already had a build-in real-time collaboration mode. Over a year our MindManager tool was the most downloaded Groove tool, which made us very proud. While we do not support the latest Groove release 3.0 we gathered a lot of customer feedback and learned that our user interface is very attractive for interactive team collaboration sessions.

With the introduction of the Tablet PC, Microsoft finally closed the gap between hand-drawn maps and maps created with keyboard and mouse. Now you can quickly enter and modify maps directly with an electronic pen with the same speed as using pen on paper. Everyone who uses MindManager on Tablet PC agrees that this is a really cool application especially for someone who is doing a lot of meeting as I do. The adoption of Tablet PC will still take a while, but it’s just a matter of time until it will be generally accepted in the market. If you want to learn more about MindManager on Tablet PC, read Hobies blog about it.

Developing our latest release MindManager X5 was very different though. We decided that it was time to put all our past experience on the table and start completely from scratch to create a new MindManager release, which takes the best concepts and all the feedback we received from customers to a new level. The result was a much more professional product with a clear focus on the needs of business users. Modeled around an XML core it also established a new solution platform that today allows us to build solutions like the Salesforce.com integration or direct search in Google or Yahoo.

Some of our customer that were used to MindManager 2002 were first surprised about the new X5 interface and feature set. But I have yet not seen anyone who wanted to return to MindManager 2002 after using X5 for a while.

The MindManager DNA
What we also established during all those years is what Chris calls our Mind Mapping DNA: 3 basic chromosomes that are the building blocks of our business maps: hierarchy, static spatial layout, and small icons we call map markers icons.

Hierarchy is very important: it’s a powerful structure that at the same time is easily understood by everyone. We want an application that can be used by 80% of the people for 80% of their projects. Hierarchies provide exactly this balance between power and intuitive use. For everything else you need more specialized applications like Visio, a generic diagram tool.

The second chromosome is our static spatial layout. A map spreads out in all directions (up, down, left and right) and leaves empty space between single topics. The layout itself is mostly static, so MindManager does not reorganize and reposition topics and sub-topics dynamically to optimize the available space. There are other tools on the market that use a very dynamic display like The Brain or the StarTree from Inxight. Those tools are great if view space is limited and you need to drill down a large network of connected information. But they are not designed to see the big picture and really work with the information.

Our special map layout and empty space makes it easier for the user to recognize the different pieces of information and connecting them together. Well designed ads use the same principle called “white space” so your eyes can easier focus, catch and remember the real important items that communicate the major messages. Or compare it to a big jigsaw puzzle: in the beginning you assemble some bigger and disconnected chunks and then you start gluing them together. The spatial layout also helps to remember information; your mind knows that certain information was at the top right of the map and some other stuff somewhere at the bottom. This is not something you do consciously or have to learn. It’s simply how your mind works.

The last and third chromosome of the MindManager DNA is the map marker icons. These are small colored icons you can assign to a topic. In the beginning we used colors (line color, font color or a fill/highlight color) to give topics a certain meaning (e.g. high priority, a comment from Bob, ..). Over time we found that colors have two major drawbacks: first it’s hard to remember the meaning of more than 3-4 colors and secondly in X5 we started to make a clearer distinction between the visual presentation of the map (background, fonts, colors, topic shapes, topic images) and the real content of the map (text, structure and map marker icons). Icons have several advantages. First you associate them with meaning, a text that describes them (for our technical folks: meta information). When you hover over them, you see this meaning. Second your mind can easily associate the icon image with the meaning, so you remember it much better than just colors. Then you can assign multiple icons (and meanings) to one topic, which is often necessary. And you can extend the icon "vocabulary" by add your own custom icons to MindManager.

Other new products like OneNote use a similar set of basic principle. You can put information anywhere on the page and use flags to mark pieces of information. In Outlook 2003 you can assign one of 6 colored flag to an e-mail.

The Future
There would be a lot more to tell about our past journey, but I believe most of you want to know what’s up in our future 🙂 Well I believe we are just at the beginning and the real exciting time is still in front of us. Especially team collaboration is getting a lot of attention these days, not in the traditional sense and associated with web conferencing, instant messaging, e-mail, shared calendars or document management system. More and more the industry understands that real collaboration happens between people and to tap into their knowledge, judgment and power, they need tools at their fingertips to work together instantly, ad-hoc within their application and the context of their current work. I’m sure Chris and Hobie will add their comments to this topic pretty soon!

To wrap up I want to encourage everyone in Mindjet to actively participate in this Blog, having a lively discussion about various topics that reflects our diversity and creativity. We have the great opportunity to shape how people will work in the future and this is fun and responsibility at the same time.

We can do this together …

Mike Jetter
Chief Technology Officer