For me, outlining is either spontaneous or deeply involved, but rarely something in between. I’m either jotting down quick notes or spending hours fleshing out details. Now that I have an iPad with me most of the time, I can perform both activities without involving my Mac using The Omni Group’s OmniOutliner for iPad.
At the outset, the app seems almost rudimentary. Create a new blank outline and start typing to create an item; tap Return to create a new row at the same level. To indent a row and make it the child of the row above it, tap an Indent button (or press Tab if you’re working with an external keyboard). Pressing the clever New Row (+) button pops up a halo of more specific buttons for creating a row above, below, indented, or outdented to the currently selected one. The whole system is built for speed, so you can focus on the ideas you’re compiling instead of on the mechanics of doing so.
Editing an outline in OmniOutliner is just as simple: Tap, hold, and drag a row to a new location in the hierarchy. The first sign of more advanced usage appears when you tap the Edit button, which lets you select multiple rows and group, move, cut, copy, or delete them.
But like the seemingly endless levels of nesting possible in one of its outlines, OmniOutliner for iPad turns out to be quite deep in its capabilities. Instead of offering simple text formatting options, the app encourages you to use styles (which can be customized to your liking) so each level is consistently, automatically styled. Sample outlines included with the app demonstrate that you never have to start with a blank slate if you don’t want to.
Things become more interesting when you create additional columns. I use them mainly for supplementary notes, but you can activate status checkboxes, pop-up lists, dates, durations, and even summary calculations. It’s also possible to paste items such as photos into cells, but you can’t resize or edit them to make them more useful.
Working through an outline is fast and unobtrusive, except for one annoyance: long outlines don’t fully load, so as you scroll, occasionally the app must pause and fetch more material. Collapsing nested rows helps improve performance, but it’s an unexpected hiccup in an otherwise responsive experience.
Outlines created in both OmniOutliner for iPad and OmniOutliner for Mac share the same format, so you can use them in both programs with a few limitations. Styles created in the Mac version transfer in appearance to the iPad but may not automatically be applied, for example; The Omni Group says the styles framework in the iPad app will be incorporated in the next version of the Mac application.
Transferring outlines between devices isn’t currently ideal, relying on a cumbersome trip through iTunes, a WebDAV server, or iDisk (which Apple is retiring in June 2012). However, The Omni Group is actively working on incorporating iCloud support for a future version. Outlines can also be exported as OPML (Outline Processor Markup Language), dynamic or simple HTML, or plain text.
From its emphasis on speedy outline creation to its ability to work deeply within outlines without having to pass it off to the Mac, OmniOutliner is a well thought out implementation of how to build and work with outlines, not just hierarchical lists.
[Jeff Carlson is a senior editor at TidBits and the author of The iPad 2 Pocket Guide (2011, Peachpit Press).]