Saturday, June 11, 2011


I recently received communication from Gregory Zhukov; president and founder of CS Odessa based in the Ukraine. Gregory has proposed the standardization of an Universal mind map file format.  This is not new of course Vic Gee wrote of this during 2007 and nothing came of it.  So this proposal comes at an opportune time IMO.
The proposal of a universal mind mapping file format coming from a mainstream developer rather than a consultant/writer is rather significant though.

I certainly understand the leading mind mapping software developer, may indeed perceive this proposal as a threat to their established and most deployed/exchanged mapping format.  And; for the smaller developers; this would simply be perceived as an open door to the larger developers market place.

Let's not forget about the users; they are the most important part of the process that enables the further use, development and evolution of all respective software products.  The users are privately asking for some kind of standardized  XML format that can be read across product range.

Regardless of the perception of this proposal; an open mind and forward thinking philosophy may be best rested upon for this proposal.  The plethora of software products relating to mind mapping as a base graphical function and capability has, even until this time, struggled to break into the mainstream.

At this time; Mindjet, CS Odessa, NovaMind, ThinkBuzan, Simtech, Matchware, MindGenius and Seavus are to mention but a few (apologies if you're not mentioned here) product developers that are, and remain to be relevant.  Cloud developers such as Comapping and Mindmeister are without a doubt leading the cloud Mind mapping revolution.

So maybe; just maybe this proposal by Gregory Zhukov as a mainstream software developer; may spark positive debate and an outcome that gains more exposure for mind-visual mapping products period.

So here's Gregory's proposal, it is verbatim of an email invite that was posted to quite a few developers and thought leaders within the mapping arena.  And; I look forward to reading Gregory's input and feedback, which shall be posted as a new and separate blog post; in order to create a clear and unambiguous reply.

Wallace Tait: visualmapper

Fellow developer colleagues,

Mind mapping software users have for some time, been voicing their frustrated need for a universal mind map file format (ummap).  This would make it so much more convenient for users to effortlessly share mapped information with fellow mapping users who may use alternative mapping products.

The growing number of mind mapping product logically express a critical need for standardization.  At this time; the dominant obstacle to a mainstream adoption of mind mapping product is the lack of an ummap format enabling interoperability in and through a wide scope of information processing product.

Gregory Zhukov; president/founder of CS Odessa cordially invites you to join a round table group of fellow mind mapping developer organizations. The purpose of collectively developing an ummap format would be for the benefit of participating developers with a laser focus on current and potential end users.

The ummap format would indeed be a new standard that shall remove many barriers to market adoption of Mind mapping software product.

By participating in this initiative we shall collectively benefit by:
  1. Ensuring attachment (embedding) requirements are addressed
  2. Solving compatibility between products
  3. Realizing a wider marketplace exposure
  4. Developing standardized benchmarks that address the real needs of information management
  5. Enabling interoperability with a wider group of business products
  6. Improving customer satisfaction
Raise your hand of interest in this revolutionary change to the Mind mapping arena. With your participation; the work is about to begin.
Best Regards
Gregory Zhukov


Christopher Spence said...

As we discussed, I would love to see a universal format across all products. It has to be truly universal to be successful otherwise it will just become an additional format supported by a select few and make things even more difficult.

It also needs to remain open to developers to add additional options without breaking the standard format. This will encourage developers to still use the format while allowing product specific features.

Wallace Tait said...

There's been a lot of chatter @ a common file format for some years now. The issue is that of bringing in the leading mapping developers, and this is the challenge.

I like the prospect of a round table meeting of the minds from as many of the mapping developers as possible. Including all the capable developers is essential IMO.

When working with colleagues, clients and other prospects; I often run into the issue of file compatibility, and that’s just the start.

The points mentioned within the invitation are all valid, and I expect some to feel probably threatened by this proposal.

IMO; I do believe the time has come to open up the field of business mind mapping to a wider audience. The ummap format might be a God send to the smaller developers yet, I do believe the larger developers such as Mindjet, CS Odessa, ThinkBuzan, Simtech and other notable developers would benefit greatly too.

The exposure to larger markets by way of an ummap format may open a dialog with developers of other business products we can only dream of being aligned with mind mapping at this time.

It is indeed going to be rather interesting to see where this may go.

PleaseKING said...

I like the idea and we at Comapping are ready to take part in this initiative. The key features are:
- universal
- extensible
- compact and easy to understand

Blusky said...

I would ideally like to this extended to a "universal information format". Those of you who know me understand my obsession with the "Method Neutral" approach which means the information not the interface should be the centre of the universe. Sorry to repeat myself, but if movements are being made in this direction, then it should be all the way!

Nick Duffill said...

The process of writing standards is a well-trodden path. The credibility of the authority, the stability of the standard and the benefits of using it are the key factors in convincing participants to invest effort in supporting it. The next hurdle is that vendors will be looking out for elements that either unfairly benefit their competitors or disadvantage them, which is why the outcome often becomes the lowest common denominator. This can approach zero by the time that all objections are taken into account.
To use a common file format as a native file format that survives editing by a different client will be a major challenge, and it is more likely that it will be a common import/export format and not a native storage format (like MPX was for project management). I think the best solution would be to adopt an existing file format, rather than invent a new one. There is actually very little about this that is unique to mind maps.
If there really is no suitable existing standard, then choose a de-facto proprietary one, such as Microsoft Word xml. This would be strategic for vendors - the ability to edit and save a Word document using mind map software would make a lot of sense.
The least favourite option would be to create a new standard, but if this becomes necessary then an attempt should be made to abstract and standardise meaning rather than physical markup. So instead of storing "Red exclamation mark", store "Important" and have each client interpret this locally. It would be fun to try to develop a lexicon that can describe commonly used attributes - maybe such a thing already exists?

Richard Parslow said...

Great idea.

Nick's suggestion to agree a lexicon of terms for the most common attributes is a good one too: that would go a long way towards satisfying the "universal" requirement. As would adoption of XML: many existing 'proprietary' file formats are actually XML (or XML-based) anyway; they just have their own syntax.

Brian S. Friedlander, Ph.D said...

As someone who uses a number of visual mapping applications I would enthusiastically endorse having a standard visual information format that would allow me to easily exchange my data from one application to another. However, being a realist I can see where many developers might look at having standard format as a threat to their specific application. I look forward to the conversation and seeing where this goes.

Brian S. Friedlander

Wallace Tait said...

I second nick's point of a standardized lexicon based on an open XML.

I wait to read Gregory Zhukov's input and feedback to his proposal.

Pascal Venier said...

This is a really welcome initiative. As a user, I really think this could be a real way forward. The issue of file compatibility is indeed often so very frustrating. A standardized lexicon based on an open XML sounds good. I am not completely sure whether it is likely that the market leader would be interested in becoming involved, as its format is in many way the current de facto standard, but it may well make a lot of sense for its competitors to become involved, as far I can tell.

Wallace Tait said...

Yep; the market leader is Mindjet and their mmap proprietary format is the most imported and deployed map format.

Logic says "hey let's all adopt the mmap format; but ownership and control come into play when we even envisage that.

And it seems this thread is generating a common need; a standardized lexicon for an open XML.

I am waiting for the mainstream developers to throw in their ten cents worth, and we who merely write about these interesting aspects of software development, may learn something in the process.

OK; so we may see all of this standardization come into play (maybe); but the bigger picture may be the implications for interoperability with software products outside the range of mere mind mapping.

Mark Wogan said...

The issue of standardisation from my pov is a business one: will it help to grow the market? I believe it will and therefore should be supported. However, achieving the goal is another thing altogether considering the myriad of views and vested interests involved. I welcome the intellectual debate but worry about the operational reality. Still, fortune favours the bold so lets get going!

Craig Scott said...

I think that the benefits to users go without saying - who wouldn't want to transfer their information around freely. Question is - what do the vendors stand to gain? (or lose)

Rather than worry about that too much - I believe that the best way to get this pushed through is to use momentum. If we can get a critical mass of applications to 'play nicely' together in a reasonably short space of time then the momentum created will pressure others to follow suit. To that end, I would encourage an expedient (almost ad-hoc) approach to the specification and implementation - with an emphasis on shipping rather than detail. Get the benefits to the users asap - then see how things pan out.

At an implementation level, almost all the apps out there follow a similar approach (XML + attachments/images ZIP'd up into a single file) so something based on that will do the job (XML gives us the required extensibility and the easy translation.) Possibly the biggest challenge then is to define the 'scope' of the format - for example is it only designed for hierarchical data or will it work for 'peer to peer'? (e.g. PersonalBrain/Concept Map type diagrams.) To my mind, I would concentrate on hierarchical information - given that is the majority use case (of mindmap vendors.)

As for XML format - something simple like OPML or Freemind would provide a good starting point - basic but very easy to read/write and translate.

stephen said...

Glad to read this idea. In fact, we also think there are two many file formats in the market, and bring some problems for user communication. That's also why we let XMind open source, and public our file format (.xmind),
At the same time, xmind also can export/import Freemind file format and Mindjet file format to solve the communucation problem.

P.S. and

Nick Duffill said...

@Craig - most mind mapping software actually creates semantic networks rather than trees. A tree is a special case of a network, but adding a relationship or link between two branches in a map turns it into a network with typed links. So keeping to trees only would not just sideline the network-type products, but would drop commonly-used information from maps.

Blaine Mathieu said...

Thanks Wallace and hello everyone. Nice to meet the brains behind the mind/information mapping revolution, at least virtually.

I do plan to take this idea up with our Product Strategy Council over the next few weeks. As we all know, issues surrounding such standardization efforts are very complex and I cannot predict what the outcome will be. In any case, Wallace and Gregory, I do appreciate your effort to bring everyone together.

Blaine Mathieu
Chief Products Officer
Mindjet LLC

Wallace Tait said...

Having Blain Mathieu Chief Products Oficer at Mindjet acknowledge this thread is validation of the importance of this proposal.

Now that we have the leading Visual mapping software developer considering a reaction to an ummap format; let's hope we have more of our colleagues jump in too.

Kyle McFarlin said...

I'm not sitting here with an actual number to back up my point though I wish I was. I think Chuck Frey put some numbers out years ago on the percentage of survey respondents who are using each type of mapping software. Anyhow...

There are 2 factors at play here that leave me thinking a universal mind mapping file format is a longshot:

(1) This is an issue more deeply felt by the thought leaders of the visual mapping market than it is the normal user. For most people I've seen, the .mmap format of a Mindjet map basically accomplishes the objective of a universal mind mapping file format because...

(2) MindManager is so widespread that for normal users, the .mmap file format feels to them like .pdf. Most other mapping software recongizes it, and even software on the cutting edge like PersonalBrain will import the format. Thinking back, I think Mindjet is something like 60-80% of the software mapping market... with a number like that, they basically are the format. If anyone has the actual number, please leave it in a reply comment.

So, Mindjet would probably need to be the driver of any initiative toward a universal file format. And as Wallace pointed out of a 'leading mind mapping software developer', they may 'indeed pereceive this proposal as a threat to their established and most deployed/exchanged mapping format'. Bingo. They're a for-profit company with nothing visible to gain by doing this.

And what happens when a for-profit company sees no profit in an activity that doesn't get them warm & fuzzies press?


Wallace Tait said...

I respectfully disagree with you Kyle. The proposal of a ummap format is certainly mot about any specific developer at all.

I agree that Mindjet is an important addition to any group that would collectively develop a standardized lexicon for an open XML though.

the mmap format is indeed owned by Mindjet and is proprietary; thus ownership is Mindjet's. The logic of this states that any dominant developer who believes their map format should dominate, would therefore dominate and own the format and market.

the ummap format would be a collective and IMO should not be owned by ant developer at all; I do however await the feedback and views of Gregory Zhukov; the original proposer.

Nick Duffill said...

If this initiative defines itself as dependent on Mindjet, then it will be a long an unnecessary wait, because Mindjet are the only player who do not need to do anything. MindManager has an API, so any third party can develop an import/export for a new file format. Mindjet would only need to be involved if it were to be shipped with MindManager. While Kyle is right that the .mmap format is widely imported, fewer apps can write it, so it does not work as a de facto interchange format, and of course is subject to change at any time without the permission of other users. So Mindjet is not the linchpin here. The other developers (who are the only ones able to extend their products) face a bigger decision.

Kyle McFarlin said...

I agree 110% with what Nick Duffill expressed in his above reply to my comment. I look forward to hearing from Gregory, and congratulate you Wallace on starting a lively debate!

Nigel Goult said...

While this proposition sounds like a good idea, especially from a Mind Mapping user point of view, I personally do not see how this could be realised.

We are currently seeing product vendors struggle to keep reasonable parity between platforms (Mac, iOS, Windows, AIR, Flash etc) for their own file architecture let alone maintain some form of alignment with a universal format.

While I have thought about this blog post the only real universal file format I could identify is perhaps the standard ASCII text file. This works because it is based on the basic foundations of the document type i.e. characters, spacing and carriage returns but that's about it. It is great for transferrig large chunks of text into another app for further formatting, saving reproduction time etc, but other than that it is very limited. If we looked at a similar scenario for Mapping we would be left with a pretty basic map structure that would again need further formatting once it had been opened in its target app in universal format. If this is what a universal file format would achieve we already have it in import and export from outline and MS Word formats.

The other problem I see with this is what would happen when a vendor adds a new attribute to their map/file architecture. How does this new attribute get handled by the universal format. Would each vendor committed to the universal format then need to redevelop their app to accomodate the change? That could be a lot of time and resource if they are working across multiple platforms and again some struggle with this trying to accomodate 3/4 formats let alone 5/10!

Another question I have about this is where does the real tangible benefit lie for the vendors? If we were to hypothosise that the panacea map file format existed today what does that mean for the individual vendors? As far as I can see it would basically mean that a user could choose any product that accomodates the format and therefore brings the purchase choice down to price, useability, functions and personal preference. We would likley see an increase in app bloat with function/feature wars flaring in the marketplace and this could have an adverse affect by the neglection of the possibly more important aspect of map/document presentation of content which has not changed much at all.

A final observation on this. Why is it that the market leader, Mindjet, does not have any import capability of a competing mapping product whilst vendors who are taking up the next 5 or so slots of the market have import capabilities for the market leaders file format? Strange?

All of the above is opinion though and I am sure there are others who could address the above issues.

Thanks to Gregory for initiating the lively debate and to Wallace for brining it to wider attention.