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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Crucial apps #1: KeyNote

My article earlier this month about download dependence and Open Source has inspired me to write more about software.

My practical and theoretical ICT education and training is limited and out of date, so that to begin I'll confine myself to comments about favourite freeware and Open Source applications. This time I'm going to sing the praises of my single most used application: Tranglos' KeyNote, which I've been using for some 4 years now.

What KeyNote is
According to the designer:
"Keynote is a flexible, multi-featured tabbed notebook, based on Windows standard RichEdit control... It's always accessible with a single keypress, even if you work in another application. Take a look at the screenshots page."
The key phrase here is "tabbed". There are other note-taking apps, but a professional writer friend who's spent a lot of money on different packages assures me that he's only come across 1 that he thought was better than KeyNote - Scrivener, only available for the Mac.

How KeyNote works
In a few short paragraphs I can only hope to scratch the surface of what these features of KeyNote has to offer, but these 2 screencaps should help. Above you can see the fully expanded tree of the tab I use every day, mostly to draft articles for RD/KA!. To the left you can see the fully expanded KeyNote, showing:
  • The Templates tab of the Resource Panel (RHS), which contains useful tools.
  • The text-editor window, containing the contents of the 'codes' tab, namely all the HTML codes I use when drafting articles for RD/KA!, and which can come in very useful when I'm commenting on other people's blogs.
  • The closed nodes tree (LHS), in which every node opens another text-editor window.
  • The 'note' tabs across the top, in which every tab is just like the one here displayed.
  • The bold blue text at the top of this window is a 'KeyNote link', a handy wee link back to an earlier draft of the article that window is about (this one, BTW).
I dare say that you could get by with just 1 tab (ie. none, as such), but the facility to have more than 1 is really neat, and I'd want something else really, really useful (Scrivener maybe?) before I was happy to give it up. KeyNote's designer explains why this is so useful:

"The basic idea in KeyNote is that you can include many separate notes within a single file. This means that you do not need to open several files - for most purposes it is enough to create only one file and hold all your notes inside it. With the addition of the tree-type notes, you now have a three-dimensional notebook: many notes within one file and a multi-level, nested pages within a single note."
What this means is that, whether you are writing one long piece - eg. a novel; doing research for a shorter, yet still substantial one- eg. an academic thesis; or just writing regular short articles - eg. a blog; you will find KeyNote a great convenience because it makes all your work easily accessible in a single file. And the tree structure means that file can be logically subdivided so that you're not scrolling through endless pages in long documents either.

What KeyNote is useful for
I'm hoping that reader who themselves write regularly might already be realising that software of this ilk is an electronic addition to the tools of writing more valuable perhaps even than the most fully featured word processor. Turning again to the designer:
"What is KeyNote useful for? In general, any structured of [sic] free-form information, especially the kind of information which lends itself to hierarchical representation, such as lists or outlines. KeyNote's powerful search facility quickly locates information you're looking for."
The picture above shows the note tab from the WFRP campaign that'll be familiar to old hands here at RD/KA! (new readers can check out the 'my little old world' category, also at the bottom of the page). This used to be part of my everyday KeyNote file, but I exported it to a new KeyNote file when I stopped GM'ing WFRP.

After a few false starts I developed a simple approach to using KeyNote as a GM's aid. I maintained a list of NPC's, which I'd just copy and paste into the new node I opened for each upcoming session. This I would print out for ready reference. I added little details like the date and other stuff to keep them handy too. The tree structure of the nodes also proved ideal for making notes as I worked to figure out what was going on and how to keep up with the plot.

All in all then, I'd have to say that KeyNote is nearly the perfect tool for GM's, enabling them to keep campaign information in a format ideal for their purposes. I certainly found that to be true, and I've barely scratched the surface of the app's functions, some of which I'm sure would prove every bit as useful.

There's got to be a catch?
If something looks too good to be true, it usually is. My enthusiasm aside, KeyNote's main issue is that it is a dead program, the designer having given up on development back in October 2005, mere months after I'd taken it up!

I guess that this will lead to significant problems sooner or later, even for an app as stable as is KeyNote. It's certainly true that I've experienced 1 or 2 minor bugs as my Windows versions have moved on, but nothing that actually affected the functionality. Most serious perhaps is that Windows Vista no longer supports the code for the KeyNote Help files. There is apparently some fix for this, but efforts to implement defeated my limited computer ingenuity!

Conclusion
KeyNote is the single most useful piece of writing software I've ever owned, and I'm sure I've only scratched the surface of what it is capable of. Most of what I write is drafted in KeyNote and then copied and pasted into whichever other app it is intended for. Checking out the screenshots on Tranglos site while preparing this article has reminded me that it's time I found out more about its other capabilities. I expect I'll report on those in the future.

In the meantime, it might well be that the Open Source movement has already come up with a better app (in which case I'd love to hear about it); and the app's obsolescence might one day prove problematical (unless, that is, it picks up new followers and starts to enjoy some geek love from code monkeys in the Open Source movement; oh, if only!). Those caveats aside, I just cannot recommend KeyNote too highly. Suck it and see, as they say! ;)
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