Compendium Review

Compendium is a slightly different kettle of fish to the other products reviewed here, both practically and philosophically. Dealing with the philosophical side first, many of the mainstream mind mapping products like NovaMind, MindManager and ConceptDraw's MINDMAP are commercial while others are open source and free, like Freeplane, Freemind and Labyrinth.

Compendium is open source like those latter products but it is driven by an academic institute rather than commercial or hobby interest. From a practical point of view Compendium is more than a mind mapping product, something larger and more ambitious: a framework for capturing the connections between information and ideas.

Other Reviews & links: Compendium Homepage | Download Compendium | Compendium review | Compendium at Wikipedia

Downloading and Initial Impressions

The download process is slightly different to the norm, requiring a valid email address before a download link is emailed to you. This might put off casual observers but that is unlikely to be considered a problem for the Compendium Institute, the organization behind the research project and the tool that has emerged from it. Fifteen years of research have lead to the concepts enshrined in Compendium. The heart of the project is the Knowledge Media Institute of the UK's Open University and collaborators include other academic institutions around the world and commercial partners such as Verizon. Compendium has been used in many projects at the Open University and over fifty projects at NYNEX, Verizon and Bell Atlantic so it has been comprehensively road tested and its use and effectiveness closely studied.

Once downloaded installation is straightforward. The installer for the Windows package warns that is has only been comprehensively tested on Windows 2000 and XP and that it may work correctly on other versions (or not, presumably). Our testing was conducted on a Windows XP machine. A Java runtime environment is installed along with the Compendium package but it is relatively old and caused our system to download a Java update the next time it was rebooted. Everything still worked fine though.

The builders of Compendium have provided a number of screencast movies on their website which take you thorough the initial concepts contained within the program. They are well worth viewing as a quick way to get to know the software. In the Windows version the layout is easily recognizable and although some of the buttons are non-standard their functions are easy to figure out. The tool tips that pop up on mouseover are a real help when starting out and much appreciated as they are often never implemented in open source programs.

Compendium mindmapping startup screen
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Database Driven

The program starts up with an invitation to create a user account and then an initial mind map. This is the first sign that Compendium is built from the ground up using a database to provide a multi-faceted collaborative tool. Most mind mapping software has had collaboration capability bolted on as the internet has become faster and more reliable but this is not the case with Compendium. Starting the program takes a little while as database elements are registered and built, then a window is presented with a hierarchical outline view window on the left and a map window on the right. This second window, called a visual view, is populated with an Inbox, Trash and a couple of map icons the first time the application is started up.

Compendium Tags
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Another disconcerting side effect of the use of a database instead of files, although it proves beneficial once the panic is over, is that you are not prompted to save changes as you exit. The sudden fear of all that lost work turns into relief as soon as the program is restarted. The File Open dialogue box presents a choice of maps, including the one you were working on. So changes are made in realtime to the database and there's no concept of opening, saving or closing files. The data represented by your maps is referred to as a 'Project' and there are tools to backup, copy and delete those projects.

Map Creation

After following the initial screencasts you will be able to create maps. These are completely freeform and there are a number of different types of nodes (node appears to be the chosen term for an item in most mind mapping programs). As Compendium is a tool for mapping ideas, discussions and problems the nodes are more specialist than in pure mind mapping tools. You can add a node that asks a question, answers it or ascribes positive or negative attributes to another node. There are also decision and argument nodes.

A lot of attention has been paid to keyboard shortcuts, so simply hitting the 'M' key while in the view window will create a new node, opening its text box for you to immediately type the node's title. Nodes can also be created by dragging the icon for the relevant node type from the toolbar onto the map. The keyboard method works well and is preferred because mouse clicks sometimes don't quite work the way you intend them too.

Context Click Consistency

There is some inconsistency as to when an area or a node is in focus (in terms of the mouse) This means you sometimes don't get a response to a mouse click and have to repeat it after waiting to realize that nothing's going to happen. This is the sort of minor irritation that open source users have to live with which wouldn’t happen with a commercial product like MindMindManager. Having said that there is a full and comprehensive set of keyboard shortcuts for almost any task and they are all listed in sections in the Help file.

Once you have mastered the basics of using Compendium it is well worth going back to the screencasts on the Institute's website. Not only do they explain some of the features but, crucially, there are walkthroughs of mind map creation for specific subjects. For example there are three screencast describing different ways of representing and capturing strategy and one that shows how to capture and categorize a collection of useful web pages about a particular subject. This latter one could catch on; it makes lists of favorites in a browser look positively primeval.

Connecting Links

One difference with Compendium over other mind mapping products is that lines connecting the nodes aren't drawn in automatically as nodes are created. They are dragged into place with a right-click (ALT+mouse button for Mac users) once the nodes are in place. This makes map creation slightly slower than with a package like XMind, which connects nodes at creation, but allows complete and absolute freedom as to where lines should go, with multiple end and starting points no problem at all.

The colors of the lines linking the nodes have different interpretations. A line can mean that a node 'Responds To' another node, or 'Expands On' the node pointed to, or any one of around eight relationships. There are over half a dozen of these, daunting for the novice user, but the lines can be labeled with their type, or in fact with any other text. This complete freedom with line placement and type can be daunting for some people but for those well-versed in mind mapping as a concept it is very welcome.

Node Properties

The nodes can all have properties ascribed to them, comments, tags and others. Tags show some of the power that Compendium has behind the maps that can be drawn. There is a group of pre-assigned tags provided with the package but also the ability to add your own. Once items have been assigned relevant tags, or perhaps updated after a project meeting, you can search on those tags (as well as other properties) to find all nodes with that tag, not only in the current mind map but across however many maps you can get access to.

Compendium nodes can be maps themselves and there is no practical limit to the number of maps that can be nested or the levels where they can be linked. There is a 'weight' icon which, if turned on, will indicate the number of nodes contained within a map node. This is a useful if crude measure of the importance of the map.

Compendium Node Properties
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Collaboration Connections

The academic roots of Compendium show in the extra features, particularly those that enable collaboration. Compendium can make links to servers such as ClaimMaker and IX Panel. ClaimMaker is a client server system for modeling interpretations of academic papers and IX Panel is an experimental server-based technology based at the University of Edinburgh for coordinating activities and shared document. Connections can also be made to any service using the Jabber IM protocol, and in fact the IX Panel link uses this protocol.

Another collaboration enhancement is the ability to link to Access Grid meetings via a set of tools under the 'memetic' umbrella. Again memetic and Access Grid are technical academic projects that support the sharing of learning. In this case it is the ability to record, store and replay meetings whether they are in person or virtual. Compendium also has a defined XML schema which can be used to tie mind maps into other sources with XML interfaces and technically minded people should have no difficulty setting these links up.

Bells and Whistles

Compendium has some neat tricks up its sleeve. You can overlay a map on top of an image to add notes and graphics to it. This allows you to, for example, annotate satellite maps or highlight items on a picture of a circuit board. These task normally need knowledge of a complex graphics program but with Compendium it is straightforward. Setting Text on mouseover is very useful too. If care is taken over the text chosen this can be used so that people looking at a mind map can get the overall picture before delving down into the layers that will specifically interest them.

Compendium Image Overlay
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A scribble pad can be used to literally scribble on a mind map. This is a transparent layer which is usually hidden but can be brought to the front of a map and drawn on using a simple graphics tool. This is useful in live teaching or presentation situations because lines, arrows and circles can be drawn freehand on the scribble pad to highlight particular areas of the mind map. The graphic editing capability is very rudimentary though.

Compendium Scribble Pad
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Transcluding Nodes

Transcluding is another facility that is unique to Compendium (as far as we know at the moment) and it keeps track of ideas or documents when they might fit into multiple categories rather than just one. You can make a copy of a node, using CTRL-C or the Copy option under the Edit menu. This does not create an actual copy of the document. As all the content nodes are links to the real item, the copy command creates another link.

Each node icon is annotated to indicate that there are a number of instances of it in other maps and if you change the text label on one the other will all be updated. However, you can assign different tags and other properties to each of the different icons. For example an item could be an opportunity in one context but a problem in another. However, if you do actually need to make a real copy of a node, separate from the original, instead of a duplicate link, use the Clone option instead of Copy.

Compendium Email
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Compendium Conclusions

What is Compendium all about then? While it has the mind mapping concept at its heart it is much more than a tool to draw and update mind maps. Many people use Compendium as an organizer for research projects or even their lives and its ability to link to almost any object certainly lends itself to this. The downside is that you have to use Compendium as the glue between all your activities. This is fine unless you are working with people who don't use it, because you will keep having to go back to the tools that your colleagues use, then update Compendium separately.

Is it good software? Undoubtedly it is, but is using Compendium to draw mind maps a bit like using a brick to crack an egg? Perhaps so; it will do the job brilliantly but then you'll find yourself working around it more than if you'd picked a simpler tool. If all you want to do is draw mind maps to help you fix concepts in your mind then perhaps a simpler product like MindMeister or will do the job for you. On the other hand, if you are looking at mind maps as the first step in trying to encapsulate and analyze tricky, nebulous problems, then Compendium won't let you down.