Tinderbox offers intriguing and very appealing features. The software provides some powerful analytical tools, accompanied by visual representation. However, a very steep learning curve, severe limitations in the type of data that can be handled, and overall difficulty in using data once entered may not make it a good fit for litigation management or case analysis… i.e. it’s your choice whether or not to follow the siren’s call of the perfect case analysis tool.
Tinderbox – Exuberance, Frustration
Exuberance– What it does: Tinderbox collects notes or text in small ‘buckets’ or ‘containers.’ The cool part, each bucket or container can, itself, contain other buckets…. think stacking Russion doll. Further, each note/bucket can exist as an alias inside other areas.
You can view these notes/buckets through two representations: a mindmap style representation; or, a hierarchical outline style. In map view, the ability to create links amongst various note buckets also can lead to interesting analysis and can springboard a brainstorming session. The outline view can be further manipulated to display information inside each note, a kind of table with additional information displayed in columns.
Even more interesting, intriguing and useful, a bucket can also act as an ‘agent,’ think of it as a Smartfolder in Finder. The agent will collect all relevant notes and buckets and can sort them by date, name or other specified criteria. So, one can create agents which track all people in a case and sort them by name, or all facts and sort them by date, place, type etc.
Agents can also go one step further and, if certain criteria are met, actually alter the appearance or other characteristics of a bucket which meets the criteria. For example, a case may contain many facts, some of which are just plain ole’ chronological facts and others which might be medical treatment. In the fourth gallery image, an agent identified those ‘medical’ facts, changed their color to ‘blue’ and added a ‘blue flag’ so that they stand out in the chronology. Really, really slick.
Another slick feature is the ‘wordcloud’ view, image #5 in the gallery, called “Common Words” in the Tinderbox menu. It gives you a hyperlinked word cloud of words contained in your Tinderbox document, the more frequent the word occurs, the larger the font. Clicking on the word takes you to a list of all notes containing that word. But, clicking on the individual note doesn’t jump you to the word inside the note… which brings us to the frustrations.
Frustration– The global find function is limited to a two word boolean search. Worse, there is no global find and replace readily available.
The biggest pitfall with Tinderbox is that to sort, filter or otherwise ‘mine’ your data, you need to create an ‘agent.’ There are no on the fly filtering tools available. Imagine if, in iTunes, every time you wanted to look at just the albums by Jay-Z you had to (1) open a separate window; (2) type out the following arcane command “Artist(Jay-Z)&Prototype=album”; (3) close the separate window; and, (4) open the newly created agent so you could see just those albums by Jay-Z. Those are, at a minimum the steps required just to gather all albums by Jay-Z.
Two blogs have both attempted to demonstrate Tinderbox as a useful tool for lawyers. Attorney Steve Winnick’s blog Winvictus’s Summary Judgment describes an attempt to create a Tinderbox based case management tool called Summary Judgment. In the most recent post, eighteen steps are required to get information into Tinderbox for case management/litigation purposes. An older blog, Tinderlaw, apparently dead ended since the last post regarding Tinderbox back occurred in September ’09.
Further frustration lies in using Tinderbox for anything other than storing text notes. There is no way for the software to efficiently include images, audio or video files. You *can* link to a file as part of a note bucket, but this step alone is often difficult, requiring a manual drill down through finder because drag and drop rarely worked. Of course, this mere linkage does not index any document which might have indexable content (e.g. Word documents or PDFs containing rendered text).
Finally, Tinderbox appears to be coded in java or some other language. In other words, it’s not written in Mac OS X’s programming language and therefore loses much of the shine you may have come to expect from Mac software. Additionally, the software employs some rather strange keyboard shortcuts. And, last but not least, the software appears to be entirely dependent on a single developer. After watching Journler go down in flames, it would be difficult to put too much data in software that depends so much on a single individual.
So, in summary, if you wanted to plan out every possible need for your data, in advance, take the time to learn what borders on an arcane scripting language, and become familiar with some rather awkward keyboard shortcuts, you might find Tinderbox useful… Tinderbox does offer some very powerful features and interesting takes on data mining. But, as a lawyer working daily with data and the need to be flexible in searching, filtering and finding information, I find it more frustrating than useful.
Tinderbox costs $249 per license although a ‘limited’ version can be downloaded for a free test drive, the limitation being only a small number of notes can be created. For what it’s worth, Maclitigator payed full price in order to put the software through its paces. Prior to publication, developer Mark Bernstein was given an opportunity to review the post and comment or suggest anything that may have been overlooked. No response was received.
Update January 22, 2010: Mark Bernstein emailed me and posted a detailed comment below. The comments address some concerns raised above, but not all.
One more positive point needs mentioning: Tinderbox is the only software that allows both data mining and a very useful mindmap style presentation. Personal Brain does present a ‘mindmap’ to some extent, but not nearly as flexible as Tinderbox because each ‘node’ ‘bucket’ or ‘thought’ can only exist in one place at a time in Personal Brain. The Tinderbox approach is reminiscent of those big white boards/cork boards that you see used by police detectives in movies (think Sopranos, Russell Crowe in American Gangster, Dexter). For some interesting ‘task board’ layouts, look here. This aspect of Tinderbox makes it very attractive, but the other negatives outweigh any benefit of a pretty picture.