GraphSketcher

Bananabears, the Seattle firm The Omni Group has been around for a long time in software. Originally it was a firm that made software for the NeXT computer. Then Apple bought NeXT and based Mac OS X on their operating system, so over the ensuing years The Omni Group made a lot of Mac products that I loved to pay for, back in the days when you would buy software instead of either getting it for free or paying thousands of dollars to subscribe to it (with nothing in between except the refund they give you when Facebook buys the company and shuts it down). There is OmniOutliner, OmniPlan, and my much-beloved OmniGraffle, which is a diagramming tool but so, so much more. Well actually I mostly use it as a diagramming tool, sometimes when I’m teaching. When the doctor tells me to go to my happy place, here is where I go:

I still keep my OmniGraffle payments up to date, partly because I like to sing “every day I’m ‘grafflin” every time I open it. However that is no longer accurate. I graffle only very few days each year, because the thing for which I used it—drawing complex, many-layered web platform architectures—is no longer much of my job. I really only use a few rectangles these days. I avoid drop shadows, too. As you become more of a manager you sketch with ever-larger pixels. A true manager creates decks where each slide has one word. A true manager goes the the whiteboard and draws a single horizontal line without labels, looks at their team, pauses for a long time, then says, “There it is.”

Did you know that Jeff Bezos, perhaps the truest manager since Robert McNamara, sometimes jumps in on email chains and just adds a single question mark? No one knows what he means when he does it, but the reaction is immense and immediate. Imagine being able to move all of Amazon with one ASCII symbol. The power! If there was an email chain about Amazon warehouse worker safety and salary, Jeff Bezos could decide to enter a “?” into the email client on his Kindle Fire, and as a consequence as many as 800,000 people in the warehouses—a population larger than Seattle’s—I mean actually it’s 800,000 families, so millions of people—would find themselves better off. Imagine being one single keypress away from that much human happiness. One little tippy-tippy-tap and a million kids get braces.

Incidentally, one of the most severe memories I have of the early web was from 1997 or 1998, when someone at The Omni Group broke up with someone else at The Omni Group. Both parties had personal websites (this was before blogs), and one of them was hosted on The Omni Group’s servers. This led to a battle of slow-moving personal website updates about very powerful emotions, along with tertiary updates from other involved parties on their own personal websites, and yet other websites that covered this romantic meltdown like breaking news. Very few of us had seen or participated in Internet Drama before that point. It was a revolution. I learned a lot from it. I think of it every single time I open up OmniGraffle.

I remember especially one of the sites because the URL contained the word “Ouch,” capitalized—which was a little orthographic peculiarity. Most URLs were case-insensitive since people would be typing them in. Wow, I thought, NeXT really is powerful. It lets you have both uppercase and lowercase characters. Funny what lodges in your long-term memory, especially given that I cannot remember if my children were born in 2010 or 2011.

I’m soothed to know that those children will learn a much simpler version of history, one without all the little human conflicts and confusions. They’ll learn that Jack Dorsey invented the Web so that he and Sheryl Sandberg could release Twitter for the iPhone. That narrative will be better for everyone.

GraphSketcher

Author: The Omni Group
Publisher: [Seattle] : The Omni Group 2009.
Edition/Format: Computer file : Git repository : English : Mac OS X

A tool for creating graphs that allows the user to import information or draw graphs by hand while labeling and adjusting the axes.

Charts, diagrams, etc.--Computer programs

Today's artifact is another digital object (they won’t all be, I know I’m tiring), a piece of open-sourced software for the Mac. It is called GraphSketcher and was originally created as OmniGraphSketcher by The Omni Group. It used to cost $30, and then they discontinued it in 2013 and open-sourced it.

It’s not obvious how to download a working version, but if you visit this release and download the zip file, it will download a file from 2014 that, due to some miracle, still runs on Mac OS X Catalina, even though the only feature Apple actually shipped in Catalina is a framework for not running any software called FuckYouKit. But I’m here to celebrate GraphSketcher, not curse Apple.

GraphSketcher is a very fine graphing tool. It will let you import a lot of data from a spreadsheet, graph the points, label the axes, and it just does a very nice job. The Omni Group was very good at making use of Apple’s SDKs and getting wonderful new effects out of them, so that their software feels both utterly consistent and very novel. This is testament to a specific kind of craft that very few software producers possess.

Where GraphSketcher shines is as a tool to just let you make up graphs and move them around. That’s it. It lets you…sketch graphs. But this is very liberating. Most graphs are made inside spreadsheets and might as well be engraved into nickel for all you can manipulate them. The computer knows best.

I cannot tell you the absolute joy of being able to make any nonsense graph you want, to be allowed to know best instead of submitting to the computer. It feels like you’re getting one over on Excel.

GraphSketcher is showing its age a little and there are some odd edges, but an awful lot of things still just work without much thought, which as you know is the hardest thing. You can move the axes around, change the X and Y ranges, move into negative axes, and it does a very nice job of scaling things as you move them around.

One could argue that it’s wrong to just be able to make up data and chart it, that no human should have that power. But there are plenty of ways to make charts lie already. Every form of communication can be considered an object of fun and frolic, and sometimes it’s pleasant to sketch out the graph in your head and then to take the time to imagine what you’d need to achieve in order to make that chart a reality. The data only gets you so far.

And bless them for open-sourcing it.

Paul