At the Web 2.0 Expo, I was pushed hard to cover the new Web-based mind-mapping tool, Spinscape. The pitch I got was half demo, half introduction to the topic. I'm a big fan of outliner applications (I miss Grandview and Ecco) but the free-form mind mappers never appealed to me. I prefer a bit more structure.
After the conference, a little alone time with Spinscape did not change my opinion. This is an application that lends itself to a great demo. It looks great and it's got a lot of capability, but I found if you're using it to capture ideas, or maybe map out the ideas that pop up during a meeting, the interface slows you down, at least at first. On the other hand, if you want to annotate a map with notes, links, and pictures, and you have the time and gumption to create the map in the first place, Spinscape will handle it. It also does some useful automatic lookup in Wikipedia and other sources to fill out nodes if you're gathering data and ideas on a topic.
If in your mind's eye your ideas and plans look like molecular models, Spinscape might work for you. But if they look like outlines or Gantt charts, steer clear.
Spinscape intrigued me, since I've never used a Web-based tool like it. A quick bit of research on the Web and Twitter, and a timely news release, yielded four interesting competitors to this application. Despite the fact that they share a design point--creating graphical representations of networks of ideas--they have very different capabilities.
MeadMap is a mind mapper designed for students, and probably the best of these applications for people who think in outlines. It creates networks left-to-right, not from the center out (in Rafe terminology, the sun-and-planets view). It's fast and easy to use. It also allows real-time collaboration and supports live chat with collaborators, which is very useful. Its downside is a limited feature set: You can't import pictures, for example.
Mindomo is the mind mapper for Microsoft Office junkies. Its interface mirrors Office 2007's look and feel, and it has a crazy number of little options you'll never use (just like Office). It also lets you change the overall layout of your map; it doesn't force you to use the sun-and-planet view.
MindMeister is a clear mind mapper if you're fond of the traditional view. It supports attachments and notes on each node so you can annotate your thought bubbles as you go. It has a useful wiki-like revision view, and it will color-code your collaborators' changes in the main map. I found it both intuitive to use and capable. It's the most well-rounded Web-based mind mapper in this roundup.
And then there's Bubbl.us, the cute little pony of mind mappers. With and extremely limited feature set, it's very easy to learn and use. But anyone serious about mapping their thoughts will run out of gas with it rather quickly, I believe.
There are plenty of installable mind mapping tools, like MindJet, MindMap, and The Brain. There's also an open-source application, Freemind. The commercial software applications have advantages in flexibility and speed, but the Web-based applications are less expensive (all are either free or available for a low monthly fee), and most offer much stronger collaboration features. In this category, as in many others, the Web is best the place to get started, and for many users, a Web application will offer all they need. Especially Mindmeister. It's really worth trying.