Products and Capabilities

I’ve come to depend on the outlining that’s baked into Visual Studio Code. So far as I can tell, it is unrelated to the tool’s impressive language intelligence. There’s no parsing or understanding of the text in which sections can fold and unfold, but indentation is significant and you can exploit that to make nested expand/collapse zones in any language. I use it for HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Python, Markdown, SQL, and maybe a few others I’m forgetting.

For a long time I thought of myself as someone who respected outlining tools as an important category of software but, having tried various of them going all the way back to ThinkTank, never adopted one as part of my regular work. My experience with VSCode, though, has shown me that while I never adopted an outliner product, I have most surely adopted outlining capability. I use it wherever it manifests. I make tables of contents in Google Docs, I use code folding in text editors that support it, I exploit any outlining affordance that exists in any tool I’m using. Recently I was thrilled to learn that the web platform offers such an affordance in the form of the <details> tag.

In thinking about this post, the first title that occurred to me was: Products vs. Capabilities. Were I still earning a living writing about tech I might have gone with that, or an editor might have imposed it, because conflict (in theory) sells content. But since I’m not selling content it’s my call. I choose Products and Capabilities because the two are, or anyway can (and arguably should) be complementary. For some people, an outliner is a product you use regularly because you value that way of visualizing and reorganizing stuff that you write. You might not be one of those people. I’m not. I don’t, for example, use outlining to organize my thoughts when I write prose, as I’m doing now. That just isn’t how my mind works. I’ve done enough decent writing over the years to accept that it’s OK to not explicitly outline my prose.

For the various kinds of code I spend a lot of time wrangling these days, though, outlining has become indispensable. An outlining expert might say that the capability I’m talking about isn’t real full-fledged outlining, and I’d agree. In a dedicated outliner, for example, you expect to be able to drag things up and down, and in and out, without messing them up. VSCode doesn’t have that, it’s “just” basic indentation-driven folding and unfolding. But that’s useful. And because it shows up everywhere, I’m more effective in a variety of contexts.

In web annotation, I see the same kind of product/capability synergy. Hypothesis is a product that you can adopt and use as a primary tool. You might do that if you’re the sort of person who fell in love with delicious, then moved on to Diigo or Pinboard. Or if you’re a teacher who wants to make students’ reading visible. But web annotation, like outlining, is also a capability that can manifest in — and enhance — other tools. I showed some examples in this 2017 talk; I’ve helped develop others since; I’m more excited than ever about what’s possible.

I’m sure there are other examples. What are some of them? Is there a name for this pattern?

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