Getting started: Tinderbox or (and) Obsidian?

[Admin edit: at the suggestion of forum members I’ve retitled this from its original title “The Longevity of Tinderbox: Is there a succession plan?” as the thread quickly moved to a more useful discussion about differences/similarities of Tinderbox and Obsidian how to understand them. To jump to where that starts, see here.]

I’m considering purchasing Tinderbox via the Winterfest discount, but I’m concerned that once Mark Bernstein is ready to retire my investment will be abandoned. Can anyone (Mark?) speak to the longevity of Tinderbox going forward or if there is a succession plan once Mark no longer wants or is able to maintain the software? Thanks!

1 Like

There’s a board, and they would have a plan in my absence. I think it will be fine.

I’m not going anywhere, anytime soon. I believe we’ve had something like 160 public releases of new Tinderbox versions so far; we’ll have plenty more.

One thing strikes me: a lot of promising systems that influence Tinderbox died not because their designers died, but because the large companies that acquired them thought that their short-term profits would be better if they discontinued the product. I think that’s clearly the case for:

  • Agenda
  • Chandler
  • ThinkTank

It’s also arguably true, at least in part, for:

  • NLS/Augment
  • Symbolics Document Examiner
  • LMI Gateway
  • The Xerox LISP Machines — Dandelion, Tiger, etc.
  • HyperCard

The documents themselves are an open book: any competent programmer can read them and build on them. Your data are yours.

(How many copies of Tinderbox are you planing to purchase, Norm? If you have a use for Tinderbox, you ought to be able to recover your investment in a week or two. Of course, if you’re equipping a thousand desks, that requires more time; if that’s your worry, I think we can work out an escrow deal that will please you.)


Thanks Greatly for the reply Mark! I would only be purchasing one license. I’m working on the humanitarian side of things in Thailand and so money, and the time investment to learn the software, are at a premium. I’m guessing the devoutness of the Tinderbox community speaks to the quality of the software; thanks for your hard work!

1 Like

I assume this refers to Mitch Kapor’s “Agenda” and not the extant McCormick/Griekspoor “Agenda”

1 Like

Yes, Lotus Agenda.

Hi Norman, this is a great question and, honestly, one that I’ve considered many times over the years. I always fall on the side of continuing my use of Tinderbox, and here is why.

  1. Tinderbox is built on open standards; my data is always accessible, you can rt. mouse click on a Tinderbox file, and it will open up in a text editor. You’ll see all your “data” in a well-formatted, early-understood XML structure. As @eastgate notes, any semi-competent program can strip out your data for you to use elsewhere.
  2. Learning Tinderbox is more about learning how my mind works, about fundamental computing, and the relationship that tools have with each other; this is a bit more arcane, but as I started to “learn” Tinderbox, what I eventually figured out was that I was learning
  • data management, data transformation, data inclusion, metacognition, incremental formalization, the relationships that can be made between data;
  • coding markdown, HTML, CSS, RegEx, JSON, XML, linux, command line, Unicode; in other words; I’ve been learning the fundamentals of computing
  • a host of new tools that I’ve not come to rely on: Pandoc, TextSniper, TextExpander, DEVONthink, Bartender, Setapp, Keyboard Maestro, macOS, BBEdit, and so many more
  • project management
  • communication
  • diversity
  • problem-solving
  • debugging
  • the nature of different tools and their edges, the overlaps
  • how to teach
  • how to take notes and improve my writing
  • how to embrace gratitude and abundance
  1. The community: this is far and above the best community I’ve ever been involved with It is simply amazing…in fact, many of the community members have become very close friends (some of whom I’ve actually flown overseas to meet in person with them).
  2. Focusing on Gratitude and Abundance,

Hi Michael. Thanks so much for the helpful post. In my journey to find a tool to help with the thinking process, I’ve narrowed my choices down to 2, Obsidian and Tinderbox (Notes connected to mindmaps is the big selling feature for me). Currently, I have been thinking that my workflow would probably incorporate both tools, but the reason for choosing Tinderbox is that my impression is the software is more developed as a thinking tool than is Obsidian; thus in the long run it would save me time.

Your post gave me pause though in that it suggests Tinderbox will require a significant uplift to be useful. Obsidian seems pretty extensible, so much so that I have considered the idea that I could purchase Mark’s Book, “The Tinderbox Way” and then try to implement many of the features in Obsidian (I have a background in Web App programming so I’m familiar enough with scripting languages). But ulitmately, I thought it was worth the extra money to buy Tinderbox and put those man hours toward other productive ventures. However, now I’m wondering how much time Tinderbox will save me over Obsidian.

It’s hard to evaluate tools without putting in significant man hours first so I’m trying to piggyback on others work/reseach. Do you have the time to provide a couple of bullet points to clarify how Tinderbox will either save me time over Obsidian, or has fundamental capabilities that cannot be mimicked in Obsidian. Please be unabashedly biased! I find polite argumentation to be a helpful tool in ascertaining finer points of understanding and clarity.

I realize this question is really a jump from my original question, and yet it follows from your response. I’m new here so I’m not sure if this should be it’s own post/topic.

Thanks for any help/advice you can provide!

I use both Tinderbox and Obsidian daily. As tends to be the case, both possess exclusive strengths.

In terms of advice, it would be impossible to offer without having a clear understanding of your workflow and use case(s).

Best suggestion is that you attend one of our weekly meetups, and bring some examples that we can help you solve. Failing that, post a detailed workflow question here.


This is a difficult question to answer, in anyway that might be useful for you, without knowing what you mean by “a tool to help with the thinking process”. If you can provide a more specific example of the problem(s) you are looking to use software to help with, then the community can provide better guidance.

It’s always about defining our problems and figuring out how to solve them. We cannot know “how Tinderbox will … save me time over Obsidian”, since we do not know that you want to do.

Yes, @satikusala is right that Tinderbox has a lot of features, but I don’t agree with the characterization that his answer suggests “a significant uplift”. It doesn’t. Tinderbox opens with a blank page. You take notes on the page. And then you begin to link notes. That leads to perhaps more ideas or insights or facts that you want to note – and you progress from there.

Some folks build really complicated models – with Tinderbox, with Obsidian, with pen and paper for that matter. But that doesn’t mean it’s a requirement to be complex.

So, again, tell us a specific problem example you might be looking for software to work on, and I think you’ll get more refined advice and answers.

And, of course, you can try Tinderbox for free, and you can try Obisidian for free, and spend 20 or 30 minutes with each and kick the tires. In the past 50 years I’ve never found any description of software actually tells me what spending 30 minutes with the real thing tells me.


I like the user interface in Tinderbox much more than that of Obsidian. What we saw on Sunday as an example is what I would call “information overload”. Obsidian structures the data (without further customization) very poorly for my taste - visually speaking. In Germany, there is a nice saying about the forest that you can’t see for the trees. The graph is supposed to “Visualize the relationships between your notes” - for me, that’s just for show. It looks fancy, but is hardly practical to use. Somehow Obsidian looks to me like a wiki for advanced users, but not like a tool for managing large amounts of data.
If Tinderbox supported multiple windows, my winner in this difficult comparison of the incomparable would be clear :wink:


Thanks Paul and Art for the replies! FWIW I have purchased the software and the book by Mark. I see the point you both were making in regard to a concrete example being helpful, and I’ll probably come back to the community the further I get into software. In trying to answer my own question I ran into 2 issues. 1) The demo version of Tinderbox is quite limited in the number of notes one can make. I tried mapping out a particular issue I was thinking through and quickly met the note limit and was unable to finish my demo. 2) I think there is a significant learning curve to Tinderbox (and Obsidian, though probably less) so that I don’t think I can answer my own question by just playing around with the software for a couple of hours; it would probably take a full work week or more. Time which is hard to afford, especially when trying to make a decision before Winterfest2023 ends :slight_smile:

Maybe I’ll try and come back to the forum and answer my own question in a few months (or years), but my very unclear question was meant more to focus on functional capability than any concrete problem. For example, I noticed that Tinderbox adds a lot of metadata to the links between notes which I don’t think Obsidian does. Off the cuff, I can’t think how I would program that into Obsidian. Contrarily, I do think I could mimic prototypes in Obsidian with some code (create a prototype property via the YAML header and then write a script which searches my Obsidian vault folder and performs the necessary updates). I do see though, that in this scenario, a concrete example can be helpful. For example, why would I care that my note links have metadata associated with them? A concrete example showing how one would take advantage of this functionality would be helpful in answering that question.

So how do I want/plan to use Obsidian and Tinderbox. I think that will develop more as I use the tools, but I’ll try to bullet point some things I’m hoping the software can help with.

  • I’lm looking for software to implement a sort of Zettlekasten work flow; I think Obsidian might be best for that because if I understand Tinderbox correctly, all Zettlekasten notes would need to be in one Tinderbox file, which, at my ingnorant state of understanding the software, doesn’t seem to be very practical or feasible.

  • I want a place to mind map certain notes and ideas to better visualize their inherent logical connections and help me evaluate the argumentation. For example, I was reading a book in which I’m pretty sure the author was actually self contraditing themself across the scope of their argument, but it was hard to keep all of the points in my mental memory at once to evaluate. I think something like a mind map could facilitate seeing the big picture and more readily evaluating where there might be flaws in the logic. I think Obsidian or Tinderbox could work here, but initially I’ll import book notes into Tinderbox and use it to do the mapping and evaluation.

  • I want a tool to help me map out my own logical connections (and holes/contradictions) between ideas and notes, and potentially develop an outline that would facilitate the writing process. I think I’ll use Tinderbox for this too as Obsidian’s outline functionality seems weaker (but I think I probably could make it work if I wanted to). This is an area of functionality that I’d be interested in hearing comments from those with more understanding than myself.

  • I think some of the writing I want to do will be short form blogs and other pieces will be long form. Potentially some instructional video content as well. It seems like either Obsidian or Tinderbox could facilitate these forms of output; but I don’t have enough experience to have the foresight in evaluating which one might functionally be better.

I know everyone is busy, so please do not feel compelled to answer any of these questions. But as I was watching youtube videos on Obsidian and Tinderbox (and reading documentation) I was trying to visualize and understand how one might use each tool to facilitate these outputs, and quite frankly, if Tinderbox provided something that Obsidian doesn’t which would justify the financial investment. I’ve taken the financial plunge now, so hopefully I’ll bear some fruit from it. Thanks everyone for all the feedback!

I’m not sure this is true.

First: how many zettels are you going to put in your kasten? If you’re making them yourself — taking notes as you read — you might add a few notes every day, or a thousand a year. That’s certainly manageable.

Second, your work might well have plausible seems that suggest separate kästen for your zettels. You might have one zettelkasten for your chemical research and a second one for your series of mystery novels set in 9th-century Aztlan. Sure, you might have cross-references between the two, but they’re probably not terribly common.

1 Like

Now you’ve taken the plunge, resist the urge to build every possible thing at once. Indeed, especially at start, use lots of throw-away documents. By that i mean a doc with just enough info/notes to test the something works before you add it to your real working document(s). This (a) gives more confidence that the solution works (as envisaged) and (b) avoids cruft and failed experiments clogging up your document. Indeed, the latter can also create false outcomes in things that otherwise work (i.e. you left an agent doing things and forgot about it, yet its effects are making some other process appear to work incorrectly).

Tests don’t have to be automation. It could be tinkering around in the map. How do I get on with colours? Are badges, flags, etc. useful to me. To what degree can I finesse layout of link lines? Are link types (which function as link labels in maps) useful? (You can hide them!), etc., etc.

Even though you aren’t limited to 20 notes now (at it seems youy’ve now got a licence), I’d suggest that the vast majority of tests can be run within that sort of limit, IOW still use small tests. As worked on data grows, the ‘cost’ of messing everything up grows. It’s not that Tinderbox makes that hard. Actually, it’s remarkably good at hat given its strong support for incremental formalisation (i.e. adding/back-filling addition structure/metadata as the need arises).

Still, I’d suggest it’s better not to tinker in one’s main work, as why give yourself the extra work of cleaning up a mistake you could have made with less effort in a small test file. Small tests make it so much easier to see what’s happening and to learn more quickly. I write that having learned to do so by not using tests—if only some one had told me when I first started using the app. But there’s more than one way to do things in Tinderbox, so feel free to ignore this! :slight_smile:


You’ve taken the plunge - welcome to the club! I am confident you’ll find Tinderbox worth your while (and your money).

As a start, watch this video: What is Tinderbox? on Vimeo It gives you an idea how the weekly meetup works - and many (different) use cases of participants.

And then, at your leisure, browse the countless videos @satikusala produced over a long time to address many topic of working with Tinderbox (with many interesting suggestions). The list of the videos is here: Training Videos - Tinderbox Forum

Enjoy! And come back to ask in the Forum if you have any questions.


A few points in response to your post:

  1. Tinderbox learning curve is actually quite elegant. One can use the app for years (in fact, many of us on the forum have done just this) without more than scratching the surface (arguably, most of us still just are lol); graduating to more complex use scenarios at a comfortable pace. In fact I’d say it’s relatively trivial to - based on watching a few of the videos referred to herein by @abusch - get started with a few notes, make some connections, build a mind-map, and annotate/formalize said map with text notes, reminders, Prototypes, and so on. More powerful abilities like Rules/Edicts, Agents, etc. can follow later.

  2. Tinderbox metadata - Obsidian also offers metadata - as you point out, via YAML front-end matter, properties, and so on - but Tinderbox’s metadata capabilities are light years ahead of Obsidian’s, and require little to no effort to setup and automate. You can for example set up your project so that a range of Notes can AUTOMATICALLY be imbued with properties such as dates, colors, size, shape, links to other Notes, etc., simply by feeding said Notes with Property/(Prototype) information, or even just creating Notes in specific locations within your project.
    The metadata is referred to in Tbx as “Attributes”, and said Attributes can be pre-defined by value, format, type, and so on in an incrementally granular fashion (either manually or programatically via Tbx’s scripting language, called “action code”). Furthermore, you can write Agents and Stamps that will filter and act on selected Notes based on the Attribute values you enter or automate-enter.

  3. Zettelkasten work-flow - arguably can be created in most any app that handles multiple Notes, including Apple Notes. Luhrman did his on cardstock. Tinderbox can certainly be molded into a zettel system that’s more complex than the original/s, with the added advantages of digital access/modification/append/programmability/etc. Yes, all related notes would require to be in a single project file - but that’s no different from an Obsidian vault. Tinderbox project files are xml, and simply a bound-together collection of your individual annotated Notes. Furthermore, as @eastgate indicates, the limits of said collections may be sufficient for your requirements, although only you can determine the line between a Note and a collection of thoughts within a single Note.

  4. Tinderbox excels at mapping logical connections, in fact I can’t offhand think of any equal. And you can not only use it for your writing process, but can tailor that process to a high degree (subject to your time investment).

  5. There are videos and meetups that directly address using Tinderbox for writing, blog posts, and the like. Look up @dmrogers’ blog - (which is entirely sourced and maintained in Tinderbox) as a working exemplar.

  6. We have a pretty good forum.


I’m still grieving the loss of HyperCard!

1 Like

Admin note: at the suggestion of forum members I’ve retitled this from its original title “The Longevity of Tinderbox: Is there a succession plan?” as the thread quickly moved to a more useful discussion about differences/similarities of Tinderbox and Obsidian how to understand them. To jump up-thread to where that starts, see here.


On that, I would also add that some Tinderbox users who are also using Obsidian have set up Watch Folders so as to be able to grab Obsidian (markdown) files, including any front-end matter, into their Tinderbox projects.


Watching a folder in Obsidian via File > Watch > Folder from Finder has limitations. Tinderbox does not parse the YAML front-end matter (i.e., “attributes” in Tinderbox-speak), nor is the file $Text kept updated when changes occur on the Obsidian side. (Disclaimer: no one said these are features, but some folks might understandably imagine they were.)

Watched files is a one-time-read-only event. Also, the recent addition in Obsidian of a “Properties” front-end panel to manage the YAML is buggy and frequently garbles the YAML.

Since the native Obsidian files are usually .md files, it’s better to just drag them into Tinderbox.


I believe that Tinderbox will update a document in a watched folder if the document has been modified after it was last fetched.

(later) And I think I’ve found why this wasn’t, in fact, occurring.