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Wikipedia defines a mind map as "a picture that represents semantic connections between portions of learned material." Instead of a linear approach, where you write a bunch of stuff in no particular order on a piece of scrap paper, a mind map organizes ideas from a central theme into a tree-like branch structure, sort of like a table of contents but much more fluid and dynamic in that the map "folds" and can also be linked in non-linear ways. The general premise of mindmapping software is that it will help you to organize, link, and integrate thoughts. Mind mapping software can be used for brainstorming and conceptualization, where you've got ideas you need to put down, structure, expand and connect.
FreeMind is a Java application; you need to be running Java 1.4. It's available for Windows, Mac OS X, and *nix platforms with simple installers (a .exe for Windows, and on *nix, freemind.sh). The core documentation is readable in a mind map format, so right from the get go you can be exposed to this different way of looking at ideas. I'm used to simple README-type documentation, so it probably took me longer to scan the FreeMind docs to figure out what I was supposed to be doing than it should have. The File Mode on FreeMind allows you view any local folder structure as a basic mind map as well (though I'm not sure why you'd want to do that).
One the most daunting things I face everyday is a blank screen that needs to be filled with content. I'm used to just spewing a jumble of thoughts into a text editor (or the aforementioned scraps of paper that I never can find) and then afterwards starting the process of organizing those thoughts and ideas into a structure that makes sense for whatever project I'm working on. With FreeMind, the process forces you by the very nature of how the mind map is created to connect your ideas as part of the process.
FreeMind starts with the same blank screen that a text editor starts with, so if you haven't got anything in your mind it's not going to automagically provide you with inspiration.
Adding content is a simple matter of having a start point (root) and then adding branches and then nodes. A reasonable array of style and formatting tools is part of FreeMind so your mind map doesn't need to look like an org chart or simple table of contents. These styles range from the simple "fork" (much like a dash) and bubble to a full-blown "cloud" that can engulf the style of an entire branch of your map. A map can also include local or external links and can import data from other sources (e.g. from other mind maps or directories on your local hard drive). The mind map also "folds," which is a fancy term for expandable (and contractible) menus, or in this case tree/branch structures.
FreeMind includes an Export to HTML feature, which essentially turns your mind map into a standard hierarchical text structure. If you want to preserve all the hard work you've done and show and share the mind map that you've created on the Web, you should use instead the FreeMind-browser applet, a separate download, which allows your maps to be shown in all their glory. You cannot edit the mind map through the browser applet, however.
FreeMind currently lacks the ability to export a mind map in an image format, and doesn't have a direct mechanism to print PDF files either. Perhaps most seriously though, FreeMind does not have any undo functionality.
>From a practical point of view, FreeMind does allow you to try out a different way to structure and visualize content, which for some may be interesting in and of itself. By visualizing your content and its various connections in a fluid way you may be able to gain a better grasp of it all.
However, it's important to note that FreeMind is not a content creator. It does not integrate with any sort of project management or code versioning (CVS) tool. It also currently does not have any sort of permission- based Web-editable map functionality, which makes Web collaboration on a FreeMind map using FreeMind tools impossible.
Though the FreeMind project shows promise, it is definitely lacking in a number of critical areas. There are a few other open source mind mapping application out there, but none of them compare favorably to FreeMind. If you're willing to open your mind to non-free software, there's always the commercial mainstay Mind Manager, which claims to integrate well with other office productivity tools and project management applications.
Of course if you really want to free your mind, you could always seek out a pointy-eared humanoid and suggest a mind meld.