Evernote: An app grows up

I am usually an early adopter of technology. If you were to ask my wife, in fact, she’ll tell you that I have a borderline obsession with exploring the latest gadget or gizmo. And if I find it in any way appealing, I will find a way to justify it being critical to my ongoing functioning and happiness. In this way, I have plowed through several laptops, numerous smartphones on four different platforms, five different tablet computers and more software than is probably healthy or sane for one person to actually use. And that’s just in the last four years or so.

Given this, it is perhaps somewhat surprising that I have had such an ambivalent relationship with Evernote over much of this period. I have been an Evernote user—in theory—for a number of years. I have had it installed in Windows, Mac, Windows Phone, Blackberry, Palm and iOS environments. I have had the same account throughout, and until last week it had grown to the massive total of four saved notes. So not the be-all and end-all of notebooks that its makers envisioned, then. At least, it has not been for me.

It could probably be argued that I am exactly the target market that the creators of Evernote had in mind when they built the software. I read voraciously, file with something bordering on obsessive compulsivity and value having pretty much all of my information at my fingertips pretty much all the time. This would explain, in part, the compulsive lurching from laptop to laptop and tablet to tablet. Throughout the last few years, I have been searching for a variety of different solutions by which to capture, retain and make available the various bits of ephemera and snippets of data that orbit my universe. Evernote has, until recently, never been that solution.

There has, in fact, been no one single solution. I have journal databases in my email, various note-taking applications, something north of eleven email accounts that are actively used for capturing and archiving various bits of data, multiple file-sharing applications, and my own personal FTP server. Not to mention password software on pretty much every platform that I use. The result, at the best of times, is barely managed chaos held together with lashings of redundancy. At the worst of times it is a nightmare of exploring various likely storage places, both physical and virtual, to find what I am looking for—or heading back to Google to start searching for something all over again.

In this time, Evernote has matured as an application. In fact, it has grown up into an entirely impressive eco-system.

My cautions in using Evernote at the outset were numerous. I have a latent mistrust of the cloud, and prefer that I maintain some level of physical control over my data—particularly if I view it as being critically important. The idea of a free-form, open, shared database in the cloud struck me as a little too impermanent, on two levels. Firstly, what control did I have over the storage and integrity of the data that I put into Evernote? And secondly, what happened to my data, and my sanity, if Evernote the organization, like many internet companies before it, went out of business or just got bored?

Of course, many other software applications have disappeared on me in the past, just as I have come to rely on them. Way back in the dark ages of technology, I used a different free-form database called Lotus Agenda. It was brilliant, powerful and complex; and like many other Lotus applications, only a select few people actually got what it did. It disappeared ages ago. For a while, I used a piece of shareware developed by an Australian organization, which also went out of business. After that, I started spreading the love, as it were. Another interpretation would be that in my software proclivities I became downright promiscuous.

And so came the chaotic last few years of trying to stay organized. I used AwesomeNote on the iPhone for tracking and managing a few things. I employed Mindjet mind-mapping software for planning. A journal database in Lotus Notes collected corporate information. To-dos are scattered across multiple Moleskine notebooks, my email task list and a separate activity tracking application. I tried several note-taking packages for the iPad, but abandoned them because ultimately the iPad has no stylus, and writing with my finger tip just feels weird.

In this time, Evernote has matured enormously, and grown exponentially in popularity. It’s still free of charge to a point, with a paid service that allows increased storage allowances, handwriting recognition, searches within PDFs and the ability to monitor and access historical versions of notes. Evernote bought Penultimate, one of the better iPad note taking apps. And they have partnered with Moleskine to create a special notebook that allows you to snap a picture of a page with your phone’s camera and have the text automatically scanned and converted to text. Given my near-fetishistic love for Moleskine notebooks, this was pretty awesome.

The software itself has evolved considerably as well. In particular, Evernote has improved significantly in how they allow you to capture, sort, store and search information in your notebooks:

  • You can have up to 250 notebooks, each of which can be stacked into collections.
  • The Evernote web clipper works in just about any browser, and allows you to grab and file web pages, images, articles and attachments from web sites directly into any notebook you choose.
  • A personalized mail in email allows you to email yourself new notes, and the subject, email body and attachments are automatically filed in the notebook of your choice.
  • A comprehensive, hierarchical tag structure allows you to categorize notes in an infinite number of ways, meaning that you can quickly access notes on a topic regardless of which notebook it is in, and how many notes you may have.
  • Evernote’s geeks have developed a surprisingly rich and comprehensive search engine that allows you to search not just by keyword, but also by date, attachment type, location, tag and source web site.

Many of the insights I have gained into the value of Evernote I owe to a wonderfully written e-book, by Evernote evangelist Brett Kelly. His book is part marketing tool, part training tool and part user manual. His book highlights what is possible within the software, and provides strategies and guidelines on how to use Evernote in a way that is efficient and effective. It provided me with insights about what was possible, and guidance on how to think about adapting Evernote to meet my needs.

The result is something that is wonderfully simple, and yet surprisingly complex. Evernote today offers the flexibility and accessibility that Lotus Agenda originally promised, in a much easier to use, infinitely more accessible, ubiquitous and Internet-aware package. I think that I may have finally found the solution to my filing needs, in something that I think could be viable for the long haul. In the last week, my Evernote account has exploded from four notes to about 400, and counting, as I consolidate the disparate bits of information for their various accounts, folders and files into a single, simple, delightfully accessible place.

I have my organizing tool. I have taken the plunge. And I am wondering what took me so long.

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