Evernote has been around for almost exactly a decade. (Here’s proof: a story I wrote when the very first version launched.) But it’s been a long time since the service, which now has more than 100 million users, positioned itself as being a mere note-taking app.
In recent years its CEO, Phil Libin, has defined its goal as being a “Nike for the mind“–something which helps smart people keep getting smarter, maybe in ways which they didn’t know they could achieve. He famously says that the vision is big enough to keep the company busy for at least the next century.
As lofty as that talk is, a pretty high percentage of Evernote’s features have still been centered around saving notes, audio files, images, and web clippings for future reference. But during his keynote at the company’s annual Evernote Conference in San Francisco this morning, Libin talked about Evernote as “a workspace for your life’s work.” And he announced an array of new features, some of which take it far beyond its origins as a digital shoebox.
Most of Evernote’s additions aren’t quite ready yet. They’ll roll out in the weeks to come, and include (but are not limited to) the following:
Fancier presentation features. Onstage, Libin bashed PowerPoint for turning every meeting into a pitch. An update to Evernote’s existing presentation mode is designed to let workers share ideas in what he called “a more respectful” manner–ideas based on items stored in Evernote, of course.
Work Chat. Libin also slammed email, calling it a “a list of things you’re already behind on, sorted in the wrong order.” Evernote hopes to give businesses a better collaborative tool in the form of Work Chat, a new instant messaging system which will be built into all of its apps. It’s in the same ballpark as other team-oriented services such as Slack and HipChat, but is designed to make sharing the items you’ve stored in Evernote as easy as possible.
Context. This suite of new features uses artificial intelligence to present you with material related to whatever you’re working on–both items you’ve previously added to Evernote and relevant news articles from sources such as the Wall Street Journal, TechCrunch, Pando, Inc., and (hey!) Fast Company. If you use Evernote Business, the service’s group-oriented version, you’ll also see items which your coworkers have shared.
A major overhaul to Evernote’s browser-based version. On the web, Evernote has been very useful but a bit cluttered. The new version–which is available now as an opt-in choice–focuses on weeding out distractions. In fact, the main interface is a sea of white pixels, so you see almost nothing except what you’re typing. Everything else, like search, is hidden until you need it.
A scanner app. There are lots of smartphone apps out there which let you take photos of items such as receipts and dump them into Evernote. Scannable is Evernote’s own take on the idea; it also lets multiple people share the Evernote ScanSnap scanner which the company announced at last year’s conference.
In the past, Evernote has been a proponent of the now-trendy concept of unbundling–the notion that it’s better to build a portfolio of specialized apps (such as its Penultimate handwritten note-taker) than to cram too much stuff into one do-everything program. It certainly hasn’t abandoned unbundling, as shown by the launch of Scannable. But more so than at previous Evernote Conferences, much of what the company announced this year will live inside the Evernote app itself, in its myriad versions for PCs, phones, and tablets.
As a pretty committed Evernote user–I have more of my digital life stored there than any one other single place–all of these announcements leave me both excited and at least a tad concerned. Profoundly useful though the service is, it’s never quite felt like it’s nailed the best, simplest, most intuitive interface for what it does. (The fact that it has a habit of radically redoing its user interface on a regular basis is presumably an acknowledgement of that.) Adding more features will only make it tougher to keep Evernote coherent and approachable.
While every one of the new tools it unveiled sounds intriguing, making them all make sense inside one app isn’t going to be a cakewalk. The worst-case scenario–which I’m not predicting, but do fret about–would involve Evernote becoming an overcomplicated, Google Wave-like mess which got less and less appealing as it got more and more powerful.
After he’d finished his keynote, I asked Libin how the company decides when to roll out something new in standalone form (as in Scannable and Penultimate) and when to build it right into Evernote.
“We’ve been learning a lot about that,” he told me. “A separate app is good if it’s so simple that people will search for it and find it without having to understand what Evernote is.” For major features more core to the mission of making busy professionals more productive–such as Work Chat–the company thinks that it makes more sense to to incorporate them into Evernote itself, so users don’t end up having to careen between too many apps to get their work done.
Of course, collaborative tools such as Work Chat will only take off if Evernote is the sort of service which all the people in a team latch onto and do, indeed, put at the center of their workday. The service has always had plenty of raving fans for whom it’s a passion as much as a productivity tool. But I asked Libin about how it fares when a company pays for Evernote Business and expects newbies to commit to using it.
The challenge, Libin says, is to get new users past the initial hump of figuring the service out. The web-based version’s streamlined new interface is designed, in part, to make the service less intimidating, and will serve as a template for updates to other versions, starting with the next Mac version.
“Evernote is best when it’s explained to you by a friend,” Libin says. “We haven’t done a particularly good job of onboarding people…I signed up [for a test account] a year and a half ago and it was horrifying. It’s better now, but it needs to get better still.”