Business

To work well, your note-taking app needs to be nosy. Are you ready for that?

Like office suites, note-taking programs have evolved into an essential tool for anyone trying to be productive with a computer. I use Evernote and Google Keep for notes and reminders, and both have their individual strengths, but I’m struck by the flux in this category over the years. Why is it so hard to evolve a reliable platform for such a simple task?

Mission creep has killed more than a few programs, like my one-time favorite InfoSelect. Once a fast and intuitive helper, InfoSelect kept introducing features nobody needed, the low-point coming with the decision to fold in a word processor. I had quit using it long before this because I want a program that is not only straightforward but visually uncluttered.

Evernote has become cluttered indeed, emphasizing a hierarchical file structure and an interface that made using a physical notebook faster for me than working through its menus much of the time. But the latest signs are of a new push for simplicity, at least on the surface. The core idea: A continually refreshing set of features targeting each user, with the needed artificial intelligence techniques to run the show well hidden behind a straightforward interface

And that’s the key. How likely are you to pull this app up on your smartphone and use it? Evernote 8.0 for IOS is a promising sign, and so far I like what I see. Evernote on an iPhone now offers a simplified note creation platform, with nothing but a long button press to add audio notes, reminders or photos.

That too complicated initial home screen has become simplified, with the most recent notes shown in a list that is user configurable, so that you can adjust the size of note previews and make decisions about whether you want to see images in them. Notes are easy to filter by tags, with icons for sorting within easy reach. All the category hierarchies you can establish through individual ‘notebooks’ are still available but they don’t clutter the essential tasks.

That lack of clutter actually conceals the main story here. Just as Google and Apple are working to make devices learn from their users, dishing up the information when it’s needed and often without the user needing to ask for it, so Evernote may evolve into an everyday tool that understands the context of your notes and relates them to your life. After all, everyone who uses Evernote declares with each entry the things that are important to them.

So a next-generation note-taker should be able to see the connections between the different notes I make and the things I clip into Evernote from the Internet. More than a repository of saved paragraphs, it begins to relate what I’m saving with my calendar and to-do list. Maybe I can take a photo of a recipe and find its ingredients now populating my grocery list. Maybe notes on an ongoing project link automatically to an upcoming lecture mentioned in my mailbox.

Can Evernote do all this while keeping screen clutter minimal? It’s a worthy goal, but the company also contends with a recent user backlash owing to its new privacy policy, changes that had to be rolled back and explained. And the explanation is basically this: To do this kind of artificial intelligence wizardry, Evernote needs access to more of your information.

We make this same tradeoff all the time when we let Google Assistant, for example, know where we are and benefit from its mapping features, or when Siri pieces together our interests from the questions we ask. But people didn’t expect their note-taking software to get this nosy, and quite a few left Evernote because of it as well as changes to its pricing options.

Thus the question: Can Evernote become simple on the surface while getting richer underneath? And just as important: Can Evernote produce enough benefit from pooling our information to make us willing to make the same privacy bargain we make with Google and Apple? The answer is by no means certain, particularly for those of us whose usual reflex is privacy.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at gilster@mindspring.com.

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