Evernote’s New App Is More Than an Update—It’s a Reboot

Evernote rolled out an update to its iOS app today. Ordinarily, the company makes its big changes alongside new versions of iOS, or to make a splash with a new iPhone. (Turns out a great way to get new users is to be in Apple’s “works with our latest stuff” section of the App Store.) This time, there’s no magic to the day. It’s just Tuesday.

But you’d be wrong to think this isn’t a hugely important upgrade to Evernote. In fact, this random Tuesday is one of the most significant moments in the nine-year history of the company. Version 8.0 brings with it an entirely new design, a bunch of refinements to what had become a hopelessly overwrought service, and a renewed focus on what Evernote is actually for. It’s the fastest, cleanest app the company has ever released. It’s the culmination of more than a year of overdue under-the-hood work to make Evernote reliable, consistent, and future-proof. And it represents the beginning of a new era for the company, in which it will try to make the transition from a note-taking app to being the place you do your best thinking. And thanks to the latest in machine learning and artificial intelligence, a place that does some of the thinking for you.

Version 8.0 of an iOS app may not mean much to you, but it sure means a lot to Evernote.

Less Is More

When it first launched in the summer of 2008, Evernote was on the leading edge of the app revolution. (Disclosure: I did a small amount of freelance copywriting for Evernote way back in those early days.) The company saw early on that information overload was to be a primary problem of the internet age, and set out to build an “external brain” to help you keep track of everything you needed. Founder Stepan Pachikov dreamed up the app well before the iPhone existed, but it was mobile that made Evernote. It made it possible to take notes on your phone and then see them on your computer later, which sounds stupidly simple now but was mind-blowingly novel at the time. Evernote was one of the first freemium companies, and one of the first billion-dollar-valuation unicorns.

The whole goal of this redesign was to remove every possible step between you wanting to take a note, and that note appearing in Evernote.

Somewhere in there, though, the company lost its way. It started putting out needlessly niche products like Evernote Food, a recipe-collection app, and Evernote Peek, an inexplicably pointless app that offered trivia questions whenever you peeled open the corner of your iPad’s Smart Cover. It tried to kill email. It started selling fancy office furniture and hosting fancy conferences. Meanwhile, the core service was bloated, complicated, and just broken. Other note apps started to capitalize, releasing Evernote importers and promoting themselves solely on their advantages over Evernote. “Evernote is in deep trouble,” Business Insider wrote in 2015.

That’s what Chris O’Neill inherited when he became Evernote’s CEO in July of 2015, after spending a decade at Google. He was hired not to be a founding visionary but a functional manager, says Roelof Botha, a partner at venture-capital firm Sequoia Capital, which has invested in Evernote multiple times. “There’s one management style that works when you’re 10 people, another when you’re 50, and another one entirely when you’re a few hundred,” he says. Despite its mess, Evernote still had a big audience and a big brand. O’Neill’s job was to take a big thing and make it bigger.

The first thing he did was clean house: he stopped selling desk toys, and shut down Food, Hello, Clearly, Skitch, and other products. He laid off 47 people; 13 percent of the company. He raised Evernote’s prices, making it more expensive for power users. There was backlash at every turn, a run of “I’m quitting Evernote” Reddit posts and news articles. O’Neill is, at least in retrospect, unworried about all that. “We want to be a self-sustaining business,” he says, shrugging. “We want to make do with what we’ve got on our balance sheet. We owe it to our users, to our investors, and to each other here, to be around for a long time.” He says that for all the hemming and hawing, more people are paying than ever.

At the same time, O’Neill and his new executive team began an 18-month process of changing just about everything about Evernote. Engineers re-wrote the app’s syncing engine and moved all of the company’s data onto Google’s Cloud Platform. A small team started a project called Honeybee to make all of Evernote’s apps use more common code, rather than having to build every single feature all over again for every single platform. Users didn’t really see any of that, at least before today. But everyone at Evernote sees it as the invisible work that will let the company now do more visible things, more quickly. They even all use the same analogy, and do the same hand motions to describe it: an iceberg, mostly below the surface, just now starting to poke out.