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.
Faster, Faster, Faster
When the iOS app redesign project started in early 2016, O’Neill had a three-word mantra he used over and over: time to note. “The thing that drives me crazy about the product today is the friction,” he says. “I’m on a run, I have an idea. I have to stop, open an app, click more than two times.” Half the time the idea’s already gone. So his instruction was to remove every possible step between you wanting to take a note, and that note appearing in Evernote. “We’re not fundamentally changing what Evernote is,” says Kara Hodecker, Evernote’s design manager. “There are still notebooks, tags, and notes. But when we approached this redesign, we were like, I want to fix these big problems that exist.” The app needed to be easier to get around, less confusing for new users, and faster. Especially faster.
One of the knocks on Evernote has always been that it makes you think too much about notebooks and tags, organizing everything before you make anything. Now it’s simple, unless you don’t want it to be. You’re dropped into a list of all your notes, the most recent at the top. A big green button in the middle lets you add a new one. It’s easy to get to search, and to your most important notes. All the complicated stuff is still there, it’s just hidden now.
There are really two parts to what Evernote does: collection and recall. Taking notes and finding notes. On the note-taking side, the team is exploring ever faster ways to collect stuff. Voice is a big one, of course: O’Neill loves his Amazon Echo, and sees similar devices as a great way to make taking notes as easy as speaking them. And because Evernote is on Google’s Cloud, it’s able to take advantage of the best in speech-to-text technology.
But they’re also trying to make collection smarter and more automatic: what if you could just take a picture of a receipt or whiteboard, and Evernote would snag it and categorize it for you? Part of Evernote’s Honeybee project was about making the apps handle all kinds of files and formats—it shouldn’t matter whether you talk, type, draw, or photograph, Evernote should treat it all the same. “The note is not really just a way to capture text, in the way of traditional note-taking,” says Nate Fortin, Evernote’s vp of design. “It’s a modern-day replacement for the file, that’s more omnivorous and ubiquitous.”
The recall side is even more rich with possibility. What if you could search for your notes not by name or keyword, but context? “Show me notes with phone numbers from Friday when I was in Russian Hill.” O’Neill imagines a world in which your notes aren’t sorted by tag and notebook, but in an ever-changing mass of relevance to you. “If you have to search,” he says, “that’s a failure. We should just surface information just at the right time for you. We have enough signals in our notes and in context around us that we should be able to do that.”
Thanks to recent advancements in machine learning, computers are better than ever at finding connections between disparate things and categorizing them for easy retrieval. And for a company like Evernote, which asks users to dump anything and everything into the app, there’s huge upside in making things easier to find. “There aren’t enough people in the world willing to do the work, establish a system, and maintain it over time, to have the kind of impact we want,” Fortin says. “So that’s why we have to bring the system into play.” That’s especially true as contexts change, as people use Evernote less on desktops and phones and more on wearables and voice assistants.
Soon, you might be able to take a photo of a whiteboard after a meeting, stick it in Evernote, and the app will automatically pull out action items and add them to your to-do list. Or maybe it’ll automatically file things into your Salesforce dashboard, saving you from endless paperwork. “I trust Evernote with my most intimate information,” Botha says, “and Evernote has access to information that none of those other services do.” Evernote could be an assistant like Siri or Cortana, only instead of dumpster-diving through web results it would know exactly what you think is important, because you’ve already put it in Evernote.
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The backlash was swift and brutal. Among other things, the privacy updates made it sound as if some Evernote employee would now have license to simply open and read a user’s notes. Which O’Neill says repeatedly was never the case. But as with so many things over the last year and change, the company didn’t communicate well. “How we explained it was really poor,” O’Neill says. He followed up the announcement with a sort of mea-culpa blog post, then another rolling the changes back, and a third trying to explain the company’s thinking. Ultimately, he says he screwed up on two fronts: not clarifying why the machine-learning upside is worth the privacy tradeoff, and not making it opt-in. “The specific mistake we made was assuming people want that by default,” he says. This stuff seems to bother him a lot more than people complaining about prices.
Going forward, O’Neill says Evernote needs to be a much more transparent company. Maybe, he admits, it’s been too quiet in his time as CEO, and should have told people more about the boring-but-important work the team was doing. He conducted an impromptu Twitter poll at the end of last year, asking users what they wanted from Evernote. By and large, what they want is already coming. Telling them that is important. “We can not do enough to reinforce the notion that we are listening to folks,” he says. And he’s prioritized a few things, like offering more encryption option, as a result of the feedback. But now, he hopes, that’s all in the past. What comes next is Evernote finally starting to make obvious moves, new features and improvements people will actually see and feel. It starts with the iOS app, but it will quickly re-shape everything about the Evernote experience.
A lot has changed at Evernote in O’Neill’s tenure, but the company’s sense of its place in the world remains very much the same. “The vision is that society is laden with distraction,” O’Neill says. “We’re all distracted like hell these days. We have this vision of this uncluttered place where you can work on the ideas that will ultimately change the world.”
That’s a little lofty, both for your ideas and for Evernote. But to be fair, this is a company that has always talked about wanting to be a “hundred-year company,” one that doesn’t sell out to Facebook or just up and disappear one day. So lofty is part of the game. Not all is right at Evernote yet, and it’ll have to work hard to both win over new users and win back its old ones. But a faster, simpler, more understandable Evernote is a good place to start.