Can Evernote Make You into a Digital Leonardo?

Historians believe that Leonardo da Vinci—one of my biggest heroes, if you hadn’t already guessed by reading my columns—filled about 30,000 notebook pages with his drawings, diagrams, discourses, and doodles. Only about 6,000 of those pages survive today, but what wondrous pages they are. Martin Kemp, a leading Leonardo biographer and visual historian at Oxford University, calls the notebooks Leonardo’s “laboratory for thinking.” No one, either before Leonardo or since, has “used paper so prodigally” or “covered the surface of pages with such an impetuous cascade of observations, visualized thoughts, brainstormed alternatives, theories, polemics, and debates,” Kemp asserts in his recent book Leonardo da Vinci: Experience, Experiment and Design.

A Leonardo notebook from 1505I can’t help wondering, though, whether a modern-day Leonardo would choose paper as the medium for externalizing his imagination. If you’re an artist or craftsman in a studio or an engineer at a project site, then grabbing a pencil and jotting something down on paper may still be the most expedient way to capture a thought. But if you’re reading Xconomy, then chances are that, like me, you’re some type of knowledge worker, and that, like me, you spend much of your day sitting at an Internet-connected computer, immersed in digitally stored ideas and information. And if you want to capture some of that digital information for later reference, then you need a digital tool to do it.

Until recently, though, there’s been no permanent place to organize all of the various kinds of digital materials we can now capture, from Web pages to photos to voice memos; no real Web 2.0 equivalent, in other words, for Leonardo’s notebooks or the commonplace books kept by numerous political and literary figures up to the 19th century. Believe me, I’ve been watching for years, and the closest approximations I’ve seen have been social bookmarking services such as Diigo, which lets you quickly store, highlight, annotate, tag, and search copies of important Web pages (for a deeper description see my April 11 column, “The Coolest Tools for Trawling & Tracking the Web.”). But Diigo and similar services can’t deal with e-mail, photos, or the other digital artifacts one might like to group together in one convenient place.

Evernote LogoBut finally, I think I’ve found a product that has the potential to evolve into a true online notebook. It’s called Evernote, and it’s been around for years as a Windows-only desktop application, but it has became vastly more useful over the past few months with the launch of a Web-based version as well as versions for Macintosh computers, Windows Mobile and Pocket PC devices, and iPhones. Evernote CEO Phil Libin (the former CEO of Cambridge, MA-based security company Corestreet) likes to call the product “your external brain,” but that’s a little grand—Jon Udell comes closer when he compares it Vannevar Bush’s 1945 vision of the Memex or “memory extender,” a prototype hypertext storage device, and it’s no insult when Ars Technica describes Evernote as a digital “shoebox,” recalling the places people used to hide all their old snapshots, gas receipts, concert tickets, and baseball cards.

Evernote does many, many things, but basically, it remembers stuff—hence the company’s clever elephant logo, with its ear folded down like a bookmark. I’ve only used the Web and iPhone interfaces, so I can’t tell you much about the Windows and Macintosh desktop clients. But they all work the same way, which is to say, as a repository for notes. A note, in Evernote, can consist of … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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3 responses to “Can Evernote Make You into a Digital Leonardo?”

  1. mattk says:

    “The new Evernote iPhone app, which became available last week when Apple rolled out the App Store as part of the 2.0 release of the iPhone firmware, is everything a mobile application should be—simple, elegant, and useful.”

    Another view from daringfireball on the iPhone version:

    “I can’t understand why anyone would deem an app in this state ready to ship.”

    Quite a difference, huh?