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 a Web page or any highlighted portion of a Web page, an e-mail, an image, an audio clip, or a literal text note. If you have the Windows or Mac version of Evernote installed on your computer, you can also create notes by clipping portions of stored files such as Word, Excel, and PDF documents. You can add text to your notes, tag them to make them easier to find later, e-mail them to yourself or others, and (if they were clipped from the Web) jump back to the place you originally found them. You can also create “notebooks” and drag your notes into them; for example, I’ve started a notebook for receipts from places like Amazon, and another for photos, and another for Web pages that give me ideas for future World Wide Wade columns.

The key feature that makes Evernote a must-have for digital wanderers is that it automatically synchronizes your notes and notebooks across all platforms. That means, for example, that you could have the Evernote client program running on your Windows computer at work and on your Mac at home, and every note you add from one computer will automatically be copied to the other. Likewise, every note you clip directly into Web-based version shows up on both the Windows and Mac clients; and all of your notes and notebooks reside permanently online, where you can access them from any Web browser, including phone-based browsers. Notes and notebooks are private by default, but if you want to share the contents of a notebook with friends or with the world at large, you can make it public, then direct visitors to it via its unique URL. (Here’s an example of a public Evernote notebook that ranks about 20 brew pubs in San Francisco.)

Searching Evernote for the word sidewalkAnother very nifty thing about Evernote is its optical character recognition (OCR) capability. The software can recognize words inside scanned images, snapshots, and PDFs and locate those words when you search for them. The practical import is that you can capture paper documents such as business cards, airline tickets, or travel receipts by scanning them, or just snapping a picture with your webcam or your camera phone; once you upload the images to Evernote, they’ll be searchable, just as if they were text documents. I’ve put this feature to the test, and it works amazingly well—see the screenshots here where I’ve searched my Evernote notes for words like “sidewalk” and “Shell.”

Searching Evernote for the word ShellBut what makes Evernote into true killer app, in my opinion, is the fact that the company has tailored special versions of the software that make it easier to create notes using your mobile devices. 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. You can browse your existing notes, or choose from four simple buttons that let you a) create a new text note, b) make a note by taking a snapshot using the iPhone’s built-in camera, c) make a note from a previously saved photo, or d) record an audio note. Each new note is uploaded straight to your online Evernote account and synchronized to your PC. (These uploads can take a while if you’re using the Evernote app on a first-generation iPhone, but they’re quite snappy if you’re within Wi-Fi range or if you have an iPhone 3G.)

The Evernote iPhone app makes me inordinately happy. It begins to bring to life a vision that I (and plenty of other people) have had for some time, of an always-on “information field” that surrounds us everywhere we go and helps us share our best ideas and discoveries with one another. As I put it in a 2005 feature article for Technology Review, this field would “enable people to both pull information about virtually anything from anywhere, at any time, and push their own ideas and personalities back onto the Internet—without ever having to sit down at a desktop computer.” I called this phenomenon “continuous computing,” and it was clear to me even then that a service like Evernote would have to be a key part of it.

The Evernote iPhone AppOf course, Evernote isn’t perfect. To my great frustration, the Mac version only works on Leopard, and the company says they have no plans to port it back to Tiger–so if you, like me, haven’t yet upgraded to OS X 10.5, you’re out of luck. You can’t edit notes from the iPhone, and you can’t create notes from Web pages that you find using the iPhone’s Safari browser (but that’s not Evernote’s fault—it’s because the iPhone doesn’t have a universal cut-and-paste function). And in one big respect, Evernote falls grievously short of a Leonardo-style notebook: you can’t alter or personalize the look of an Evernote notebook or the overall Evernote interface in any way. I’m sure many Evernote users would like to customize their notebooks, especially their public ones, the same way that some bloggers labor over the design of their blogs.

But I expect that some of these features will show up in future releases. After all, the public Web version of Evernote is only three weeks old, and the iPhone app is even newer than that.

Like so many other Web services these days, Evernote has a “freemium” business model. There’s a free, ad-supported version that allows you to store up to 40 megabytes of information per month. But if you start to use Evernote a lot, you’ll quickly exhaust that 40 megabytes, and you’ll want to upgrade to the premium version, which costs $5 per month or $45 per year and has a limit of 500 megabytes per month, with no ads to clutter up your notebooks. That’s enough for tens of thousands of text notes and Web clips, hundreds of low-resolution camera-phone photos, or about 130 high-resolution photos. With storage as cheap as it is these days, I wouldn’t be surprised if Evernote soon raised the premium limit to 1 gigabyte per month or more.

I think that if Leonardo were alive today, he’d still work out his important ideas on paper. But then he’d scan and upload each page to a central repository like Evernote, where they’d be safe for as long as the Web itself exists, and where he could search for what he needed without having to manually index or organize anything (always his weak point). The Web, in a sense, is one giant laboratory for thinking—and Evernote gives us each our own personal bench.

For a full list of my columns, check out the World Wide Wade Archive. You can also subscribe to the column via RSS or e-mail.

Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. 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?