Please, @evernote, get some more discipline!

Once upon a time, there was this little company that developed a simple product that allowed people to take notes on a variety of platforms and have your notes synced in the cloud. People loved the service, and though it had quirks, the company was doing work on making the product better and there was hope.

Evernote’s been continuing to grow by leaps and bounds. People (including myself) love the service and find it an indispensable part of their lives. However, the quirks and other random issues that plague Evernote (though each are minor) are finding themselves getting less and less attention from the company as they continue trying to grow and tell the world about the different ways you can use Evernote. While Evernote is great for 90% of its users who aren’t yet using the full breadth of the service, as users continue to use Evernote their reliance on some of these (half baked) advanced features gets a quick reality check as they (and I) find that Evernote is full of little gotchas.

First, let’s talk performance. You might use Evernote on your machine and think I’m crazy, that Evernote runs just fine. Get back to me in a couple of years once you’ve grown to really rely on Evernote and you’ve got thousands of notes. You’ll be pretty upset at app performance. My machine is no slouch. It’s a 27″ i7 iMac with 12 gigs of RAM. My laptop is a 2.66 GHz i7 with an SSD in it. Those machines both scream, but when you throw my Evernote notebooks at them, you’ll quickly find that the apps stutter when they shouldn’t. Want to clear your search and view all notes? Sure, that’ll be a 3 second wait and the app will hang. Searching offers decent speed, but the app is less than responsive if you edit your search terms as the app struggles to live update. Switching between the “Account” notebooks and your “shared” notebooks? Not much of a hang, but an unsettling 0.5-1 second wait for it to switch. On a $2500 computer with eight logical processor cores, that’s a hell of a long time to wait for an app that is just managing some data to switch from one view to another.

And don’t get me started on sync performance. Evernote only syncs a couple notes per second on the desktop (the mobile version downloads headers a lot quicker; why the desktop version doesn’t take this approach I may never know) so if you are in a situation where you have a large volume of notes to sync at a given time (say, 30 or more), be prepared to wait. If you’re syncing on iOS, don’t be surprised if the app just gives up and crashes after it tries downloading the headers. Not to worry, just try it a few times an eventually the app will not crash on you (well, for awhile at least). In the iOS app, hangs are standard operating procedure. Even using the very fastest hardware Apple has to offer, Evernote for iOS can’t handle it.

I’m not giving Evernote an unduly hard time for choking on my vast amounts of data, either. They ought to be able to handle it, primarily because they make this implicit promise in their blog, podcasts and in their numerous profiles of Evernote users. And they advertise you as being able to upload up to a gigabyte of data per month. There exists a whole other application type that handles the same volume of data that exists in the form of these individual richly formatted documents that have different attributes attached to them that can be searched on. Oh, and this data is synced daily across multiple devices of mine and is even pushed to my phone in real time. Oh, and it doesn’t just come from me; it comes from millions of different senders. It’s email! If Evernote were an email client and it handled messages with the performance that the actual Evernote app handled my notes (which are essentially the same type of data), Evernote would have no users.

Supposing I could put the performance issues aside (not gonna happen, but still), the app itself remains full of awful quirks, which is a more polite word for bugs. Let me name a few:

  • If a note has a source URL, the Evernote app will truncate it on screen. If you right click and copy that URL, the truncated text gets copied, not the URL.
  • Sometimes, the formatting of a note will be inexplicably wrong (often an indentation that won’t go away) and it’s impossible to fix this without just finding the note’s source file in the Finder and editing the HTML of the note by hand to get rid of the offending formatting.
  • Non-alphanumeric characters are completely ignored in search. This is documented as the actual search functionality. Why? It makes Evernote a heap harder to use as a developer reference tool (especially back when I programmed in MUMPS)
  • Dragging and dropping an image in the Mac client is very hit and miss. You can’t drag and drop an image onto a file open dialog or a Browse button.

Then again, there are behavior quirks that can’t quite be described as bugs, but rather are just holes in the functionality of the application that really ought to not be there. For instance, Evernote advertises that you can share notebooks and give others access to edit the notes. That’s all well and good. You’d expect to be able to manipulate these shared notebooks in exactly the same ways that you could a note of your own. But you can’t. You can’t tag notes that were shared with you by someone else. You can’t create saved searches for these shared notebooks. It’s inexplicable why.

While i’m on the topic of holes in functionality, let me take a moment to discuss Evernote’s asinine feature parity situation. I’m sure I’m missing a lot of things (partially because I’ve never even touched the Evernote clients for some platforms) but a few instances are listed:

  • You can take iSight notes on OS X, but not Windows (and not on any mobile client I know of)
  • You can take handwriting notes in Windows, but not OS X or any mobile platform (except for HTC’s custom notes app that integrates into Evernote which, by the way, is a third party app that blows out of the water anything Evernote’s ever produced)
  • Up until very recently, you could check off to-dos in mobile apps, but you couldn’t create them. I’m really glad that’s been fixed.
  • On any given mobile platform your ability to do things to shared notes is severely limited compared to the (also limited) desktop client. As of recently you can share notebooks in iOS in addition to accessing shared notebooks.
  • Skitch is only available for Android and iPad, and the Mac.
  • Evernote Clearly is only available for Chrome and as of very recently, Firefox.
  • Safari users usually have to wait a few extra months to get extensions like a native Evernote extension and Evernote Clearly.
  • Evernote Hello and Evernote Food are only available for iPhone.
  • Evernote Peek is only available for iPad.
  • You can’t geotag notes on your Mac despite there existing location services allowing for it.
  • You can do rich text editing on Windows, OS X and web, but you don’t have access to all the HTML features that can be displayed.
  • You can do rich text editing on most of the mobile devices, sort of. Depending on the platform you using you get about half of the tools available to you on the desktop.

This is just a small sampling of the feature fragmentation Evernote suffers from, and I’ll give Evernote credit where credit is due; several of the things I was thinking of have recently been addressed (even some in the list), but it’s happening far too slowly.

If you’re trying to use some specific piece of functionality and you’re wondering whether you’ll be able to do it on another device or platform, it’s a total toss up. To Evernote’s credit, they do a good job of implementing OS specific features when offered, such as how WP7 lets you actually do background note sync (I believe Android’s version of Evernote handles this as well).

I’ll be the first to say I love new features (in fact, I’m probably more demanding of new features than most users), and I’ll also be the first to say that it’s a hell of a lot of work to try to keep feature parity between so many disparate platforms (because I used to be involved with that kind of thing), but Evernote’s a few years old and they should be seasoned pros at this now, and if they aren’t, then it’s time for them to tap into that funding they have to hire really expert talent who can solve this problem for them. It’s no longer okay for them to act like this is some new phenomenon they’re experiencing.

Evernote is all too aware of all of the above issues, and if you ever listen to any of their podcast episodes you might dismiss me as a hypercritical lunatic who just needs to wait a few months for these little issues to get sorted out, because they readily admit that they have these issues and mention that they want them fixed too, and they sanguinely mention that we can expect to see some fixes/improvements soon. That would be reassuring, except the reality is that this mystical “few months from now” (or other vague mention of an ETA) never seems to arrive, and we only end up with an Evernote that has fixed too little, too late. And to add insult to injury, instead of beefing up their core product, they stretch themselves even thinner with new apps every month or so. Oh, you want better Evernote performance? Here, why don’t you use this new Evernote foodie app? What’s that you say? Shared notes behave really inconsistently with regular ones? Well, I’ve just got just the thing to fix it: a browser extension that removes distracting elements from web pages but isn’t that well integrated with Evernote; nobody’s ever done that before!

Worse yet, the longer I use Evernote, the more invested I become in it and the more expensive it will become for me to migrate to another solution. Sure, Evernote is adamant about making sure you always are in control of your data and indeed you can always export your Evernote notes to a custom XML format, but that’s pretty much like being given a toolbox for your car and being told “sure, you can fix the transmission yourself. Have at it!” I’m a developer and the amount of time it would take me to write something that could reliably convert my thousands of notes into notes that will work with another app is nontrivial; for a nonprogrammer it’s just not possible. Evernote’s attitude about this in general is quite sanguine. You tell them you want them to fix a longstanding bug and they’re all like “yeah, we’d love that too.” Well, then fucking implement it! That’s what my $45 per year goes to.

The tons of little quirks were forgivable back in 2008, when Evernote was this cute little startup that everyone loved and had just gotten funding and was in the midst of trying to grow. Problem is, Evernote’s a grown up now, complete with $70 million in funding, lots of staff, profitability, and all that jazz, but they still treat these issues coming to their attention with this cavalier attitude that isn’t excusable for a company with as many millions of active users as it has.

So please, Phil Libin, instead of your cute statement on how you’re more focused on the other 7 billion people on earth, why don’t you give a little TLC to the 20 million people whose business you worked so hard to get? The other 7 billion people are as neglected by you as they can possibly be.

PS: you don’t hear me complaining about OneNote. Know why? Microsoft is too busy worrying about the implications of a Mac version of what’s now PC-only to concern themselves with making money selling a Mac version of OneNote.

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