Google Keep – Modern Stickies

Stickies is that Mac app that you either ignore completely or use for everything. It has been on the Mac for a very long time, one of the few apps from the classic OS days that still ships with macOS today. It is one of those apps that is just there, rarely getting an update and never getting mentioned. And yet people love it because it serves a very specific need; they are quick notes that are easily glanceable.

Among the many downsides of Stickies.app is the inability to access them anywhere than one local Mac.1 It is a pure, old school, local only app. That may work, but it is far from ideal in today’s multi device world.

Enter Google Keep. Keep has been around for a while. It is one of those Google apps that gets a big announcement, and then you rarely hear from again. When it was announced a lot of people compared it to Evernote and listed it as a competitor. It isn’t. But it does make a very compelling modern replacement for Stickies.

Keep gives you a canvas of card-like notes. You can even color them in the colors commonly seen with physical sticky notes. It is on the web as well as iOS and Android, along with a curious ChromeOS app that breaks out of the browser for some reason.2

When I first tried Google Keep I threw a ton of data at it, and it quickly got overwhelming. There is a web clipper similar to most other note taking apps, but all it does is save a URL, unlike Evernote’s clipper that will attempt to grab the whole page.

Where Keep came in handy was for taking down a quick note that either needed to be referred to often, or that was a task that needed to be completed. For example, at work I will take down order numbers or repair invoices while I work on them. This makes it much easier to find when I need to. When I complete them, I archive the note. Like Gmail, Keep has a one button archive that removes the note from view, but keeps it around in case you ever need it again. If the text grows into more of a document, there is a one click option to make a Google Doc.

Another nice thing about Keep is that if you set a reminder on a note, it will also appear in Google Inbox and Google Calendar. This makes Keep a great choice for task related notes if you are invested in Google’s ecosystem.

My biggest complaint about Keep is that is lacks an API. This a bit of a disturbing trend I have noticed with Google, who used to be very good about allowing programmers to augment their products in interesting ways. It makes it impossible to use Keep with any of the automation apps on iOS, somewhat blunting the impact it could otherwise have.

Keep is useful for what it does. If you find yourself scribbling down notes on actual stickies, Keep may well serve a useful function for you. For the things I need quick, glanceable access too, it is much faster than Evernote. I never have more than 10 to 20 notes outside of the archive, and that seems to be the key to how it works best for me.

  1. They are stored in a database file in ~/Library that many people miss when backing up or transferring their data.
  2. ChromeOS does this sometimes. Why one app is a webpage and another is standalone is anyone’s guess.

The Apps that Replaced Evernote

After quitting Evernote I went off in search of the One True Evernote Replacement. Turns out there is no such thing. Or rather, I found that there shouldn’t be. I used Evernote much as the creators intended, as a repository of basically everything I could ever want to recall at a later date. While this has an advantage in that there is one unified place for everything, in practice there was a hidden cost. Actually using the data I had saved was becoming a burden. So rather than replace Evernote with a single app, I replaced it with four.

  • Google Keep: Short, frequently referred to notes, as well as tasks. Basically the modern replacement for Stickies.
  • Microsoft OneNote: The most Evernote-like of my new apps. This is where I take longer text notes, as well as clipping websites I intend to use often and/or annotate.
  • DEVONthink: This is an app I knew about but never used before. It ended up being a near perfect solution to “place where I save things that I may or may not ever need again”. Receipts, attachments, random screenshots, and most of all, web articles I am saving “just in case”.
  • Quiver: Specifically for code notes.

It is counterintuitive that four different apps would perform better and be more convenient than one, but it ends up working better in day to day use. Everything has its place, in an app optimized for that purpose. I will explore each of these solutions in detail in subsequent posts.

One question that you may ask is “Why not Apple Notes?” It is true that Apple Notes has gotten much, much better in recent years. And for most people I think it is the right solution. But that usually ends up a liability for me. Anything that is “right for almost everyone” tends to be wrong for someone as particular as I am. Notes is great, but the apps I ended up settling on are all better in ways that, though small, total up to being a more enjoyable experience. I am not knocking Notes or its capabilities, but it is not quite what I am looking for.

Goodbye Evernote

I am quitting Evernote, and this time it will be permanent. I have have given then the benefit of so many doubts that I honestly can’t remember the last time I was genuinely happy with the product. The level of mismanagement at this company is simply astounding. This week’s change to the privacy policy broke the camel’s back. I said over a year ago I would leave. I have given them much more time to sort things out than I said I would. Despite being in a hole so deep that sunlight can’t reach the bottom, they just kept digging and digging.

Somehow, at a moment when a large portion of the world is in a total panic over their digital privacy, Evernote thought it would be a good idea to opt everyone into letting their staff see our notes without our knowledge. Of course the CEO tried to explain away the change using the Silicon Valley version of “I’m sorry you were offended”. Then, after that didn’t quell the storm, they backtracked entirely. But it doesn’t matter. I no longer have any trust in the leadership at this company to do the right thing.

I stuck around through the product getting bloated and slow.

I stuck around through “Would you like to try Work Chat?”

I stuck around when they started selling socks.

I stuck around when they started inserting links to useless articles.

I stuck around when the jacked up the price with no new features or fixes.

I stuck around when they lost some of my data.

I could excuse a lot if the product got better. But it is slower than ever, to the point that I rarely even open the app on anything other than my MacBook Pro, and even there is painful. They ruined Skitch, which was a great app once upon a time. They don’t need to improve their machine learning. They need to improve the core app. But it seems this won’t be happening.

It pains me to leave. I have been using Evernote since day one of the App Store. I have been a paying user nearly that entire time. I taught classes on Evernote at Tekserve. But at some point you have to admit that the relationship no longer works and it is time to move on.

I expect that one day students in business school will study Evernote as an example of how startups can go horribly wrong.

As I type these words, I am running the Microsoft OneNote Import Tool to move all my notes over. Then I will delete each and every one from Evernote’s servers. And then the elephant will go to the trash.

Evernote’s Expiration Date

Since 2008, when the App Store first opened its doors, one app has consistently been on my home screen – Evernote. The combination of a great syncing service, a fabulous API, fantastic organization, and ubiquity across every platform you could imagine made them the note taking app. But as of late, things are not looking so good. They replaced their CEO, slashed jobs, and have generally seemed unfocused. But the biggest problem is that their core product has become a slow, bloated mess. And I am tired of it.

To give you an idea just how much an Evernote lover I am, at my old job I helped bring a whole group of people, some of them company directors, into the Evernote fold. I gave regular classes on the product and used it all the time as an example of an app that everyone had to try.

Early on the app was in a class of its own. But increasingly the note space is getting more crowded and the competition is getting better. Even the built in Apple Notes app has gone from a bit of an afterthought to a real contender in this space.

Increasingly I find I barely go into Evernote during the day. The mainstream problem is the incredibly poor performance I see these days on pretty much every platform. It’s slow to launch, slow to open a new note, and frequently locks up during use.

I can’t keep going with this. I am giving Evernote six more months before I seriously look at moving on to another platform. I have around 40,000 individual notes in Evernote so this will not be easy. I want to stay. But things need to change.

1. Focus on Performance
Let’s say Evernote is not running and I click or tap the icon. What I want is for it to immediately open and allow me to type. Yes, some of my notes are longer, but the majority of the time I just need to quickly jot something down. Right now the app opens and basically freezes while it syncs. Getting to a cursor where I can reasonably type sometimes takes over a minute. I have all but given up on quick notes in Evernote completely and usually just use TextEdit now, maybe transferring the text to Evernote later. This is not okay.

2. Stop Advertising Yourself
Work chat is not a compelling feature. Stop telling me about it. Stop reminding me the web clip can import PDFs. I have been a premium member for six years, I know.

3. Don’t be Word
Even Microsoft has figured out that note apps are not word processors. They need to be free form. The best feature of OneNote is the ability to throw the cursor anywhere and type. Evernote’s editor is too rigid, and causes content to not scale well going from the desktop to mobile versions.

If Evernote did just these three things it would at least stop the bleeding. Yes, it also needs innovation, but first they need to undo years of damages caused by an ever bloating and scattered product. Get back to basics and make it work as close to perfectly as possible, then figure out how to make better use of your considerable lead in this space.

Fixing Evernote

Phil Libin on the Evernote Blog:

Our new philosophy is to find every spot in our products where we’ve been forced to make a trade-off between doing what’s simple and doing what’s powerful, then rethink it so that the simplest approach is also the most powerful. We know we’ve found a good design for something when that conflict disappears. It feels like magic when that happens, and we’ll have several bits of magic in the coming months.

I would definitely welcome some simplicity and stability improvements to Evernote. It remains one of my favorite apps, but its often slow and crash-prone, especially when dealing with lots of notes attachments (which I have in abundance). I also hope they can settle on a design as the last three major revisions of the iOS app all look like they came from three different companies. One additional point of focus should be on fast note entry. I love Drafts, but I should not be required to use a third party app to take a quick note without waiting for the main app to sync. But as of right now, I do.

And if they pull this off, might be nice to lend some help to whomever is responsible for iTunes and iPhoto.