Evernote: The Journey from XP Tablet PC Edition to an Apple Design Award

After the excitement of the opening keynote at the annual WWDC, Apple always have something extra special for the best developers on OS X and iOS: the Apple Design Awards. Given to recognize apps that “raise the bar in design, technology, and innovation”, the Apple Design Awards typically go to beloved indie apps that are beautiful and go far beyond what other apps have before, especially with their UI. Letterpress winning a Design Award wasn’t much of a surprise, seeing as the game is already featured in ads and posters at Apple Stores. It, along with other popular iOS-only games and apps, seemed a shoo-in for the award.

What was, perhaps, more of a surprise was Evernote winning a Design Award for their Mac and iOS apps. Evernote’s hardly a new app, and is likely the most recognizable name for the public of all the apps that got a Design Award. But its apps today are so much better than before — speedier, beautiful design, and plenty of useful integrations — that it really shouldn’t be surprising that Evernote finally won an Apple Design Award. It’s been quite the journey for the notebook that’s so much more than just a notebook, one that’s cumulated with quite the amazing past half-year of app releases.

From XP Tablet PC Edition to the iPad

The original EverNote, complete with a Flash-based tutorial app

The original EverNote, complete with a Flash-based tutorial app

Evernote’s journey began before most of us were using touchscreens — when Macs still used PowerPC processors, and Windows XP was the most popular OS. It started in late 2004 with a spinoff of Parascript‘s Pen&Internet subsidiary (which had made, among other things, riteMail, an app for drawing emails rather than typing them). Its first order of business was releasing Evernote 1.0. Or rather, EverNote 1 and its sidekick, the $34.95 EverNote Plus that included handwriting and shape recognition. The first version was released to the public in mid-2005, and earned a 3.5/5 rating from PCMag, which noted that it worked well on Tablet PCs and was coming soon to Pocket PC and Palm OS. The Evernote team wasn’t a stranger to Apple — some of their team had developed software for the Newton back in the ’90’s — but Microsoft’s platforms were dominant enough that it only made sense for Evernote to focus on them.

Even from the start, Evernote was designed to help you remember everything. The notes originally styled as a continuous strip of paper, where you could store all your notes and easily find anything you’d ever written down — literally, with a stylus on a tablet PC — or clipped from the internet or other apps. It was a great idea, but one that didn’t make nearly as much sense when it was tied to a PC that you in all likelihood weren’t carrying around 24/7.

Fast-forward a few years, though, and the world of computing had totally changed. The iPhone was released in 2007, Macs had switched to Intel processors a year earlier and were gaining popularity (Windows Vista made switching even more appealing), and cloud storage was becoming more of a part of everyday life with Dropbox’ initial release in early 2008. It was against this backdrop that Evernote for Mac was launched as a fully native Mac app, designed from the ground-up to be a best-in-class Mac notes app. It had all the features you’d expect, and much of the functionality you’d find in Evernote today. Interestingly, Brett Terpstra noted then that Evernote was going to add a way to track all of your tasks, a prediction that wasn’t fulfilled until this year.

The Trying of Evernote’s Faith

Even as Evernote was firing all cylinders, though, there was an underlying problem: Evernote was running out of money, fast. By mid-2008, it was time to either raise money or call it quits. Evernote had been a freemium app all along, but instead of the original paid version Evernote had long-since switched to a subscription model — and that wasn’t bringing in enough to run the company yet. As Inc.com covered in their feature on Evernote when they named it Company of the Year in 2011, a 3AM email offering half a million dollars in funding saved the company just one day before they would have otherwise had to shut down.

Evernote: a functional ugly duckling

Money wasn’t a problem after that, but the service still had its challenges to overcome. Evernote tried to do everything, but — especially at first — it wasn’t always the best at anything. It could recognize text in images amazingly well, but didn’t give you a way to export the text it recognized (which everyone expected from an OCR app). It could store everything you threw at it, but didn’t make sense really as an app to store all your files. And, especially on the PC, it would slow to a crawl as your notes database grew, which made it not so useful for storing everything. Evernote had the features we needed, but it felt like a lumbering giant, even as it was still a startup.

Then, it added more features, through acquisitions and new apps. Evernote made their own iOS, Android, WebOS, Windows Phone, and even Blackberry, in addition to their Windows and Mac apps, browser extensions, and full-featured web app. They made extra apps like Evernote Peek to help you study on the iPad, Evernote Hello to help you remember people you meet, and Evernote Food to do the same for your favorite foods. They went on a buying spree, adding Penultimate and Skitch to their roost, and turning Readable into Evernote Clearly. It seemed Evernote was ever-growing, potentially making the service better for users, but at the same time making it more confusing with so many disparate apps and use cases.

The whole Evernote family

The whole Evernote family

Clarity Through Design

“About a year and half ago, we began to fundamentally shift our product thinking. We moved from focusing purely on features to becoming obsessive about the design and experience of everything we build. We’re on the right track, but there’s still tons of work left to do.”
Andrew Sinkov, Evernote

Today, over 50 million people use Evernote, it’s integrated into dozens of the best apps, and Apple chose Evernote as a 2013 Apple Design Award winner. Clearly, Evernote did something right since its crisis of faith.

The award-winning Evernote 5

The award-winning Evernote 5

And indeed it has. As the Evernote team mentioned in their blog post about receive the award, they’ve doubled-down on design over the past 18 months, and it’s shown. Their original focus on features was swapped for an obsessive focus on design, one that’s now readily apparent in their work. During that time period, they’ve shipped Evernote 5 for Mac, iOS, and Android, all with a beautiful new design and spiffy performance that makes notetaking fun and productive. It was such a break from Evernote’s old style that it surprised us all, and showed how much Evernote had matured. The redesigned menubar Quick Note tool on the Mac that came a few months later was enough to get me to switch back Evernote after having left it behind years back.

Adding beauty to complexity on iOS

Adding beauty to complexity on iOS

Not just that, but Evernote’s finally been able to pull together some of the loose ends and add features that they’d promised years back, like a better way to handle todos. The new Evernote Reminders is an obvious extension of the service that aims to help you remember everything, and it looks as good as it works. That’s the overriding theme in Evernote’s apps today: they look sharp, work exactly like you’d expect, and are fast enough to make taking and finding notes totally painless. Even with their acquired apps like Skitch, they’ve managed to turn around their lackluster attempts at new versions of the apps, turning them into apps that are still useful on their own or in the greater context of Evernote.

Having so many apps, even, doesn’t seem quite so crazy now, since it gets more useful when you can use your data in more ways. In our world of smartphones and tablets, Evernote finally makes sense where it never really could in the days of XP Tablet Edition. You can collect info from any app you want on your phone, tie together your web services and Evernote through tools like IFTTT, then easily sort through it all on a tablet or desktop. Login from the web, and all of your data is just a click away from any library on earth. Instead of it being painful to pore through all that data, Evernote’s search is accurate and fast enough that you’ll likely find anything you need in seconds even if you don’t faithfully use tags and notebooks. And most of us have found the balance between storing files that go with notes (like PDFs and scans of business cards) in Evernote, and using Dropbox or iCloud when they make more sense.

There was a method to Evernote’s madness, one that, like Apple’s, lands at the intersection of technology and design. Evernote today stores all of our stuff, makes it accessible everywhere, and looks great doing it. Unlike other services that come and go within a couple of years, Evernote is planning to stick around for the next century or longer — and of all startups, it likely has a good chance at doing that if it keeps improving this much over the coming years. It’s good enough now that it’s one app that you should give a second shot if you’ve tried and left it years ago. That’s more than a good enough reason for Apple to finally give their most prestigious recognition to the notebook app that does it all — and actually does quite the good job doing it all now.