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Evernote’s redesign is too little, too late

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When simplicity isn’t enough

Evernote redesigned its mobile app for iOS today, making it easier to capture new notes and search for existing ones. The company replaced its confounding black-on-green mobile design with classic black and white, and the result is an app that is faster and more pleasant to use. But while the company should be applauded for tackling some of its longest-standing product issues, Evernote’s biggest problems are more pressing than ever.

Still, it’s a good redesign. The centerpiece of the new app is a big green button that creates notes. Tap it and a new note opens instantly for you to begin typing. (In a nice touch, the cursor is placed in the body of the note instead of the title, saving you a step if you don’t want to title your note.) You can also long-press the button to create different kinds of notes: audio notes, photos, and reminders. It’s the fastest creation process Evernote has ever had.

Navigation has also been greatly simplified. A new notes tab lists your notes in reverse chronological order — an obvious feature that the company somehow missed for years. And search feels faster than ever, thanks to a new tab that also remembers your recent queries and any you have saved.

The result is an app that excels at the primary purpose of a notes app on your phone: jotting down text and finding it again when you need it. Unfortunately for Evernote, capture and search are solved problems on mobile phones. Open up the free Notes app on your iPhone and you’ll find a similarly straightforward note-taking experience, complete with one-tap note creation and a prominent search bar. Capture and search have become commodities in the app world, and the price for commodity apps usually hovers around zero.

Meanwhile, Evernote has spent the past year making itself more expensive. Prices for the premium version went up by as much as a third, and the company began charging for features that had previously been free. Most notably, free users can only synchronize their notes between two devices. Before, Evernote offered unlimited sync.

And maybe that would have been fine, had Evernote started giving users more for their money somewhere else. Certainly, it tried — the past few years found the company introducing experimental apps like Food and Hello, an enterprise communication tool named Work Chat, and a slideshow feature called Presentation Mode. There was a germ of a good idea in there: put all your stuff in Evernote, and Evernote will do smart, inventive things with it.

Unfortunately, Evernote never evolved into the streamlined external brain it promised to be. Instead, it became a latter-day Microsoft Office — a giant app, bloated with an ever-growing roster of features, few of which ever seemed to be used by more than 5 percent of users. Navigating the mobile and desktop apps could feel like finding your way through a maze — and the fact that Evernote built new interfaces for every platform didn’t help.

In this light, simplifying the mobile app seems like a good idea. Removing clutter from Evernote, or at least hiding it, could give the company a new foundation upon which to build.

The problem is that it took Evernote 18 months just to get its flagship app to the usability of Apple’s stock Notes app — and that’s the easy part. The company (along with seemingly every other company in Silicon Valley) has bet its future on artificial intelligence, and the idea that Evernote’s machine learning will do for you what 100 features buried inside the app would not.

Writing in Wired today, my former colleague David Pierce writes some about what could follow, according to Evernote. “Soon, you might be able to take a photo of a whiteboard after a meeting, stick it in Evernote, and the app will automatically pull out action items and add them to your to-do list,” Pierce writes. “Or maybe it’ll automatically file things into your Salesforce dashboard, saving you from endless paperwork.” Or maybe you’ll just jot a few words down and Evernote will accomplish your entire to-do list. That would be great!

In the meantime, the company is digging out of a disastrous privacy policy update that would have allowed employees to review your notes to improve the company’s machine learning. Evernote eventually reversed course, but the damage had been done. It was the last straw for me personally — I canceled my premium subscription and exported all my notes to a simpler, cheaper Evernote alternative named Bear.

Evernote deserves credit for improving one of its products for the first time in years. But today’s updates do nothing for users of its Mac, PC, Android, or web versions. And the company’s bumbling approach to machine learning and privacy inspires little confidence that AI will emerge as Evernote’s savior. I’m glad Evernote designed a better iPhone app. But the company may soon find that it was too little, too late.