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Getting Organized with the Evernote 3.0 Beta

Evernote does much more than replace your sticky notes.

Joel P. Bruckenstein, 07/10/2008

As regular readers of this column know, I've long been a fan of Evernote. I first discussed Evernote here in September 2005, and I was so impressed with its functionality (as well as the fact that the base version was available at no charge) that I singled it our as the Software Product of 2005.

For those of you unfamiliar with Evernote, I was originally drawn to the product because at the time it offered a way of storing all of the little bits of information that didn't conveniently fit elsewhere. In many ways, Evernote attempts to address the same needs as OneNote, part of the Microsoft Office suite of products, but it does so with a unique interface.

Visually, Evernote appears to be an unlimited roll of paper similar to a cash register tape. On that tape you can create an unlimited number of little virtual notes, so they have the feel of sticky notes lined up vertically, one after the other. There is a difference between Evernote and sticky notes, though, in that Evernote allows you to create notes of any size, and it automatically categorizes and indexes them if you want it to. This means you can actually search or sort through notes in a second and find the one you wanted at a later date. (Try that with a stack of yellow sticky notes!) It also offers better security than paper sticky notes because it allows you to encrypt individual notes that contain sensitive information.

There were many more sophisticated capabilities built into the previous version of Evernote, but to summarize briefly, Evernote version 2.2 (the current version until 3.0 loses its beta status) allows you to create notes that include text, snapshots, Web clips, handwriting, and digital ink. You can then search through these using a number of different tools. In addition, Evernote 2.2 makes it easy to share content with others via e-mail or IM. What intrigues me about the Evernote 3.0 beta is a new, more-intuitive interface. In addition, it has capabilities that far exceed those of previous versions.

Introducing Version 3.0
Although Evernote has many capabilities, until recently I still thought of it and used it primarily as a note-taking program. I suspect that version 3.0 will significantly change the way people perceive and use Evernote. That's because Evernote can truly communicate across platforms, make data accessible from virtually anywhere, and it can synchronize your information if you want it to.

Now, when you sign up for a free account, you get an online version of the application that includes 40 MB of uploads per month. To give you come perspective, I'm told that 40 MB is enough to upload 20,000 text notes, 270 Web clips, 40 audio notes, and 11 "high resolution" photos. If that's not enough upload capability, for a very reasonable $45 per year (or $5 per month if you prefer to pay monthly) you can upgrade to a premium account, which entitles you to, among other things, 500 MB of uploads per month and premium technical support. In addition to the online version, there's a Windows version, a Mac version, and versions specifically designed for certain cell phones such as Windows Mobile phones and iPhones. You can use Evernote with virtually any phone that has e-mail or Web access, but the special versions generally make it easier to perform common tasks.

With all of this connectivity, Evernote CEO Phil Libin says he wants the application to "be your external brain." What does he mean by this? Let's look at a couple of examples.

In a recent article titled Making the Most of Your Business Cards. I suggested that many advisors might benefit from a business-card scanner, but what about those who only need to capture that sort of information occasionally, or those who want to capture that sort of information when they don't have their scanner with them?

Evernote can provide a solution. If you have your cell phone with you, you can take a photo of the business card and e-mail (or transfer the photo by some other means) to Evernote. Each online account holder is provided with a special e-mail address that automatically uploads e-mailed "notes" to the user's default notebook. The application will automatically analyze the image, recognize the text on the business card, and index that text for future retrieval. Later, when you want to recall the information from the business card, you can search by the person's name, company, etc., just as you would with an electronic rolodex or CRM system.

But wait, it gets even better. Some phones and camera equipment now include GPS tagging capabilities. If your phone or camera tags photos with this information, you can search by location as well as the more-traditional search terms. So, if you can't remember anything else about a contact, but you know you uploaded the image of the business card while on a business trip to Dallas, that bit of information should be enough to help you easily find what you are looking for, unless you uploaded many cards during the trip, in which case another identifier would help narrow the search.

Of course, if you have a portable scanner you can scan into Evernote, but if you don't, there are other alternatives. For example, if you are on the road and unexpectedly collect a number of business cards, you can use the webcam built into your laptop computer to capture the images and save them in Evernote. If your laptop has the desktop version of Evernote, you can save cards to the desktop version and synchronize them later with your Web version. If you don't have the desktop version, you can log on to your Evernote space online and save them there.

Evernote can lend itself to other creative uses. Let's say that you invite your best client out to dinner, and he mentions that he really enjoys the wine you are having with your meal. You can simply take a photo of the wine label, and when you want to send the client a gift, you can access the label and order him a bottle or two. Perhaps you are in a computer store and you notice a new laptop that appeals to you. You can take a photo of the description including the model number and the specs, and that information will be available to you when you need it.

Evernote can be used for more traditional note-taking and research, too. For example, I'm planning to be in Buenos Aires, Argentina soon, so I thought I'd note a few restaurants that I might want to try out. Using the optional Web clipper that I downloaded from the Evernote Web site, I simply highlighted what I wanted to copy, clicked the Web clipper icon that I installed on my browser's toolbar, and the information was immediately copied into my desktop version of Evernote. PAGEBREAK

Evernote automatically pasted the entries for La Bisteca and Sorrento del Puerto each in an individual note. It was smart enough to know that each entry was a restaurant review, that it related to Buenos Aires, and that the entries came from Frommers.com. In addition, it indexed each entry by restaurant name. Below the automatic tags that were printed in bold letters, I created a manual tag (Buenos Aires Restaurant) so that you could see the difference between the two. In practice, my manual tag would have been repetitious. Also notice that in the upper right of the note Evernote automatically provided a time stamp. In addition, since this note was created on my desktop software, it tells me that it has not yet been synchronized with the online version.

Later, I hit the synchronize button, and the application uploaded my entries from the desktop to my online Evernote storage place. When I arrive in Argentina, if I want to see my clippings, I can log on to my site with any Web browser, use the "tags" filter so that only entries tagged  "Buenos Aires Restaurant" are displayed, and all of my restaurant clippings will be displayed.

It should also be obvious that this same technique can be used for work-related matters. If you are out of the office and you see something you want to remember on the Web, rather than bookmarking it, use Evernote to save and index it.

Of course Evernote still excels at storing and later finding text notes. As was the case with previous versions, you can encrypt sensitive notes, so you can use Evernote to store passwords and account numbers. You can search my tags and attributes. You can also scroll through notes using the timeline, so if you know the approximate time a note was entered, it is easy to find. If there are specific searches you want to re-use, you can save the search parameters and use them over and over again. Also, like previous versions, if you have the ability to use virtual ink, with a Tablet PC for example, Evernote can recognize and index those too.

Finally, Evernote allows you to share your information with others. You can share information using e-mail, MSN, Skype and other IM services. You can export notes in HTML to another Web site. In addition, users of the Web version or the Mac version can make one or more of their notebooks public. When they do this, anyone who knows the URL of the notebook can view it online.

If you can get all of these capabilities using the free version, why should you pay for the premium edition? I think there are a number of good reasons. First of all, and perhaps most importantly, the paid version offers higher security. With the free version, you get a secure log on to your site, but not all traffic is encrypted. With the premium version traffic is encrypted, so if you plan to store any sensitive data online, the paid version is the way to go. PAGEBREAK

Upload limits are another reason to upgrade. Evernote does not charge for storage, but it limits the amount of new "stuff" that you can upload per month. Free accounts get 40 MB per month; paid accounts get 500 MB.PAGEBREAK

The paid version also features priority image recognition. This means that if you scan an image, and you want the program to find the text in an image and index it, paid users go to the head of the line. Now, under normal circumstances you are not going to upload something and search on it immediately, but when an upgrade to the recognition engine is installed, and the whole site is re-indexed, as it will be from time to time, the premium users will be upgraded first. If you make use of public notebooks, free users might see ads, paid users won't.

Are there any downsides? There are a few minor ones. Version 3.0 is still in beta, so one version or another is changing almost weekly; hopefully the changes are for the better. Since the developers are trying to build the best application they can for each platform, and since the upgrades to each come at different times, there are differences in the interfaces that can be confusing at first. For example, currently the Web version provides thumbnails of pictures while the Windows version does not. I have not tested the Mac version yet, but I'm told it has some snazzy features that the Windows version doesn't have yet.

There's always a chance that Evernote's model will not catch on and that you will not be able to store stuff online indefinitely, but since you can synchronize to the desktop version or back up your files, this is not too big of a worry.

After trying out the Evernote 3.0 beta I am convinced that this is one of the most useful free or inexpensive applications to hit the market in a while. Just about ever advisor and non-advisor I know today struggles with keeping information current and organized. I guarantee you that Evernote can help out in this regard even if you only use it to supplement whatever you are currently using.

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