Evernote, the universal notebook

Everyone knows Evernote is great for note taking, but what else are notebooks for? Specifically, for writers? That’s right, drafts. And with Evernote, I can compose both articles and fiction on any device: locked down work PC, desktop at home, netbook, Windows Mobile and yes, even my iPod Touch.

I wrote my first novel, Between Heaven and Hell, almost entirely in longhand in a paper day planner, typing the pages in at night when I got home. In large part, it was this experience that led me to my focus over the last decade on technology for mobile writing.

As computing moves into the cloud and more of us have multiple computers to use throughout the day, I’ve been looking for a solution for not so much as mobile writing as ubiquitous writing. The ability to access the projects I’m working on or jot down new ideas any time, anywhere. And the center of my system is Evernote.

If you haven’t seen Evernote before, it’s a multiplatform note taking and retrieval application. You can use it on the web, on Windows (installed or portable), on the Mac, on the iPhone, Windows Mobile and a mobile web version for other phones. The data all syncs to the cloud, so what you save in place shows up everywhere else. You can organize your notes in multiple notebooks, and each note can also be tagged with keywords. And of course, you can search for any aspect of a note, from contents to date modified. (Notes even have fields to store your GPS coordinates from when you created them.)

Obviously, this is boon for writers when it comes to research. But what I’ve discovered is that it works just as well for writing copy itself. Every article I write for my blog, and every chapter of novels I write, begin as notes in Evernote. They all live in my “Writing” notebook, with blog entries tagged with “JeffKirvin.net” and chapters tagged with the name of the book they’re a part of. Then I just start typing.

I’ve found that I prefer the various dedicated clients to the web version, just for speed. I use the portable Windows version running off a thumbdrive at the office, installed Windows clients on my netbook and home PC, and I have Evernote installed on both my Windows Mobile-based Touch Pro and on my iPod Touch. Stuff that I’m currently working on is tagged with “!QuickAccess” so I can just search on that tag and see everything at once.

On the iPod Touch, I have to be mindful that on that device I won’t always have an active internet connection, meaning I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to pull notes down from the cloud. Mobile clients don’t store everything locally and sync the way the desktop clients do. They basically just provide a faster interface to your web-based notes. But the exception is that on the iPhone and iPod Touch, you can mark individual notes as “favorites” (they get a little star) and those notes will be locally cached on the device for offline access. So I make sure every time I access something on my QuickAccess list on the iPod that I star it as a favorite.

There is one catch I feel I should mention. On both the iPhone and Windows Mobile clients, you can view any note you want, but you can only edit plain text notes. Any rich formatting– italics, bold, changing the font– will make the note read-only on the mobile device. Since I’m using this for drafts, not presentation, this doesn’t really affect me much. I write everything in plain text and then add formatting only when I copy the text into either Word (for fiction) or Live Writer (for blogging). But I thought it warranted a mention just to save people some of my initial confusion.

If you want the capability to write anywhere you have a PC or a phone, no matter what it is, Evernote might just be the tool for you. I breathe a lot easier knowing that not only is all my writing automatically backed up to the cloud, but that I can get to it, add to it and edit it from wherever I may be.

Pick your ecosystem carefully

There are shaping up to be four big ecosystems in computing. As all four diversify into the categories below, I’m noticing that a lot of users are standardizing on using everything from a single vendor, a siloing of the market rather than embracing variety. You can do nearly everything you need to do with offerings from any one of them, and they tend to work better if you don’t mix and match. But is it really possible to put all your eggs in one basket?

Microsoft

Operating System

Windows

Web Browser

Internet Explorer

Email

Microsoft Outlook/Live Mail

Instant Messaging

Live Messenger

Photo Albums

Live Photo Albums

Search Engine

Live Search

Office Suite

Microsoft Office

Synchronization/Cloud Storage

Live Mesh/Live Sync

Blogging

Live Writer

Home Theater

Windows Media Center

Phone Platform

Windows Mobile

Portable Media

Zune

Media Management

Windows Media/Zune

Console Gaming

Xbox

Microsoft has, by far, the best selection of the bunch, with every single category I could think of covered. They have gone out of their way to provide solutions for the office, living room and on the go. Some of the options here aren’t best-in-class (though I’d say the Zune is better than the iPod classic and IE 8 can give Firefox and Chrome a run for their money if you give it chance), but they all work. And more importantly, they all work together. If you use the software and services listed above, they interoperate cleanly and efficiently, exactly the way conventional wisdom says Microsoft doesn’t do. The biggest problem Microsoft has is the snarky haters who have their minds made up and won’t give them a break.

Google

Operating System

 

Web Browser

Google Chrome

Email

Gmail

Instant Messaging

Google Talk

Photo Albums

Picasa

Search Engine

Google

Office Suite

Google Docs

Synchronization/Cloud Storage

Google Docs

Blogging

Blogger

Home Theater

 

Phone Platform

Android

Portable Media

 

Media Management

 

Console Gaming

 

Google has a lot of gaps in their ecosystem offerings, but they make up for it with even better integration than Microsoft. Once you start using one Google product (Gmail seems to be the most popular "gateway drug" aside from search itself), it’s all too easy to start using the rest. But where Google wins in interoperability, they lose in power. Google Docs, for example, is fine for light use, but most users wouldn’t think of using it to completely replace a more powerful desktop office suite. Google also lacks an OS and virtually any entertainment options. Even Google’s Android platform offers only the most basic media playback.

Apple

Operating System

OS/X

Web Browser

Safari

Email

Mail.app

Instant Messaging

iChat

Photo Albums

iPhoto

Search Engine

 

Office Suite

iWork

Synchronization/Cloud Storage

MobileMe

Blogging

 

Home Theater

Apple TV

Phone Platform

iPhone

Portable Media

iPod

Media Management

iTunes

Console Gaming

 

For Apple, interoperability is king, but it comes at the cost of choice. Apple’s offerings work seamlessly together, often appearing to be one organic system, but heaven help you if you need to replace one of them because it doesn’t entirely meet your needs. Their gaps are fairly minor, and the lock-in provided by iTunes over portable media and home theater offerings keeps a lot of users in their camp.

Linux/Open Source

Operating System

Linux

Web Browser

Mozilla Firefox

Email

Mozilla Thunderbird

Instant Messaging

Pidgin

Photo Albums

Varies by distro

Search Engine

 

Office Suite

OpenOffice/Sunbird

Synchronization/Cloud Storage

 

Blogging

WordPress

Home Theater

MythTV

Phone Platform

Linux

Portable Media

RockBox

Media Management

Mozilla Songbird

Console Gaming

 

The open source route is for the free spirits out there who so don’t want to be in thrall to one company that they’re willing to cobble together everything themselves, even when it doesn’t necessarily even try to work together. Think of these as the polar opposites to the Apple users. A lot of this stuff is build your own, but at least most of it doesn’t require you to compile it yourself anymore. It’s also so fragmented between different Linux distros (KDE and Gnome both have their own photo managers, and there are others as well if you don’t like those), that any kind of consensus-based interoperability is unlikely.

Conclusions, my ecosystem

I tried to stay within a single ecosystem, and my life would probably be easier if I did. But because of the various gaps or missing functionality, I’ve been forced to mix and match a bit, fully knowing that that would be up to me to find my own ways to makes the pieces interoperate.

Operating System

Windows Vista

Web Browser

Mozilla Firefox

Email

Microsoft Outlook

Instant Messaging

Google Talk

Photo Albums

Live Photo Album or Picasa

Search Engine

Google

Office Suite

Microsoft Office

Synchronization/Cloud Storage

Live Mesh

Blogging

OneNote/Word/Live Writer

Home Theater

Windows Media Center

Phone Platform

Windows Mobile

Portable Media

Windows Mobile

Media Management

Windows Media Player

Console Gaming

Xbox 360

Most of my ecosystem is based on Microsoft offerings, but I’ve swapped out a bit from the Google and Open Source stacks where appropriate. Firefox performs better on my netbook than IE 8, and the IE Tab plugin allows me to use the IE rendering engine when I need it. Google Talk is lighter and less noisy than Live Messenger, and I find Google’s search results a little bit more reliable than Live Search’s. My blogging solution is also a three-headed monster with some quick posts done in Live Writer but most of my blogging done in OneNote for early drafts, and then Word for posting. I’ve also bypassed Zune in favor of Windows Media Player and my Windows Mobile smartphone, but I know people that use both.

What are your choices? Do you stick mostly to a single vendor, or do you play the field?