Retreating Back to Simple Notes

Simplicity in computing.

A few months back, with Evernote spiraling downwards — both in terms of product offering and company — I had tried to switch over to Microsoft’s OneNote app. Out of all the Evernote alternatives, OneNote seemed to be the closest in terms of philosophy and feature set, with the right combination of Windows + Mac + iOS apps plus solid syncing infrastructure1.

Unhappily, after a few months of this workflow tweak I’ve all but given up on OneNote. This is where OneNote’s roots as an enterprise-level tool within a broad suite of productivity apps (i.e., Microsoft Office) comes at odds with personal use. Some of its design and product decisions have been more hinderance than utility:

  • Big, slow apps. OneNote tries to do a lot, and it’s evident in the expansive feature set for layout and attachments. For use cases where 90% consists of jotting down plain text, the added functionality actually gets in the way2.
  • Bloated notes model. OneNote uses Notebooks, tabs and pages to keep everything hierarchical and categorized, and in my use cases about two levels too complicated. This wouldn’t be completely terrible, except that switching between notebooks is agonizingly slow.
  • Aggressive session timeouts. Microsoft really wants its users to sign in, and makes sure that not a day goes by without a username/password session refresh. Worse, the app silently fails its sync if the session has expired locally, and the only way to tell is via an underwhelming banner on the edit pane. This routinely breaks integrations, both with share sheets in iOS and browser plugins on the desktop.

All of this culminates in a frictional user experience that is slow to use and, more importantly, unreliable due to the session expiration sync failures. The entire usage model of quick, synchronized notes across devices comes undone with these product designs.

So I’m on the lookout for another notes app, preferably one that’s popular enough to integrate with apps (sharesheets or directly) and supports simple image attachments, and can sync either through its own system or via something like Dropbox. I’m aware of Simplenote, Taskpaper, and Google Keep, but I’ve taking out Apple’s native Notes app for a spin and coming back lukewarm to the setup. Its main strength comes from being available natively across all of Apple’s products, and it’s simple enough that the apps are quick, while iCloud improvements have made syncing a mostly-reliable affair.

Time will tell whether this is the right long-term solution. Google has proven that its free-but-subsidized-with-other-business-lines products are susceptible to stagnation or shutdown, and while the Notes app is riding high as a core iOS feature for the past 2-3 iterations, there’s no indication that notes is a long-term strategic advantage for Apple, and hence continued investment is not guaranteed.

  1. Presumably, built off of Microsoft Azure.

  2. I know there’s a sweet spot for OneNote’s stylus-enabled written notes feature, but it seems to be targeted specifically for students in the classroom.

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