Penultimate 6.0 — A Handwritten Software Fiasco

Screenshot 2014-11-17 20.29.48I spent 30 years in the software development industry, leaving before I wrote a mobile app, alas. But the tale of Penultimate 6.0, Evernote’s latest revision to its only in-house handwriting input app for iOS, is a classic tale of software acquisition disaster.

I got heavily into the Evernote (EN) ecosystem in February. I got all of EN’s free apps for the iPad, and deleted most except for Evernote itself, and for Penultimate. It was a cool little hand-notetaking app, with a zoom-and-drift handwriting interface that was unique as far as I know. You zoomed in on your page, turned on drift, and the “paper” would scroll under your finger or stylus at your writing speed. Handwritten notes were easier to get into EN with Penultimate than by photographing a piece of paper, even the fancy Moleskine/Evernote notebooks. So, if I needed to handwrite and didn’t need/want real paper, Penultimate was a good tool. I have two other handwriting apps on my iPad, and have tried half a dozen more. I’ve used the others for special-purpose stuff, but I kept coming back to Penultimate for basic handwritten input. Still, I was always nervous — EN had bought Penultimate from its original developer, and hadn’t put a lot into updates. I was afraid it would be abandoned, like Evernote Hello.

No more. The Penultimate user community is up in arms over the unusable complete rewrite that Evernote unexpectedly foisted on us on Thursday 11/13/14.

Some of it is just quality assurance issues: Crashes. Pen response time lagging unusably. Glitches in drawn characters or objects. This is stuff that you’d expect from a major overhaul. If it were just that, I’d grit my teeth and wait.

But there’s more. No more drift adjusting itself to your writing speed — the major advantage of the the app (in my opinion) is just gone. Poof. No more landscape input, either. That’s a deal breaker for me, as well. I take my iPad out of landscape mode only under duress (i.e., to use an iPhone app or an insanely great iPad app. Penultimate was never insanely great, and now it’s just insane.)

A lot of people are also complaining about the removal of pages within the notebooks — now a notebook is just a long scroll of scribbling rather than a paged book. This one doesn’t surprise me, though. Those pages were never supported over in EN; they came over to EN as a series of images — not even numbered images. Now you just get one long continuous image both in Penultimate and in EN. Yes, your handwriting is still scanned and put through OCR and indexed, but it doesn’t help much in a long notebook.

I never depended on that, though. I kept my Penultimate notebooks short, sensing after 30 years’ experience that if a software company doesn’t support a feature in its premier product, it won’t last long in auxiliary ones.

As well, you can’t store your work in Penultimate any more; you have to use EN to save your work. Folks who had notes only in Penultimate found that those notes were — just gone. Again, I am not surprised — EN is in the web services business, not the app business. If something doesn’t cause people to use their web service, it serves no purpose for EN. I feel for the stand-alone users who lost all their notes, but… well… it was inevitable. EN does not make money from you storing your work on your iPad alone. Still, EN could have warned its users that stand-alone notes were going away. They didn’t.

I’ve come out of the whole business pretty clean; I managed to re-install the old Penultimate, convert all my notes to PDFs, and upload them in that form to EN. I’m now playing with other handwriting apps, and mourning the zoom-and-drift writing feature. I have two handwriting apps — Notability and Noteshelf — that will let me upload to EN. Notability has the better interface, but Noteshelf has tighter integration to EN. I may spend another few bucks and try GoodNotes as well, even though I was unimpressed back in 2013 when I gave its free version a try.


—– Update 11/18/14 12:30 PM. I’ve settled on Noteshelf for its tighter Evernote integration. Noteshelf notes go to Evernote as images rather than as a PDF, which is the only option in Notability. Also, if I make changes to a note, Noteshelf will update that note automatically in Evernote; with Notability a changed note goes to Evernote as a new note and I have to go back through and cull versions by hand.

I’ll also be investigating (cringe) Microsoft OneNote. If it’s even available for iOS (I don’t know) maybe it’s worth a shot. It’s hard to trust a company that is, bluntly, ignoring customers’ data loss issues.

—– Update 11/19/14 11:41 AM. I did a little digging on Google and LinkedIn. It is as I suspected: the original developer of Penultimate left Evernote’s employ in July, just over two years from Evernote’s acquisition of Penultimate. Now, I don’t know this happened, but I saw it go down three times as an employee of acquired software companies:

  • Original developer gets two-year contract as part of the acquisition deal.
  • Original developer and new owners see the future of the software differently.
  • Original developer leaves acquiring company as soon as he legally and decently can.
  • Several months after the developer’s departure, a new “version” of the software is released, containing not one line of the old software’s code.

If this scenario is the one that has gone down at Evernote, then the old incarnation of Penultimate is dead, dead, dead. Evernote will never revise it, nor re-release it as an alternative. There may be legal issues; there are almost certainly technical issues that the current development staff don’t understand and can’t ask the old developer about any more. They may re-develop some elements of the old software (and probably will, given the outcry) but not one hexadecimal digit of old Penultimate will ever be re-used.

Too bad.

—– Update 11/21/14 10:15 AM
Evernote issued a handsome apology on 11/19/14. To me, though, it was significant that

  1. Penultimate 5 isn’t coming back despite the unusable update.
  2. Data loss is still being awkwardly ignored.

I still like the Evernote cloud service, and nothing has been lost or compromised from their cloud, but at this point I don’t trust their app development process. If I can use a third party app to do what an Evernote app does, I will.


GTD: Last Post (For a While)

I may come back to GTD later, but for now I think I’ve got my system:

  • Evernote. Records not unlike the ones I used to have with Franklin Planner reside here. All my one-off tasks live here. My notebook and tag system is derived from The Secret Weapon, but somewhat simpler with respect to tasks. Also, I use other notebooks besides the three they recommend because I use Evernote to hold a lot of other stuff (like novel notes) that isn’t really addressed in TSW. My email clients all feed stuff to Evernote now.
  • Pocket Informant. This is my daily control center, on my iPad. It accesses my Evernote reminders, lets me add things to my “collection” and holds my daily checklists and periodic items. I used to try to make this act like Franklin Planner, recording postponements, delegations, and formal deletion of tasks, but now I do that in…
  • Notability. Also an iPad app, I paste a screenshot from PI into a new note here every morning. I can use all my old handwritten symbols from Franklin Planner, record how my time’s actually spent (if I’m that ambitious), take daily notes, again handwritten if need be. Or if I prefer. When I’ve finished the day and am planning tomorrow, I use the “open in” feature to put this record into Evernote with appropriate tags. It duplicates effort a little bit, marking off things on the Notability note as well as in PI, but not as much as I thought it would.

I use Evernote and PI on my Android phone, but it’s an emergency measure as my poor phone (ZTE Valet) is on the slow end of the smartphone spectrum. I’m much happier on the iPad. And I do weekly advance planning on my Mac, with Evernote, Mac Calendar, and web ToodleDo.

That’s it. We’ll see if it survives when my hyperfocus on GTD vanishes (as it will. It always does.)


I just attempted to read Getting Things Done by David Allen. Yes, that’s right, I’ve been looking at the Wikipedia article on GTD and the Evernote / GTD manifesto The Secret Weapon but I’d never read the source of the whole movement — a bit embarrassing. I’ll have to stay embarrassed, because I could not get through the book. I was hoping for an insight into how this might work a little better for me, but between the original GTD tome (what I could read of it) and The Secret Weapon, I’ve only managed to come up with one blazingly clear observation:

None of these people has ADD.

If they did, the Secret Weapon people would not casually speak of going back to their master list several times a day to pick up new things to do. They would not dismiss recurring events so casually as habits in formation. Mr. Allen would not talk about “mind like water” if he’d ever experienced Mind Like Teflon.

You know those times you’ve forgotten something? Something important? Have you ever dismissed ADD with statements such as, “Everyone forgets things. Everyone gets distracted. What’s so special?”

Several times an hour, I forget what it is that I’m trying to do. I’ll find myself on the stairs with no idea why I’m there. It takes me two to three hours to leave the house in the morning — I plan it into my schedule because I KNOW I’ll get distracted. If I have to leave faster something will be left undone — brushing my teeth, taking my aspirin, packing my lunch. I might pack my lunch and leave it behind on the kitchen counter. These are not “senior moments.” I find it bitterly amusing to hear an older person complaining about distractibility crap I’ve lived with all my freaking life.

To be successful, I need to limit my daily list of things to do to three to five simple items outside of routine. I need to have periodic but not daily routine things show up automatically somehow because I won’t remember them at all if I don’t do them daily. (Before I had electronic devices to do this, I had to try to put them on calendars. It wasn’t very effective.) I need a daily checklist so that I won’t forget, yes, things that have been nominal parts of my daily routine for years. Habits? I wish. I’m never sure if I’ve actually done something routine, or if I just thought about doing it, or maybe I remember doing it from last week.

These guys don’t deal with under focus. Neither do they deal with hyper focus, that state in which I cannot reduce my focus on a (probably irrelevant to my true goals) task or process. They don’t understand not being able to control the level of focus. They simply assume that once you’ve managed to figure out what you should be doing, you’ll get ‘er done.

Yeah, capturing everything I think about maybe doing is really valuable. But I need to boil it down to a real short list every day. I need to not go back and update that list during the day — the short list is challenging enough. And contexts? No, I’m not going to have a list for here, one for there, and another for everywhere. One list. Per day. Five items, tops. Daily checklists for routine stuff.

So. My implementation of (sort of) GTD. Evernote for one-off stuff and for collecting everything I think of to do. Pocket Informant on my iPad (synced to Toodledo, Evernote and my iCloud calendar) for my daily checklists and for periodic (monthly, biweekly, whatever) tasks. Everything shows up on my iPad in PI. I put an iPad screenshot of each finished day back into Evernote. If I have any other daily notes, I create them in PI for sync back to Evernote, or in Notability (if they need handwriting and/or a template) and email them to Evernote. So I have everything recorded in Evernote. On my Android phone (yes, Android. The horror!) I have the PI widget and the Evernote widget on the same page, showing me my entire system. On the Mac, Evernote and Toodledo on the web hold everything.

Now I need to simplify. Big time. Because right now, what I’ve got is far too complex to be sustainable for my distractible brain for any length of time. Suggestions are welcome.

Writers’ Tools, Revisited

I have been forced to re-think my toolkit while starting my revision process. During NaNoWriMo, story structure was something I would deal with… later. Now I find myself wrestling with a 50K bear, and tools I had put aside for November are making a reappearance.

I am old-fashioned enough to want a physical paper manuscript to mark up, but a recent shoulder injury made lugging a half-ream of paper to Starbucks impractical. So… I printed my manuscript in classic MS format to a PDF and then stored it in DropBox. I then marked up the PDF in Notability, stored it back to DropBox, and proceeded to kill a small tree by printing out that half-ream manuscript.

Now I have come to the point of wanting to be able to move my chunks of story around. While Scrivener lets one do this with relative ease, I found myself longing for the column mode of Index Card for iOS. So I re-installed that sucker, and now I have a timeline view of my novel, chapter by chapter.

I know, I know, theoretically I should have worked out the structure before spewing out 50K words. Doesn’t seem to work for me. Maybe as I get more practice at this it will be more helpful to do it first.

So, my list of post-NaNoWriMo tools so far:

  • Notability. (iOS) Very useful for marking up PDF docs as if they were on paper.
  • Index Card. (iOS) Great for working with structure — and the ordering of the chunks does get transferred back to Scrivener, although the hierarchy does not. So, I’ve started using this for outlining, and simply will not update Scrivener until I’m 90% done. It’s just not a tool for me to use to grind out word count.

And my toolkit would not be complete without…

  • Starbucks. (iOS) Sine qua non. Gotta get away from the house to write, most days. Where else can I get a chair and table for the day, free WiFi, and people to interact with/observe for $1.75? They even have coffee.
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