The Great October 2020 Evernote Disaster, or Nimbus Notes Ascendant #amwriting

If you haven’t upgraded your Evernote apps lately, for the love of anything you hold sacred, don’t.

Evernote Logo
Don’t update this!

Evernote did it again.

What did they do—again? They completely re-wrote an app that was working fine and made it unusable, while losing features.

When did they do it before? Their handwriting note app, Penultimate, was re-written in 2014, rendering it almost unusable and losing some functionality permanently.

… And what have they done now? In October, they released completely rewritten versions of their primary Evernote client app for every supported platform (see Unlocking Evernote’s Future.)

iOS is unusable. It takes 20 minutes to display a (large) plain-text note. Mac is unusable. I can’t select more than 50 notes at a time (I have a database of 2200+ notes. No more than 50? Really?) The iOS version no longer has a widget. The iOS version also lost its Watch app. (Full disclosure: I don’t own an Apple Watch. But if I did, I’d be furious.)

If the history of Penultimate is any guide, the apps will actually be usable by about April 2021. But it may take longer. I can’t do without my writing research, my personal notes, my brain that long. And some functionality may never return.

Nimbus Notes logo
Consider switching to this (or anything besides Evernote, really.)

So I’m moving on. Enter Nimbus Notes. It’s fast. It has many of (old) Evernote’s features. It’s half the annual subscription price. It can import notes from Evernote, if you export them in .enex format.

The problem is that exporting Evernote notes in .enex format only happens in the Mac/PC Evernote apps. And at 50 notes at a time, exporting would take forever (see above.)

So I uninstalled the New Broken Mac Evernote, and went back through my Time Machine backups (you do use Time Machine on your Mac, don’t you?) and restored Old Working Mac Evernote. I’ve exported my notes, and will be building my Nimbus Notes database today. Expect a Nimbus Notes review soon.

Why Handwriting on the iPad? (Or why the loss of Penultimate bugged me.)

2015/01/img_2529.pngI’ve mentioned that I have had several handwriting apps on the iPad, but not how I use them, or perhaps more importantly, why.

Firstly, paper is my nemesis. It absorbs everything I want to keep track of into a formless mess, and then taunts me with the knowledge that what I want is in there, somewhere. My response has been to move to digital records as fast as my personal technology has permitted. I became accustomed to stylus input during several years when I used Palm OS devices. Handwritten documents just stick in my brain better than typed ones do. After I switched to an iPad, the lack of handwritten or drawn input was painful. I once sketched on my Palm, and used it for quick hand input when I wanted to take notes now and worry about accurate typing later. So, one of the first things I did after getting my iPad was to find some handwriting and sketching apps for the iPad and buy a cheap stylus.

The quick input function was taken care of nicely by MyScript Memo. I still use this free app from MyScript Labs for taking down contact info quickly. If I’m lucky I can even export my recognized scribbling as text. If not, then I can export as an image and type the information later. It launches fast and gets me writing (without having to watch what I’m doing) as quickly as finding a notepad and pen. But as a sketching app, it stinks. It doesn’t sample your strokes very often, so my drawing comes out jerky and angular (as does my handwriting.)

I’m not very demanding of digital sketching. Think sketchnoting–doodles and illustrations during meetings to augment written notes. If I want to do serious digital artwork, I go to my Mac and use GIMP. So while I’ve acquired iPad sketch apps such as Sketchbook Pro and the Adobe free apps, truthfully my handwritten note apps serve that purpose better for me.

In fact, with Evernote I don’t need much handwriting translated to typed characters. As long as I can get my scribbling into Evernote, it’s searchable, and for a lot of things that’s all I need. For these reasons, I had moved both my notetaking and my journal to Evernote’s Penultimate. Hence, the panic when Penultimate was trashed. I was looking at going back to paper journaling and paper notes to be photographed into Evernote; now, with Noteshelf, I can avoid that. It doesn’t matter how poor my writing is–Evernote will be able to recognize something, and I’ll be able to search. I can take the scribbled, illustrated, largely illegible to anyone but me, notes I prefer electronically and avoid paper altogether.

Handwriting recognition–using handwriting instead of typing, either on-screen or using a Bluetooth keyboard, has until now been a pipe dream for me. Apple was and remains opposed to pen input for iOS on principle, and did not support third-party on-screen keyboards until iOS 8. Even back in the “good old days” of Palm OS, my experience of handwriting recognition was negative. I had to learn a new handwritten alphabet, and even then the recognition process was far too error-prone. It was frustrating–I gave up and went back to typing. As far as recognition on my iPad went, the recognizing apps (other than the limited MyScript Memo) just didn’t fit my workflow.

Now with the advent of third-party on-screen keyboards for iOS, I can use handwriting anywhere, and with much better recognition than I ever got from Palm OS. My preference is WritePad for iPad, for its multi-word recognition and input. (I started out using PhatWare’s Penquills iPhone utility, but a very patient tech support person pointed out that on iPad, that third-party keyboard capability is available in WritePad. NOT WritePad Pro–and in plain WritePad, I must say it’s well-hidden.) I seldom need to hand-correct as usually the phrase I mean is one of the alternatives that WritePad offers. My writing is so horrid if I rush it, though, that I am more often erasing strokes because even I can’t read them. Or the words are as badly misspelled handwritten as typewritten. This causes amusing results when recognition tries to figure out what I just wrote (but hey, autocorrection for typing is just as amusing…)

So yes, I may end up returning to typing for long sessions of word production. It will likely be faster, simply because my net typing speed exceeds my net longhand speed even on paper, and recognition and its associated errors must slow handwriting down. But a stylus is much more portable than a Bluetooth keyboard, and can be used in situations where typing on the iPad screen with both hands isn’t practical (like in the driver’s seat of my car while I’m waiting for a customer.) And my longhand speed exceeds my one-finger typing speed under all circumstances.

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.

Blah.

—– 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.

Update: Novel Writing

HabitRPGAvatarFirst: I intend to finish my post series on “Scrivener v. iOS” Real Soon Now.

Meanwhile, friends, I thought I’d bring you up to date with how the novel writing goes.

Right now, it’s going quite well. That doesn’t mean that 2014 hasn’t brought challenges.

At the beginning of February, I came to the conclusion that if I continued with the non-progress I was making on “Leticia,” I was going to be dead before it was published. Said death would be hastened by my complete lack of exercise, poor diet, and extremely poor sleeping habits, not to mention spending more than eight hours per day playing video RPGs.

So I started from, not zero, but about negative fifteen on a scale of one to ten. I started February 2nd. I pulled together a pastiche of techniques I’ve learned over decades and often ignored. Artist’s Way, Franklin Planner, GTD, talking to friends (gasp!), and Seinfeld chains are some of the more prominent chunks. I also started using a variety of tools, including Penultimate, Pocket Informant, HabitRPG.com, Goal Streaks, and Evernote in no particular order.

Net result: I’ve written Morning Pages (from Artist’s Way) in Penultimate 21 of 25 days this month. That jump-started the whole process. I started using a light visor (which had lain gathering dust for nearly a year) to regulate my sleeping. I’ve cobbled together a Franklin Planner implementation out of Evernote and Pocket Informant. I’m sending all my “to-do” emails to Evernote, and anything else I think of to do, I snap a photo, and put it into Evernote. My novel notes now reside in Evernote (Scrivener has links to them). To work on something like a character sketch, I sync the relevant note to Pocket Informant with a reminder and date, edit the note right in PI, and check it off there.

But the true game changers were:

  1. Talking to a friend, who gave me the needed boot in the butt to make some effort to correct course in late January.
  2. Recording how I really spent my time, which I did for the first week of February.
  3. Making a concerted effort to implement Seinfeld Chains. (For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, Jerry Seinfeld famously attributed his success as a comic to marking each day he wrote a joke on a year-long calendar, and then not breaking the chain of marks.)

It seems silly, but the visual feedback of seeing those chains has really helped. I now have 9 days of exercise, 8 days of absolutely clean Paleo eating, and (hardest of all) 8 days of completing a tangible step towards publication.

It’s hard to be a tortoise — slow and steady. I’ve always been the hare, sprinting ahead (usually under fear of dire consequences,) and then burning out halfway to my goal. Moving ahead towards publication, I fight fear every time I take a step. Nonetheless, I will reach publication — by walking there, one day and one step at a time.