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Using the Cloud for personal productivity with Evernote

I've just made a significant switch in one of the main tools I use for my own personal productivity which highlights a key trend for the industry and all of us - the personal cloud.  Whether it is for work or our personal lives we use desktop computers, laptops, mobile phones, media players and tablets and a lot of the time we need to get at the same stuff from each device.  For some time we've been used to setting up our smart phones so we can sync and access the same email as on the computer or the web, and the early adopters and geeky types have been sharing photos and documents too.  The personal cloud will make that easy and more pervasive for everyone.  

Let me explain more with the key tool that I use for all my writing, note taking, project documentation and capturing of ideas.  Since January 2005 I've been using what I believe is Microsoft's best and most undervalued product - OneNote.  OneNote is a free form note taking application with a user interface that looks like the Windows equivalent of a cool Moleskin notebook.  I can type, draw, insert pictures or make screen clippings and capture my thoughts in multiple notebooks.  Each notebook is organised in to sections by horizontal tabs across the top, and individual pages are tabbed vertically down the side. Each page is date and time stamped as I create it - in the days of paper note taking (and some like Euan still do that - from his latest newsletter he uses a Moleskin Squared Cahier and a mechanical pencil) I always used to envy those people who used notebooks that gave them a chronological view, but it was more important to me to file loose leaf by topic.  With OneNote I get both.  OneNote has far superior editing functionality for things like layout and tables compared to Microsoft Word, and can do really clever things like optical character reading of scanned images.  It's also a fantastic collaboration tool too.  If you've set up a notebook on your network or the web to be shared by a group of users, they can all work together simultaneously in real time.  OneNote shows you what each person is adding or changing as they type and, like a wiki, makes it easy for you to have one version with all the revision history rather than tracking the changes made to multiple versions of an emailed doc trapped in multiple inboxes - who's got the latest version?  By the way, exactly that same simultaneous, real time collaboration functionality is now available to anyone using Google Docs.  

What triggered me to look at alternatives was the need to use OneNote across multiple PCs and my iPad.  When a product called MobileNoter became available on the iPad a while back, which synced to my OneNote notepads via wifi or the cloud, that triggered my first iPad 1 purchase back in in 2010.  Microsoft have come out with their own OneNote version on the iPad now, but haven't yet bothered to create a Mac version.  I needed to share OneNote across two laptops and the iPad (as well as using cloud as my backup), and you can do that by upgrading to OneNote 2010 (I started on 2003 then upgraded to 2007) and using shared cloud storage like Microsoft's Skydrive, which gives you 25Gb of space for free.  By the way you could use alternatives like Dropbox, Box.net or Sugarsync.  I plan to do a comparison of these services in an upcoming article.  The cost of the upgrade and the work involved in set up made me look around and revisit a product I'd tried back in 2009 called Evernote.

Evernote is a free or premium web based note taking service which they say helps you "remember everything".   I can capture notes, screen clippings or save any web page I like.  I can snap photos (of white boards, flip charts, anything), save voice notes or video from my smart phone, android tablet or iPad. The key to Evernote's success is that it is available as a web app, a Windows Desktop client, a Mac client, a BlackBerry app, an Android app, an iPhone app and on iPad too.  There is no fiddly set up and sharing the right folders in Skydrive - I simply install the app on the particular device and log in to my account.  Everything syncs across all devices and the web without you needing to think about it.  For offline use, the free service allows sync of up to 500 notes.  If you go Premium for £31.99 a year that becomes unlimited and you get a big increase in the amount you can upload each month and more.  You'll end up using Evernote as your repository for anything you need to remember for later.

The Windows and Mac client's user interface has the list and detailed view "look" of an email client.  It's not as elegant as the Moleskin style OneNote, but it works.  I can store notes in notebooks and stacks of notebooks.  Each note is dated and time stamped and can even pick up the location where I'm creating it.  Each note can be tagged.  Tags are much more powerful than OneNote's tabbed sections.  Now I can tag the same note to appear in any section or topic I like.  Searching is incredibly fast and starts as I type.  Evernote does the OCR thing on scanned images reading text or even hand writing, but only for searching of that text, rather than the ability to copy it like in OneNote.  I can also email content in to Evernote and send from Twitter - great for forwarding an email with attached documents that's the starting point for a new project.  Notebooks can be shared with another user or made public.  Each note has an individual URL which you can use for sharing (and the other person doesn't need to have an Evernote account).  That's a particularly cool feature for connecting Evernote to other services.  I use Remember The Milk for personal task management.  RTM allows me to add a relevant URL to a task.  Now I can drop in an Evernote URL and connect alll of the relevant content and notes for that task or project directly from RTM.

In terms of actual writing, the note text editor isn't anywhere near as powerful as OneNote, but I can choose font, highlight, indent, use bullet points, numbered lists, todos and create tables.  It's got what I need for more than 95% of the time, so I'll live with those deficiencies and hope for future enhancements.  That's more than balanced by the extra flexibility, functions and access I get. Evernote has a large, growing and loyal user base, so the product is definitely evolving and the future looks solid.  There is a knowledge base, good documentation, how to videos, forums, and premium users get online chat support and faster answers through the online ticket system.  Conversion from OneNote is a breeze, provided you are on OneNote 2007 - there is a wizard which allows you to select which notebook and which sections to convert, and notes just get copied in to an Evernote notebook of the same name with the section converted to a tag and the creation date retained. I still have my chronological view, but I can add as many new tags as I want to make classification as easy or as complex as I need.

I've only been using Evernote for two weeks but I think it's awesome!  This is the way the personal cloud needs to work.  I can store all of my writing, ideas, project documentation, anything and get to it securely in a choice of ways from whichever device I'm using or anywhere I can get web access through a browser.  When I need to work offline on the PC or the iPad I can, and everything just syncs the next time I'm connected without me having to think about it.  Apple's iCloud covers the same concept across the Apple family of devices and iTunes, and it's going to be big!  You only have to look at the $1 billion investment Apple have made in their iDataCenter in Maiden, North Carolina. to see how serious they are about personal cloud.  It covers 500,000 square feet and a second one is planned alongside!  Evernote and iCloud show the way forward, but as well as access the vital component that so many software authors (coming out of the old world of conventional IT) don't pay enough attention to is the user experience of set up.  For the consumer or general business user, rather than the early adopter and geek, you need to to be able to sign up, download and just start using the service with all that technical stuff hidden underneath! 

If you're using Evernote, OneNote or some other personal cloud product, I'd love to hear from you.

A version of this article was first published on Fresh Business Thinking.