A conversation with Phil Libin about EverNote’s new memex

In his 1945 Atlantic Monthly essay As We May Think, Vannevar Bush famously imagined the memex, a mechanism that would augment human memory. This idea of mental augmentation inspired Doug Engelbart, and we’ve been chasing the dream ever since. On this week’s Interviews with Innovators, Phil Libin discusses EverNote, a new software-plus-services offering that aims to become your memex.

Listeners may recall that Phil appeared on the show once before. In fact he was the first guest in this series. Then he was CEO of Corestreet, a company tackling the problem of large-scale credentials validation in really interesting ways. Now, as EverNote’s CEO, he’s tackling a very different problem. But although EverNote is an application for ordinary folks rather than for governments and major institutions, it raises its own set of scale issues. And not just in terms of scaling out numbers of users and quantities of storage. EverNote wants to scale in the dimension of time as well.

Like me, Phil’s a huge fan of the Long Now Foundation. When he says that EverNote wants to guarantee the integrity of the digital objects that you commit to it forever, he’s not kidding.

While it’s refreshing to see a Web 2.0 company taking this long view, Phil admits that addressing the forever challenge in a meaningful way is beyond the means of EverNote. I’d add that it’s beyond any individual organization, and will require a federation of players to hammer out not only technical standards, but also shared business arrangements.

That’s not going to happen anytime soon, but then EverNote isn’t currently making guarantees that sentimental memorabilia will be preserved for your great-grandchildren. Instead it wants to guarantee that you’ll have effective near-term use of operational memorabilia — key documents, and in particular photos from which it finds, extracts, and indexes text.

The idea with this photo feature is that you can take pictures of receipts, wine labels, magazine pages, or event posters, dump the pictures into EverNote, and then find the photos by searching for the text in them. EverNote’s secret sauce here is its ability to find text not only in high-res scans, but also in “crappy cellphone photos taken at an angle.”

As Phil points out, from EverNote’s perspective the world comes at its users in two modes. First, when they’re away from their computers and out in the world, usually with some kind of camera. Second, when they’re at their computers, in which case they can take clippings from the web, or forward email.

I’m in that second mode a lot, so we’ll see whether EverNote becomes another of the memory augmentation methods I already use. These include blogging, email, and social bookmarking. Each method serves a communication function but also provides a repository where I often stash things purely so I can find them later.

Here’s an interesting and counter-intuitive aspect of EverNote. Human memory degrades over time. Digital memories, however, not only retain full fidelity, they can actually improve over time. Faces that you can’t find in your EverNote archive today may become recognizable next month or next year.

That’s true not only for EverNote, of course, but also for any system to which we commit digital objects. Human augmentation is powerful magic. We’re only starting to realize what it can do for us. And, I should add, to us.

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21 thoughts on “A conversation with Phil Libin about EverNote’s new memex

  1. Thanks for this interview, Jon. This is a topic I’ve been working on myself, especially the picture format conversion given I’ve switched from Windows to OSX to Linux as my main computer. Mine is also mainly centered around all types of text. It includes photos but does not interpret them at all.

    Phil’s service would be good for me, but I just don’t trust having my most personal data in the cloud. Even if his company has good intentions for your data, so much can change over time and it may be “difficult” to wipe EverNote clean if you leave the service. We’ve seen that so many times in the last few years with Web 2.0 services.

    He also did not mention, but these days it almost goes without saying that your data would be searched to provide targeted advertising in the free version. I’m also not fond of this.

    Thanks again,
    paranoid mat

  2. Jon, I enjoyed listening to this interview. Did Phil follow up with you on providing a link that listeners can follow to get a trial version of the Evernote 3.0 beta?

  3. Another great interview, thanks Jon. I was impressed how you managed to return to the bigger picture question of how this sort of ecosystem could eventually work, without being too dismissive of their first step.

    Unfortunately I just don’t see this type of a system working — as we all become more and more aware of privacy issues, the targeted advertising model breaks down. Perhaps the “next big thing” goes to whoever figures out the next big business model beyond the ad supported web…

  4. John,
    Fantastic interview. I am so ready to start using EverNote. Even in it’s current form, it looks usable. I have a great memory for obscure commands and tech related stuff, but there are so many other kinds of information that I recall poorly.
    Thanks so much for the interview

  5. I’ve tried Evernote, impressed by what it can do, but fail to see myself actually using it. I suppose that is because I tend to “clip” items to share with others far more often keeping them mostly for my own archive purposes.

    Nice integration between the web and heavy client versions though, and perhaps I simply haven’t given it enough of a chance to take hold in my daily processes.

    Concerns of ownership/leakage shouldn’t be underrated either, although let’s not get carried away with paranoia either. The backup of a connection to an infocloud might be worth more than the risk of theft, in many cases. But to each his own!

  6. At the end of your podcast Phil said he would arrainge for about a thousand invites for your listeners. How can I get one?

    Love the series.

  7. John,

    Great interview. I’ve been using Outlook + blackberry for years for notes just for the universal sync. But Phil’s system looks like it’s going to beat that for sure. And teading through the TOS, it looks like I’ll still own what I put in there (unlike a lot of other Web 2.0 services).

    I’d also like one of those invites that you mentioned in the podcast if you could possibly arrange it.

  8. “Each method serves a communication function but also provides a repository where I often stash things purely so I can find them later.”

    How much of this do you ever retrieve? Is it of any use to save minutiae that may never be used or accessed ever again? I know storage is cheap but time is not, and keeping things to just to have them takes time, especially if you never look at it again.

  9. I was an early supporter of EverNote:


    I am no longer. Here’s why. Trust is the crucial element in long-run relationships. Data storage is a very long-run relationship.

    EverNote offered a free program for years. They implied this: “Trust us. You will be able to file and retrieve your data.” I trusted them.

    Then they removed the free download desktop version. This means — or seems to mean — that I cannot transfer the program to a new computer/hard disk. I will lose years of data. Those data are valuable to me. It cost time to assemble them.

    Option: I can upload years of my data to EverNote’s site. It’s free!

    Or I can switch to a premium service. “Only $5 a month.” This month. “Just keep increasing the value of your files. Keep uploading.”

    In short, “Trust us again. No more funny business from now on. We promise.”

    Had they left the desktop version 2.2 on line to download, I would have no complaint. They didn’t.

    Fool me once: shame on you. Fool me twice: shame on me.

  10. Gary,

    I don’t think that’s right.

    You can keep any amount of data, for free, locally, in the current versions of Evernote for both Windows and Mac. You don’t have to upload anything and you don’t have to pay anything. Just switch to the new version and import all of your 2.2 notes. Make your imported notebook “local” and nothing will get uploaded to our site.

    If you want to use the other benefits of the service, you can have a free account which restricts you to 40 megabytes of new, synchronized, notes per month, or pay $5 / month for a premium account. There is no limit to how many notes you can have synchronized, or how often you access them with the free account. So if you want to upload all of your past notes, just pay the $5 once and you’ll have everything synchronized. If you don’t care about synchronization and just want to keep everything on your local computer, you don’t have to pay at all.

    Hope this clears things up. Thanks for being a long-time user!

  11. On your site, we read:

    Accounts: In order to use Evernote you must create a FREE account, here.


    If I can click the Evernote clipper icon, and the note goes to Evernote 3 without going through your site, then I am convinced that Evernote 3 does not create a forced dependence on your site. Clipper works with Evernote 2.2 on a stand-alone basis.

    Your video specifically says that I must log in to your site to use clipper.


    Is the video incorrect? Is there another way?

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