Evernote's quest to change the world through productivity software

It's much better when we work together.

In early October, Evernote CEO Phil Libin debuted new features designed to make the immensely popular note-taking software friendlier to the enterprise: Work Chat, Context and presentation mode.

This week, Evernote's 100 million users are finally getting access to all that good stuff (though you have to be a paying Evernote Premium or Evernote Business user to get Context and presentation mode). If you use Evernote on your mobile, you probably already have the relevant app update.

Work Chat adds a much-needed collaborative messaging element, and Context intelligently streams information from your past notes and outside sources like the Wall Street Journal and Fast Company magazine to silently and transparently feed you the information you need when you need it. There's also a presentation mode that takes notes and instantly makes them into a shiny, projector-ready meeting starter. 

These may seem like minor features or checkpoints on the road to Evernote's becoming a real enterprise-ready solution. But for Evernote as a company, these updates represent the first step on an almost religious crusade to break the bonds of skeuomorphism, reclaim productivity for the modern era and completely change the way people work -- and work together. 

At least, that's what it seems like, talking to Evernote Vice President of Marketing Andrew Sinkov. The real issue, he says, is that the way we work hasn't changed in many years. Google Docs may let you edit documents in the browser, but it just took the Microsoft Word model and shunted it to the cloud. Microsoft Word itself took the typewriter and duplicated its functionality.

Sure, there are layers and layers of complexity on top of it, but it's still reliant on the whole metaphor of your words as ink on paper, with margins and line widths and whatnot, even though people are printing less and viewing documents on their smartwhatevers more and more.

And PowerPoint? Come on. Most modern businesses have moved past the phase where they're reliant on an overhead projector with transparent overlays, and yet here we are pretending like it's still a relevant way to present information. 

"Who the hell remembers what a 'slide' is?" Sinkov questions.

No, he says, it's time to rethink the whole shebang and figure out where we went wrong. That means rethinking what role these tools we've chained ourselves to, as a productive workforce, play in our lives. 

"The role of technology is not, but should be, helping us work better," Sinkov says. 

This is where Evernote comes in. Context, in Evernote's feature list, as in life, is everything, and the most interesting of all the new features.

It's a passive way of surfacing other, relevant stuff via what Evernote refers to as "ambient intelligence." If I were writing this story about Evernote in Evernote (I'm not, but let's pretend I am), it would pop up in every story I've written about Evernote that I've put into the system, as well as all the stories my colleagues have written about Evernote, assuming we're on the same Evernote Business domain (we're not, but let's pretend we are), as well as all the stories that major media outlets have written about Evernote lately (no pretending necessary).

Context can't quite tell me every last detail about what I would need to know, in Evernote, as in life. But it would save me a lot of repeat work, especially when doing researching. As a side benefit, Sinkov says, it means that customers get increased awareness of who's working on what, since their content is surfaced alongside your own note. It's potentially a little creepy, but it's also kind of cool to know if you're the only one who's ever thought about whatever problem you're working on. 

Work Chat works similarly, where you can see who's working within which of your shared collaborative notes and drop them a line. Presentation mode allows for real-time collaboration in mid-presentation, making it as much a whiteboarding session that can be screen-shared across geographies as it is a formal sharing of data. 

"It makes a big company feel like a small company," Sinkov says. 

Since presentation mode takes notes and turns them into something shareable (I'm trying really hard not to refer to them as "slides"), it reduces preparation time and lets you share exactly what you'd like to share without having to worry about translating a long report into a short PowerPoint.  

Moreover, none of this hinges on printed reports, or even the possibility of printed reports. By breaking that relationship between "words" and "paper," which is harder than it sounds, it means you can do things like allow for presentations where font size can be changed on the fly, in mid-spiel. And since it's all mobile-native, it all looks good no matter what size screen you're viewing it on.

The challenge, as it is for so many startups, is scale. Evernote has a reputation as a note-taking product first and foremost, and getting enough people to think of it as a full collaborative productivity offering will take some work. The opportunity is huge, but the risk of straying too far from the central mission looms large. 

Still, 100 million users, running apps on every platform from desktop to web to every mobile operating system, is a good place to start. It's just hard to say for how many users this vision of a perfectly passive intelligent enterprise platform will resonate. But Evernote won't stop pushing for a better workplace, because the stakes are a better-connected world that works better together. 

"We know what kind of world we want to live in," Sinkov says. 

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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