Workplace

How Evernote built its to-do list feature — and why it took a decade

After several tries and a total reinvention of the product, it works.

Evernote on a laptop and phone

The company is finally ready to roll out an early version of Evernote Tasks.

Photo: Evernote

Evernote has tried to build a to-do list feature before. A couple of times, actually. In 2011, then-CEO Phil Libin said "to-do lists are coming," and that what he actually wanted to build was an app that helped people do stuff, not just keep a list of stuff needing to get done. When Chris O'Neill took over, he carried on the vision. "If you have to search, that's a failure," he said in 2017. "We should just surface information just at the right time for you."

The point is, the big idea for Evernote Tasks hasn't changed in more than a decade. For users who put all their information, all their notes, their whole lives into the app, Evernote should be able to give them the context and information they need not to just know what has to get done, but to actually get it done. Users wanted it; Evernote wanted to build it.

And yet, Evernote never managed to ship the thing. Not until this month, anyway, when the company finally rolled out an early version of Evernote Tasks. That it finally happened, said CEO Ian Small, is proof that the massive overhaul he and his team started almost two years ago was actually worth it. "We spent two years rebuilding the clients, rebuilding the infrastructure, redesigning how Evernote worked on the inside, so that we could for the first time ship Tasks."

That process has been neither short nor simple. Soon after he joined the company in 2018, Small and Evernote shifted their entire focus to consolidating the app. Instead of five teams building five apps for five platforms, Evernote became a single thing, accessible everywhere. The codebase got smaller, the tech debt started to disappear and after two years of not shipping much, the company started to be able to ship much faster.

When Evernote launched the first version of its new system in late 2020, it felt like something of a rebirth. Some users were furious. They'd come to rely on some of those platform-specific features, didn't understand why Evernote would take away some of the most basic features it had offered for a decade and saw only the downside of upgrading to the new product. Consistency and feature parity are well and good, Small said, but "at the end of the day, none of that matters to an individual user who's like, 'I'm missing my widget, whatever my widget is.'" Plus, the new apps came with a litany of first-version bugs and issues that felt like a step back. Evernote took the unusual route of continuing to offer its old app, even months after shipping the new one.

Small said he understood the feedback, good and bad. "While we have made considerable progress in our new apps, rebuilding them from the ground up, the releases have not gone as smoothly as any of us would have liked," he wrote in a blog post in December. And he acknowledged that the trade-offs would be painful, but that Evernote was working quickly on two things: bringing New Evernote up to feature parity with Old Evernote, and building new features that made clear why New Evernote was worth all the hassle.

Tasks pulls to-do items out of all of a user's notes, which Evernote has never been able to do before.Image: Evernote

Tasks is pure New Evernote. Rather than build a separate app or consign to-do lists to its own corner of Evernote, it's a compilation of every task inside every note a user has, sorted by due date or the note they're in. That sounds simple enough — and again, has been the vision all along — but Small said it just wasn't possible before. "It's really the first demonstration of the kind of thing we can do with the new infrastructure," he said, "because you've never been able to take a slice of content that cuts across all your notes, touch the content inside the note and change inside the note."

That, in a nutshell, is what Evernote spent the last two years working on: turning its platform from a digital filing cabinet into a system that can smartly surface information at the right time and place, and actually help users do the things inside their notes. Evernote's big idea was always that notes were a powerful way to build a store of personal knowledge and information, and now it's finally getting around to figuring out what to do with it all. Over time, that will also mean modernizing Evernote's API to work better with other tools and improving its search and processing capabilities, all of which Small said is on the roadmap as well.

In that way, Evernote is right in line with the productivity industry, which as a whole is looking for ways to use machine learning and user data to more proactively help people get stuff done. "The sector is hot again," Small said, but he said he's not concerned about the uptick in competition from companies like Notion, Roam and Monday. "There's nobody out there that has an idea that is, like, so revolutionary that it would take us off the path that we're on," he said. One thing that's different about Evernote? It's still focused on a single-player experience, rather than trying to sell to enterprise teams. But that could change, Small said. "Over time, Evernote will become richer for collaborative work," he said. "But it's not yet our No. 1 focus."

Small said there's much more to come on that front. "There's a tiny demonstration of that" in Evernote's new Suggested Notes panel, he said, "and you'll see more and more of those little bits creeping in over time." Those are the things he's hoping will win over the holdouts, the users who left or have clung to their old version of the apps. Maybe they'll make New Evernote worth switching to, even if it's missing a few Old Evernote features that a few power-users loved.

After two years of quietly revamping the company and product, the Evernote team is back to shipping fast and often. For Small, the most important job is prioritizing, especially as Evernote continues on some fronts to try to catch up to where it was two years ago. One example: Many of Evernote's Windows users loved a feature called Import Folder, where you could drag a file into a desktop folder and have it automatically sync to Evernote. That feature has been missing for months, and users have been furious. But on Tuesday, Evernote announced the feature is coming back, and coming to all platforms."I've got it on my desktop now," Small said. New Evernote is in many ways now almost (though still not quite) as good as Old Evernote, and is starting to be drastically better in other ways, too.

Same goes for Tasks, which Small described as "a pretty good V-1," but a version one nonetheless. Beta testers have already made Evernote a long list of ways to improve the feature. "There's years of work to be done with Tasks, and we will do it right," Small said. There are no excuses left for Evernote, and a long list of stuff to do. But for the first time in a long time, Small said, it feels like there's nothing in the way.

Fintech

Judge Zia Faruqui is trying to teach you crypto, one ‘SNL’ reference at a time

His decisions on major cryptocurrency cases have quoted "The Big Lebowski," "SNL," and "Dr. Strangelove." That’s because he wants you — yes, you — to read them.

The ways Zia Faruqui (right) has weighed on cases that have come before him can give lawyers clues as to what legal frameworks will pass muster.

Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“Cryptocurrency and related software analytics tools are ‘The wave of the future, Dude. One hundred percent electronic.’”

That’s not a quote from "The Big Lebowski" — at least, not directly. It’s a quote from a Washington, D.C., district court memorandum opinion on the role cryptocurrency analytics tools can play in government investigations. The author is Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui.

Keep Reading Show less
Veronica Irwin

Veronica Irwin (@vronirwin) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol covering fintech. Previously she was at the San Francisco Examiner, covering tech from a hyper-local angle. Before that, her byline was featured in SF Weekly, The Nation, Techworker, Ms. Magazine and The Frisc.

The financial technology transformation is driving competition, creating consumer choice, and shaping the future of finance. Hear from seven fintech leaders who are reshaping the future of finance, and join the inaugural Financial Technology Association Fintech Summit to learn more.

Keep Reading Show less
FTA
The Financial Technology Association (FTA) represents industry leaders shaping the future of finance. We champion the power of technology-centered financial services and advocate for the modernization of financial regulation to support inclusion and responsible innovation.
Enterprise

AWS CEO: The cloud isn’t just about technology

As AWS preps for its annual re:Invent conference, Adam Selipsky talks product strategy, support for hybrid environments, and the value of the cloud in uncertain economic times.

Photo: Noah Berger/Getty Images for Amazon Web Services

AWS is gearing up for re:Invent, its annual cloud computing conference where announcements this year are expected to focus on its end-to-end data strategy and delivering new industry-specific services.

It will be the second re:Invent with CEO Adam Selipsky as leader of the industry’s largest cloud provider after his return last year to AWS from data visualization company Tableau Software.

Keep Reading Show less
Donna Goodison

Donna Goodison (@dgoodison) is Protocol's senior reporter focusing on enterprise infrastructure technology, from the 'Big 3' cloud computing providers to data centers. She previously covered the public cloud at CRN after 15 years as a business reporter for the Boston Herald. Based in Massachusetts, she also has worked as a Boston Globe freelancer, business reporter at the Boston Business Journal and real estate reporter at Banker & Tradesman after toiling at weekly newspapers.

Image: Protocol

We launched Protocol in February 2020 to cover the evolving power center of tech. It is with deep sadness that just under three years later, we are winding down the publication.

As of today, we will not publish any more stories. All of our newsletters, apart from our flagship, Source Code, will no longer be sent. Source Code will be published and sent for the next few weeks, but it will also close down in December.

Keep Reading Show less
Bennett Richardson

Bennett Richardson ( @bennettrich) is the president of Protocol. Prior to joining Protocol in 2019, Bennett was executive director of global strategic partnerships at POLITICO, where he led strategic growth efforts including POLITICO's European expansion in Brussels and POLITICO's creative agency POLITICO Focus during his six years with the company. Prior to POLITICO, Bennett was co-founder and CMO of Hinge, the mobile dating company recently acquired by Match Group. Bennett began his career in digital and social brand marketing working with major brands across tech, energy, and health care at leading marketing and communications agencies including Edelman and GMMB. Bennett is originally from Portland, Maine, and received his bachelor's degree from Colgate University.

Enterprise

Why large enterprises struggle to find suitable platforms for MLops

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, and as larger enterprises go from deploying hundreds of models to thousands and even millions of models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

Photo: artpartner-images via Getty Images

On any given day, Lily AI runs hundreds of machine learning models using computer vision and natural language processing that are customized for its retail and ecommerce clients to make website product recommendations, forecast demand, and plan merchandising. But this spring when the company was in the market for a machine learning operations platform to manage its expanding model roster, it wasn’t easy to find a suitable off-the-shelf system that could handle such a large number of models in deployment while also meeting other criteria.

Some MLops platforms are not well-suited for maintaining even more than 10 machine learning models when it comes to keeping track of data, navigating their user interfaces, or reporting capabilities, Matthew Nokleby, machine learning manager for Lily AI’s product intelligence team, told Protocol earlier this year. “The duct tape starts to show,” he said.

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of RedTailMedia.org and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories
Bulletins