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With New Updates, Evernote Aims to Rethink Work Itself

A year after branching into physical goods -- and selling $12 million worth of them -- Evernote refocuses on getting things done.

Phil Libin thinks personal computing suffers from a metaphor problem.

When you think about it, the ways we deal with the information we create in the digital realm have always been compared to their rough equivalents in the physical. And to Libin, the CEO of the productivity software company Evernote, those metaphors — “files” fitting into “folders” that are collected into a “file cabinet” — date back to the days when computers were new.

“They were good for explaining what a computer could do to someone who has never had one, and they’re still with us today,” he said in a speech at an Evernote event in San Francisco today.

The idea set the tone for a series of announcements and changes to Evernote’s applications and services that are collectively pretty audacious. Libin has made no secret of his intention to knock nothing less than Microsoft Office — the very backbone of the modern workplace productivity — off its perch.

One big target for Libin’s ire is PowerPoint. “Meetings suck,” he said, stating the obvious. “The problem with PowerPoint is not just that it’s bad software … it turns every meeting into a pitch.”

Libin announced a new presentation mode that breaks away from the traditional confines of a PowerPoint deck. Images and text within Evernote collections can be quickly and easily converted into presentations that can adapt to different screen sizes — mobile and large screens. Text and images can be quickly resized to be moved between slides.

Presentations are one of four tasks that are universal to the modern knowledge worker. The other three, in Libin’s view, are “writing, collecting and finding.”

“Everyone is a writer now,” he said. “We want Evernote to be the best place to write.” When writing within the Evernote application, navigation and other controls disappear. “We want your words to shine,” he said.

For the other two tasks, collecting information and finding it later, he announced new capabilities within the mobile versions of Evernote. Business card scanning is coming to the Android version, and Web clipping — the ability to save articles and other content from the Web — is being added to both the iOS and Android versions of the app.

Finding information later has been enhanced with more augmented intelligence. Searching within collected information has always been a cornerstone feature of Evernote, but Libin says thinking about it as “searching” is the wrong way to go about it. “Searching makes the user work too much.” Rather the software should anticipate the need for related information based on what you’re doing at that moment.

And while it wasn’t included in Libin’s list of four “core tasks,” there is a fifth that’s just as core, and that amounts to the biggest change to the Evernote platform: Collaboration and communication.

Switching back to outdated metaphors, Libin called the idea of an in-box “great for the days of physical mail, when we might get two or three notes a week and you looked forward to getting them.”

What it has become, he says, is an oppressive list of things that “you’re already behind on, sorted in the wrong order … sorted based not on what is most important, but on chronology.”

He announced a new feature called Work Chat, coming in the next month or so, that will let users communicate about what they’re working on and actively collaborate on notes. Users can see who’s working on a note at any given moment, and actively share notes with anyone — even if they’re not Evernote users.

This will put Evernote squarely in competition with a lot of existing applications: Jive and Microsoft’s Yammer come to mind, as well as Slack, Atlassian’s Hipchat and VMware’s Socialcast. The point, Libin says, is to “talk to anyone about anything without ever leaving Evernote.”

Work Chat is one of two new features that run like threads throughout the entire Evernote platform. The other is Context, a capability that pulls related information about people and business information into Evernote from outside sources like LinkedIn and the Wall Street Journal.

The changes reflect dramatically the scale of Libin’s vision for Evernote. Once a curiosity of a Web and mobile app for the efficiency-obsessed, it now boasts more than 100 million devoted users who have at times been compared to a cult. But who doesn’t want to get things done more smoothly?

Last year a big part of that vision was an expansion into physical goods. Notebooks from Moleskine have been optimized for scanning handwritten notes into Evernote. A Fujitsu scanner was rebuilt from the ground up for use with Evernote. Also re-imagined for Evernote: Post-it notes. The company created a line of messenger bags, a leather wallet and even a line of colorful socks. Evernote began its evolution into a “lifestyle brand” for the creative class, and those products now bring in about $12 million a year.

Gone are consumer-oriented apps like Evernote Food and a project that had been in development called Evernote Baby. Today’s Evernote is all about getting things done at work.

In an interview after his speech, Libin said the shift was deliberate. “We started being honest. We used to think that each user was a snowflake, completely unique with their own mix of focus on their work and personal lives,” he said. “But now we see our users as high achievers. And the best way to have an impact on those people is to do so at work.”

Evernote is now seven years old, and Libin still insists the mission is to build a “100-year-old startup.” That means taking a long view. The company is the constant target of speculation concerning an initial public offering and more than a few rumors that it will be acquired.

Libin is unambiguous about both. Being a public company, he says, is part of Evernote’s mission. “We have a moral obligation to be a public company,” he said. “We’re asking people to trust us for a long time and that means becoming a publicly held company. I just don’t think we’re ready yet.” Translation: Don’t expect to be talking about an Evernote IPO before 2017 or so.

But don’t fall — at least not easily — for the steady steam of acquisition rumors. “I don’t want to sell the company,” he said. “It’s not a mathematical certainty, because if someone offered us some ludicrous amount of money, we’d have to take it to our investors and shareholders and evaluate it. … It’s not entirely up to me. But there’s no amount of money that would make me happy about it.”

And be especially suspicious of rumors saying that software giant Microsoft is an Evernote buyer.

“We have never had serious acquisition talks with Microsoft,” he said.

That’s not to say they’ve never talked about it. Once over lunch, Microsoft’s then-CEO Steve Ballmer asked Libin about his opinion of an acquisition. Libin’s answer: “I don’t think we’re big enough to buy you yet.”

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