Evernote gets physical Why a software maker's turning to tangible goods

What the hell is Evernote doing selling backpacks and socks? That's a question asked by many yesterday, when Evernote revealed a plan to expand its business well beyond productivity software by opening up Evernote Market. The Market, revealed at the third annual Evernote conference in San Francisco, debuted selling a selection of high-end bags from Côte&Ciel, notebooks from Moleskine, a scanner from Fujitsu, a stylus from Adonit, plus a smattering of T-shirts, posters and the aforementioned socks. The stylus packs the smallest tip on the market and is designed to work with note-taking apps like Penultimate. And the scanner integrates tightly with Evernote software, too -- it can scan a pile of varied documents (business cards, receipts, invoices, etc.), then sort and deposit the results an appropriate notebook automagically.

At first blush, selling physical goods seems odd for such a company. To hear CEO Phil Libin tell it, however, the move into retail is a logical one, should you be willing to make a bit of a cognitive leap. The key to this strategy was revealed during his day two keynote, when Libin said that his company is in the business of AI. However, those letters stand for augmented, not artificial intelligence.

That distinction's an important one for Libin, because there are two fundamental flaws with artificial intelligence, as far as he's concerned. According to him, Alan Turing "set AI research back 60 years" when he made the goal of such study be to build a computer as smart as a person. That's an incredibly difficult thing to accomplish, and besides, "it's unclear what that computer would do and what it's good for," according to the CEO. Instead, Evernote is inspired by the thinking of chess grand master Gary Kasparov, who, after being defeated by IBM's Deep Blue in 1997, had a bit of an epiphany. The future of chess would not be man vs. machine, but man and machine working together as a unit against other such teams.

Evernote gets physical Why a software maker's turning to tangible goods

Basically, everything put out into the world with Evernote's name on it is being built to amplify your productivity -- not by dictating behavior, but by cooperating with your existing habits.

This idea is precisely what Evernote's talking about when it refers to augmented intelligence: Libin says, "we're about building products and features that make people smarter." That means creating software that recognizes the devices you use and knows their strengths and weaknesses -- so the software helps when it can, and gets out of the way when it should. Naturally, having a hand in creating those products better enables that integration. Now, you might be thinking that a scanner or a Post-it pad is a natural fit in the Evernote universe, but bags and wallets? Well, you need somewhere to put all those devices running Evernote software, right? And the company sees no reason why they can't be the source for all the stuff that makes your life better, both directly and indirectly.

AI is such a core concept to the company that Evernote has hired a VP of Augmented Intelligence. Mark Ayzenshtat is that VP, and his philosophy is that users' minds are the most important platform, and Evernote's products and services are made according to that guiding principle. That means building software that shapes itself to user needs and providing products that "call up the best benefits of that software." Basically, everything sold with Evernote's name on it is built to amplify your productivity -- not by dictating behavior, but by cooperating with your existing habits.

By that reasoning, selling a backpack that makes it easier to access your bike helmet before you cycle home from the office, or a quality cover that keeps your slate pristine makes sense. Evernote's not just selling the tools with which you work, it's also offering stuff that makes life a little easier. The question is, will you buy what Evernote's selling?