Switched On: Taming Evernote's paper tiger

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

In April, Evernote CEO Phil Libin announced his company was getting into the hardware business -- gradually, at first, by partnering with others. Carrying through on that intention at the company's third developer's conference in September, Evernote rolled out its first electronic product as part of Evernote Market. Amidst a number of bags and personal accessories (including what must be the most famous technology-related socks since the ones Apple offered as iPod cases), it introduced the ScanSnap Evernote Edition scanner. The sheet-fed paper ingester boasts a sleeker, more modern design than the Fujitsu original. However, it is already a bit behind the times when compared with, say, the latest cloud-centric WiFi models, such as the Brother ADS-1500W, Doxie Go and the new, high-end NeatConnect.

Libin says he has come to peace with the idea that paper is with us for the long term. Indeed, while more forms are coming online and digital-signature options are becoming more popular, paper forms are still difficult to avoid. And while Facebook dutifully reports your birthday to your friends (and perhaps its friends: advertisers), resulting in a stream of kind wishes, greeting cards are still a lot easier to come by than, say, compact discs these days.

Even beyond paper's oft-touted advantages -- low cost, resilience and flexibility -- there is something viscerally satisfying about working with it.

Even beyond paper's oft-touted advantages -- low cost, resilience and flexibility -- there is something viscerally satisfying about working with it. Literally crossing an item off a paper to-do list just feels better than checking a box and seeing it get crossed off in Wunderlist. Stylus-equipped products such as Samsung's Galaxy Note phones and tablets and the Surface Pro can help, but the drag and sensation are still not quite the same. Time and time again, we see how ideas for the most high-tech designs start out as a sketch on paper.

The broadly available electronic product that is the closest alternative to paper today is the Boogie Board "eWriter" family of products from Improv Electronics. Like e-readers, they are thin, monochrome, fixed-function devices that boast battery life measured in months. The first models did not allow you to save your scribbling, but Improv will soon release its second-generation version that can save -- the Boogie Board Sync 9.7 -- and transfer drawings to a PC. It indeed integrates with Evernote. But the model that's probably destined for more popularity is Jot 4.5, a $20 notepad alternative with a cellphone-sized display. While it can't save what's written on its screen, Improv includes a clear plastic cover that protects from accidental pressing of the eraser button.

Perhaps one day, smartphones will be thin enough, smart enough, flexible enough and cheap enough to serve well for impromptu jotting down of ideas or notes. At that point, they could obviate products like the durable Field Notes notebooks that slip easily and transparently into a back pocket. But at least in the interim, it seems the future favors an evolution of the Jot 4.5, which is still a bit too large, rigid and unconnected. Overcoming those limitations would create the kind of product that Evernote would do well to cross off its to-do list.

Ross Rubin is principal analyst at Reticle Research, a research and advisory firm focusing on consumer technology adoption. He shares commentary at Techspressive and on Twitter at@rossrubin.