Misusing Time

Earlier today I was having a conversation with Sumudu about Evernote and the topic of where the data sits came up. A lot of SaaS platforms tend to store people's information on Amazon's Web Service platform or Microsoft's Azure alternative. Evernote is a little different in that the data we upload to them is stored on Google's Cloud Platform. Given my reticence at having Google know too much about me, the question of how comfortable I was with the knowledge that the scans of receipts and medical diagnoses that I've put into Evernote over the years is theoretically available to Google1. As one would expect, I am not all that keen on Google being the place where too much of my data is kept. But what is the alternative? I've tried multiple different note applications since leaving Evernote a few years back, and they're all a collection of compromises in comparison. What am I to do, then? Build my own solution?

A self-hosted Evernote alternative would be an interesting project to work on, and there is already prior work done for such a system that I could continue building on. One of the reasons I stopped working on my own Notes SaaS is because I wanted to focus on getting 10Cv5 ready and out the door. Another was that one of the big reasons I like Evernote is because of the seamless OCR feature that reads through PDFs and most image formats to find words and make them part of the note's metadata, making it possible to search for notes based on the text contained in an image. This is very cool and not at all easy to do with a personal project. There are software libraries out there that will do this, but many of them are either very expensive or just too resource-intensive to use on consumer-grade hardware. Rather than bang my head against the wall by building yet another note-taking app that requires people to compromise, it just makes sense to use Evernote platform … especially considering how I just picked up three Moleskin notebooks that work with the service.

Fifteen minutes later, while working on something for the day job, a solution to the OCR problem flashed through my head. I had devised a way to make OCR work, which would lead to the ability to search for words contained in images and PDFs, and to even handle handwriting to a certain degree. The difficult features that encouraged me to return to Evernote now had valid solutions. I quickly slapped together a proof of concept and, less than 20 minutes later, I had proved that the mechanism was sound. PDFs and high-resolution JPEG images were being "read" in both English and Japanese with minimal effort on my part. Lovely!

But is there a market for an Evernote alternative? What sort of features would I need to have right out of the gate to gain traction? Is this something that people would consider a subscription for — even if it's a one-time, lifetime subscription option — so that it might be possible to dedicate a proper amount of time and resources to the project?

There are a number of threads on various forums including Reddit where people ask about viable alternatives to the green elephant to no avail. A lot of people seem to want an alternative and lament the friction involved with the other note-taking applications.

An A5-sized notebook on the shelf next to me has a lot of handwritten notes and diagrams outlining the requirements of what a proper competitor would need in order to wrest people away from Evernote and the local-file options. There were even scribbles talking about how the server component could be made open source while saving some of the nicer features for the hosted version that I would make available. The ideas seemed reasonable.

Then I glanced at the clock and saw that an entire hour had been spent looking into something that, in reality, would likely be a gross misuse of time. If there was a strong market demand for an Evernote alternative, there would be plenty already. Fact of the matter is that there does not seem to be a large enough group of people (that I'm aware of) that would like yet another text editor on their devices. Rather than invest the time into something that would not help me towards the goal of self-employment by 2022, it would make much more sense to focus on the day job until the end of the shift, then spend some time with 10C and maybe fix a bug or two.

While the goal to be self-employed and provide useful tools to people is noble, it can't be done during regular working hours. A distraction like this may be alright for a couple of minutes, especially when a technical problem is solved, but any more than 5 and it quickly becomes a misuse of time.

  1. Evernote explains that, as a cloud provider, Google is subject to strict security and legal obligations which limit Google’s access to Evernote data. The data put into Evernote belongs to the uploader. Google will not process data for any purpose other than to fulfill contractual obligations such as delivery. Given the fallout that would occur should Google be found in breach of this, it's probably safe to assume that nobody will be doing anything stupid.