The Case Against Notes Apps — And Why I Still Use Them

Over the past decade we’ve seen an explosion of digital tools for personal knowledge management — that is, note-taking apps. Even so, there remains a vocal, articulate, and delightfully nerdy group of note takers who look at all those apps, shrug, and just say: Meh. Not for me.

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Take writer Douglas Barone, for example. His classic File System Infobase Manager post is a breath-taking 4000-word argument against notes apps.

Alex Payne, investor and software developer, describes notes apps as a “plague” of “everything buckets” that violate one of his Rules for Computing Happiness — “Do not use software that does many things poorly.”

I’ve also burned through a number of notes apps, rejecting most of them along the way. Why? For some of the reasons that Doug and Alex mention:

  • Threat of abandonment. At any time, developers can lose interest or companies can go out of business. Result: your precious little app disappears.
  • Lack of feature fit. Some apps have irritating restrictions — limits on file size, for example, or absence of features that I find essential. Other apps are memory hogs and bloated with features I’ll never use. In either case I’m forced to change my workflow to fit the app’s functionality.
  • Proprietary data bases. If you ever decide to export your notes to another app or different file format — well, good luck. You face hours of mind-numbing copy-and-paste operations.
  • Redundancy. You can duplicate the core features of many notes apps by simply using the search functions, file system, and native apps on your device.
  • Cost. Getting the features and storage space you want often means paying an annual subscription fee.

In short, using big bucket apps means that your life’s work is stuck in someone else’s app, subject to their development priorities.

What I wanted for many years was something different — an approach to personal knowledge management that was:

  • Agnostic — usable on any platform and not tied to a specific app
  • Future-proof — usable for the long-term with whatever platforms and operating systems emerge in the future
  • Portable — allowing me to easily export and import notes
  • Lightweight — storing notes in smaller, more efficient files
  • Flexible — accepting notes that range in size from a few words to a book-length manuscript
  • Accessible — allowing me to open, edit, and save files with any computer or mobile device
  • Efficient — fast and reliable
  • Free — based on no-cost apps or apps that I already own

One way to get these benefits is to do what Doug and Alex suggest: Forget notes apps. Just create notes as documents using the apps and filing system you already have. Also stick with plain text files as much as possible; they’re small and recognized by all platforms and devices.

Another option is to go wholly analog and take notes on index cards. No kidding. Ryan Holiday does this, and he’s über-productive.

These are both reasonable choices. And, I’m still sticking with a notes app — in my case, OneNote. Here are my reasons:

  • Web clipping. Like Evernote andBear,  OneNote offers a web clipper. This allows me to import the full text of web pages as a note along with the source URL. All it takes is a single click and a few seconds. Web clipping is now essential to my work flow, and I don’t want to lose it.
  • Robust searching. Search features in notes apps have really improved. True, I have Spotlight on my Mac and iPhone. But I’m still not confident about its abilities to consistently locate key words within individual documents created by many different apps.
  • Free form naming. Storing notes as individual documents requires complex conventions for naming them for easy finding. (Check out Doug’s and Alex’s — and Merlin Mann’s as well.) Arriving at conventions that will work for me is a potentially time-consuming and error-prone process. In fact, it involves many of the same traps as tagging. (See Tiago Forte’s masterful post about this.) It’s easier to name notes with a few key words and use OneNote’s search functions instead.
  • Note linking. OneNote, like some other notes apps, allows me to create links between notes that function like hyperlinks on the Internet. This promotes creative thinking. Links also turn OneNote into a personal wiki or mini-web and help me navigate paths through my notes.
  • Integration. Within any note I can embed or attach many types of content  — PDFs, podcasts, videos, Word docs, and more. This helps me overcome the problem of information fragmentation — content that’s spread all over my computer’s hard drive in multiple formats from multiple apps. OneNote becomes the closest thing that I have to a central hub — a top-level view of all my personally curated information.
  • Software compatibility. Let’s face it: Microsoft Word won the word processing wars. It’s still the default option for submitting book manuscripts and other documents to my clients. And it’s a decent outliner as well. I pay an Office 365 subscription to get Word updates, and for that price I get other goodies as well: all the other Office apps — including OneNote — and a terabyte of online storage for each member of my household.
  • Longevity. Any developer can dump any of its apps at any time (as former users of Google Reader like to point out). And, yes, it is theoretically possible that Microsoft might stop developing OneNote in the future. This is not likely, however, and I’m willing to live with the risk.
  • Switching costs. The prospect of exporting thousands of notes to plain text files leaves me with a sinking feeling in my gut. This task would take hours — possibly days. I’m just not up for it.

The key point here is that when creating a personal knowledge base, we have plenty of options. Experiment with a few while remembering that there’s no perfect solution.

After a certain point you just live with the trade-offs — whatever they are — and get back to work.

Photo by Rami Al-zayat on Unsplash