less style, some substance

Evernote responds

Wow. Two days ago I published Evernote, the bug-ridden elephant, recounting the ongoing issues I’ve had with the service (and, more recently, serious incidents of data loss). The response has been staggering: over a hundred comments on my post, hundreds more on Hacker News, and many flurries of concern and agreement on Twitter. Sentiment has been remarkably consistent, with nearly every commenter sharing my frustrations — some of them with horror stories of their own.

Evernote CEO Phil Libin reached out to me shortly after I published the post and expressed his apologies, assuring me (and, in turn, the many Evernote users who wound up here) that the service will be refocusing its efforts to remedy its quality issues. Now he has written a lengthy response on the Evernote blog that goes into more detail, discussing the company’s recent re-emphasis on stability, its hiring strategy, and planned improvements for the app’s design.

Libin’s post is steeped in damage control, but it is candid and encouraging all the same. Evernote has the potential to be a great product (I use it constantly, even when it is only mediocre), and I hope the changes Libin outlines help it reach its potential.

You can find Libin’s full post here, below are the opening paragraphs.

On Software Quality and Building a Better Evernote in 2014

I got the wrong sort of birthday present yesterday: a sincerely-written post by Jason Kincaid lamenting a perceived decline in the quality of Evernote software over the past few months. I could quibble with the specifics, but reading Jason’s article was a painful and frustrating experience because, in the big picture, he’s right. We’re going to fix this.

The past couple of years have been an amazing time for Evernote. We’ve grown massively as a company, a community and a product. And we’re still growing quickly. However, there comes a time in a booming startup’s life when it’s important to pause for a bit and look in rather than up. When it’s more important to improve existing features than to add new ones. More important to make our existing users happier than to just add more new users. More important to focus on our direction than on our speed. This is just common sense, but startups breathe growth and intentionally slowing down to focus on details and quality doesn’t come naturally to many of us. Despite this, the best product companies in the world have figured out how to make constant quality improvements part of their essential DNA. Apple and Google and Amazon and Facebook and Twitter and Tesla know how to do this. So will we. This is our central theme for 2014: constant improvement of the core promise of Evernote.

Evernote, the bug-ridden elephant

evernotelogoTo say this post pains me would be an understatement. More than any other technology, Evernote is part of me, having evolved from habit to instinct over several years and nearly seven thousand notes. Every day ideas flit through my head, ideas for essays, for characters, for jokes. Just now I catch a glimpse of one, without thinking I am talking into my phone like a Star Trek Communicator, telling myself that maybe I should title this post Leaky Sync. Maybe not.

Because I use it so often, I am unusually familiar with the service’s warts. Evernote’s applications are glitchy to the extreme; they often feel as if they’re held together by the engineering equivalent of duct tape. Browser extensions crash, text cursors leap haphazardly across the screen — my copy of Evernote’s image editor Skitch silently failed to sync for months because I hadn’t updated to the new version. Most issues are benign enough, but the apps are so laden with quirks that I’ve long held a deep-seated fear that perhaps some of my data has not been saved, that through a syncing error, an accidental overwrite — some of these ideas have been forgotten.

As of last month, I am all but sure of it.

I’ve been learning how to write songs. It’s terrifying because I stink, so I trick myself, diddling around without actually intending to record anything. With any luck I reach a fugue state, vaguely listening for my fingers to do something interesting; sometimes instinct steers me toward the green elephant’s ‘record’ button and I play for a while.

And so I find myself on December 5, when a meandering session results in an 18 minute Evernote audio recording on my iPhone labeled “not bad halfway through” — high praise, for me. Some of the chord changes are sheer luck, no idea what I did but they sounded good the first time.

I decide to give it another listen with more discerning ears, self-loathing eagerly waiting in the wings.

And — nothing. Zero seconds out of zero seconds. It’s a blank file.

Alarmed, I tap record again, make another note. It won’t play, either.

Another. This one works.

One more. Zero out of zero.

I check the Wifi signal (fine). I let the phone sit for a while to sync, just in case. I head to the web app, which — thankfully — shows the note intact, with its attachment as an 8.7 megabyte .m4a file.

I try to open it in iTunes — it shrugs. Quicktime spits an error. Time to bust out the big guns. VLC.

Nada.

Teeth grinding, I contact Evernote support. The process is slow and bumbling, but I’d like to think this has more to do with Evernote’s overly-structured ticket system than the people working there. Unfortunately, in the process of trying to learn what happened to my audio file, I discover another flaw in Evernote’s system.

As an apparently standard part of Evernote’s support process, it requests that users send over an Activity Log. This is a file generated by each Evernote application that records the myriad housekeeping events going on behind the scenes — ”Sending preference changes…”, and so on.

For most services this log wouldn’t make me bat an eye, but in many ways my Evernote archive is more sensitive than my Gmail account. With email, there’s always the possibility that the guy on the other end will forward the message along, so I tend to behave accordingly. With Evernote it’s just me. I try not to filter myself because that’s how creativity dies.

I ask the support person to verify that he will not have access to my data. No, he assures me. Just the meta data, like note titles (why Evernote doesn’t believe note titles are potentially sensitive is beyond me, but, in my case, they’re usually blank anyway).

Still, out of habitual paranoia, I skim through the log before sending. Thousands of lines of gibberish, dates and upload counts and [ENSyncEngine] INFO: Sending search changes.

And then I come across something more legible. It’s a text note I left a few evenings ago, a stray thought about sex, if I’m being honest. Further down, another note, the entire contents of the text, broken up by some HTML tags. And another.

Turns out there’s a bug, this time compliments of Evernote for Mac’s ‘helper’ — an official mini app that’s meant for jotting down notes without having to switch to the hulking beast that is the desktop application. On my Macbook Pro, running the latest version of Evernote for Mac, this ‘helper’ app records the entirety of any text it saves into the log file.

Alarmed and not a little bit furious that I nearly sent him some deeply embarrassing musings, I tell the support person about the issue, noting that it is a serious breach of privacy (and an obvious one, given that I noticed it in all of ten seconds).

They say to file another ticket.

As for the audio file: even more bad news.

It’s been nearly a month and the most substantive thing Evernote has said is that it is “seeing multiple users who have created audio notes of all sizes where they will not play on any platform.” The company has given me no information on what’s wrong with the corrupted file, and no indication that they might find a way to get it working in the future.

Adding further insult, the up-to-date iOS application continues to create corrupted audio notes, despite receiving an update on December 17, twelve days after I reported the issue. The support team actually couldn’t tell me whether that update addressed the audio problem — they said I should check the App Store release notes, which routinely includes the ambiguous line “bug fixes”, so I had to figure it out for myself. Two more corrupted notes later, I can say with some authority that it’s still there (I’ve also encountered a new issue, where some audio files simply vanish).

Through it all, the support team has displayed a marked lack of urgency that has bordered on nonchalance. Maybe they’re trained that way, or maybe data loss on Evernote isn’t as rare as I’d hope.


None of this has been life shattering, but given how reliant I am on Evernote it is deeply unnerving — now each note I instinctively leave myself is tinged with anxiety. I’m concerned that as I dig through my Evernote archive I’ll encounter more corrupted audio notes, and, worse, my paranoia is increasingly convinced that there may have been notes that never were saved to the archive at all.

More than that, I am alarmed that Evernote seems to be playing fast and loose with the data entrusted to it. Instead of building a product that is secure, reliable, and fast, it has spread itself too thin, trying to build out its install base across as many platforms as possible in an attempt to fend off its inevitable competition.

This strategy is tolerable for a social network or messaging app (Facebook got away with atrociously buggy apps for years). But Evernote is literally aiming to be an extension of your brain, the place to store your most important ideas. Its slogan is “Remember Everything”. Presumably the integrity of its data should be of the utmost importance.

What’s worse, it isn’t consistently improving. When iOS7 launched, Evernote was one of the first applications to overhaul with a new, ‘flat’ design, and as a result benefitted from being featured prominently within the App Store. But functionally, it was clearly a downgrade from the old app, with extra dollops of sluggishness, crashes, and glitches — it may well have introduced the audio recording bug I fell prey to (I believe it dates back to at least October, when I encountered a similar audio issue that I chalked up to user error).

Evernote’s security track record has been similarly frustrating. Asked in October 2012 why the service had not implemented the increasingly-common two-factor authentication option already offered by companies like Google, Evernote’s CEO, Phil Libin, wrote “Finding an approach that gives you increased security without making Evernote harder to use is not just a matter of adding two-factor authentication…”, implying that something better was on the way.

Five months later the promised security upgrade was still MIA — until Evernote was hacked, its database of user passwords was compromised, and the service rushed to implement a two-factor system that didn’t look much different from the sort Libin was apparently aiming to leapfrog.

This is a company with over $250 million in funding and 80 million users. And unlike many web services that promise exhaustive security and reliability, it’s one I actually pay for.

Ironically, the same day I was told Evernote didn’t have a fix for my corrupted music recording, the New York Times published an article about Evernote titled, An App That Will Never Forget a File.


Update, 1/3: Evernote CEO Phil Libin contacted me and we spoke about the issues described. He apologized, saying the post rings true and that there is a lot of work to be done both on the application and service fronts. In the short-term the company will be implementing fixes for the issues above, with plans to focus on general quality improvements in the months ahead.

Update, 1/5: Libin has published a lengthy response to this post (and the ensuing uproar) on the Evernote Blog, outlining the company’s plans to remedy its quality issues by refocusing on the core product and its design:
On Software Quality and Building a Better Evernote in 2014

NYT #IsKindaClueless

lululogoToday Lulu makes its New York Times debut, page E1.

Lulu lets women review guys. Specifically their date-worthiness, rated out of 10, with tags calling out attributes like #DudeCanCook and #HygenicallyChallenged.

Similar ideas have been tried before but fizzled. Maybe it’s because we instinctively reject them, sensing the potential for disgusting acts of humanity — or maybe it’s just that no one has figured out the right way to do it yet.

Lulu may have cracked the nut. It claims to have a quarter of all college women (!) on board — its growth aided by its natural alignment with the sorority community — and it’s done so using a formula more refined than past attempts. It’s for ladies only, it’s playful, and its taglines promote ‘dating intel’, not spiteful dishing.

To prevent an otherwise inevitable flow of vitriol, the app restricts reviews to numerical ratings (for things like attractiveness and humor) and an array of pre-written cheeky hashtags, so there isn’t an opportunity to type anything out yourself. Most of the hashtags are amusing, but others have a decidedly nastier bent, like #50ShadesOfF**kedUp, #F**kedMeAndChuckedMe, and #TotalF**kingDickhead.

The app has managed to raise $2.5 million, with investors including mega-rich Facebook investor Yuri Milner, Jawbone founder Hosain Rahman, and Path founder Dave Morin.

So. Where does this go?

Some guys rally their female friends to leave positive reviews. Some women use it to exact revenge on guys who did them wrong. It proves genuinely helpful for women anxious about dating complete strangers, but they throw some out with the bathwater. Some guys clean up — others have their inadequacies presented to them in bar-graph form. It totally wrecks a few of them.

If it sticks, it fundamentally changes dating. Early dates become even less authentic acts of performance art whose reviews last in perpetuity (perhaps alongside a tag of #ManChild, the souvenir of a messy breakup). Guys can request that their profile be removed, but the article notes that, already, “apparently many [men] believe it’s better to have been badly reviewed than never to have been reviewed.”

And, to state the obvious: now guys have an excuse to try using their own analogous app.

I’m not going to argue that Lulu is a bad idea, because it’s an idea we’re going to have to deal with. We’re so used to seeing ratings next to everything — including profiles on dating sites — that it feels inevitable, even if such services launch and die in a phoenix-like lifecycle.

And it isn’t all bad. One of the women quoted in the article says, “dating without a reference is the scariest thing you can do” —  the app helps ameliorate that. Surely much of the appeal has nothing to do with safety, but it doesn’t mean it hasn’t helped some women avoid getting tangled in a scary situation.

Do the benefits outweigh the downsides? I don’t think so, not by a long shot, but I don’t hold much sway in the matter. People are starting to review each other, as people, and my hunch is we’ll be figuring out how to deal with it for a long time.

But that’s not my point.

My point is that the NYT article hardly tackles any of this. Most other publications prominently discuss the controversy around the app — but here, the tone is uncritical (if not oddly positive), we read that Lulu is “a sort of ‘Take Back the Internet’ moment for young women who have come of age in an era of revenge porn and anonymous, possibly ominous suitors”. It quotes the cofounder’s boyfriend as saying, “It inspires guys to be good and treat girls the way they should be treated. Like angels.”

The counter argument is the following muted discussion:

Not all men are so magnanimous about their presence on Lulu, of course. Last summer, Neel Shah, a comedy writer, was at a bar in Los Angeles on a date with a woman who pulled up his profile. “She started reading me these negative hashtags and I was like, ‘Uh, this is awkward,’ ” said Mr. Shah, 30, whose profile has been viewed 448 times and “favorite” eight times for an average score of 6.7. His hashtags include #TallDarkAndHandsome and #CleansUpGood, along with the less flattering #TemperTantrums and #WanderingEye.

“One of the comments was, ‘laughing at his jokes may take some effort,’ which I certainly thought was subjective,” Mr. Shah said. “I feel like if you’re using an app like Lulu, you’re probably not interested in nuanced analysis.”

Now, that chunk of text might be enough to cover the potential downsides if the article were about, say, Yelp. We’re all used to reviewing businesses, and even individuals, in a professional context. We’re also used to reading about how some of them get labeled with bad reviews that they don’t like and how it’s not fair.

But this is something different. People getting reviewed for their personality and appearance when they’re vulnerable — on dates, in relationships, not while they’re wearing a stethoscope or fixing the sink — by people they may have romantic feelings for.

I mean, hell — Mr. Shah sounds unfazed, but a woman he went on a date with left a review saying that he, a comedy writer, has a bad sense of humor. This is the stuff nightmares are made of. Looking further out, it’s not hard to imagine litigation and perhaps even attempts at legislation (particularly around the fact that men do not have to opt-in before they are reviewed).

Maybe this is all a moot point. The article appears on the front page of the NYT Fashion and Style section, where, perhaps, the bar is lower. Were this any average app I would be chuckling about the fact that it includes a self-effacing quip from Mike Isaac, a top tech journalist, without appearing to realize he is a tech journalist. But this isn’t an average app. And it’s my sense that the nation’s paper of record has a responsibility to flag it as the social quagmire it is, regardless of which page the article appears on.

This passage appears toward the end of the article, without qualification:

But Ms. Chong has the grand hope that Lulu will accomplish what generations of women have not been able to do: change the opposite sex.

“There’s an element of behavior modification that we’re hearing and seeing,” she said. “When we do sessions at colleges, we ask guys, ‘Have any of you changed since Lulu launched?’ Hands go up.”


Relevant links:

What’s He Really Like? Check the Lulu App – Deborah Schoeneman, The New York Times

Lulu

Reputation is Dead – Michael Arrington, TechCrunch

I actually found Mike’s post, published in 2010, after I’d written most of the above. He was writing about a different app (and references several even earlier attempts that dealt with reputation) but the concerns are very similar. His conclusion: we’re going to review ourselves until we don’t care about reviews any more. Definitely worth reading.


Correction, 11/23: Lulu uses asterisks in the word ‘Fuck’. Also, the tag is #F**kedMeAndChuckedMe, not #F**kItAndChuckIt, though the thematically-similar ‘#HitItAndQuitIt’ is available.

Early Employees: TechCrunch

My friend Hunter Walk asked me a few questions about the early years of TechCrunch (I joined in early 2008, when we were still working out of TC founder Michael Arrington’s house).

Here’s an excerpt, you can find the full interview, with an introduction from Mike right here.

Q: When did you join TechCrunch and how did you originally get connected to the team?

A: I usually tell a sanitized version of this story, but what the hell.
It was March 2008, and I’d just graduated from UCLA with a B.S. in biology, a minor in ‘society and genetics’, and zero sense as to what I wanted to do with my life. My good friend Ed McManus (now cofounder of Yardsale) invited me to a party being thrown by an investor in honor of Scribd’s (the ‘YouTube for documents’) first birthday.

The party was unlike anything college had prepared me for — and the likes of which I haven’t seen since. Caviar and vodka shots. Sculptures made of seafood. A basement that had been overhauled to resemble a vintage gas station. Waiters who walked around with endless glasses of champagne, deftly swooping in as soon as one hit empty. I’d had a few — and sure, I sampled the vodka — but the single stair, running the full length between the living room and a hallway, really should not have been there. It was too easy to forget about. I’d have remembered if there were, say, *two* stairs. But the one slipped my mind.
I tripped. My champagne glass fell, and the explosion — louder than any that had come before it — echoed through the halls. I bolted. Down the hallway, straight out the front door. I don’t even remember running, honestly. I stood there in the driveway, trying to catch my breath and staring at the mob of catering trucks, with a vague sense that I was now a Silicon Valley pariah — which I could handle — and that Eddie was going to kill me, which I felt badly about.

Read the rest of the interview here.