Evernote, the bug-ridden elephant
To 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.
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.
Published January 3, 2014
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