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“Tablets are the most demanding platform for software”

by Doug Drinkwater

December 9 2011

Phil Libin says Evernote staff begun designing for the iPad on cardboard cut-outs
Phil Libin says Evernote staff begun designing for the iPad on cardboard cut-outs

Paris, France -- Evernote CEO Phil Libin talks tablet apps, iPad, Dropbox, and providing Evernote for businesses.

TabTimes managed to catch-up with Libin, who was a guest speaker at LeWeb conference in Paris, France this week.

TabTimes: Hi Phil, so talk me through the foundation of Evernote…

Phil Libin: We launched the service in June 2008 with an open beta, and the goal was always to build second brain for everyone. Everyone wants to be smarter, remember more stuff and capture everything, both in the real or digital world. People also wanted to know that they could find any of this information ten years later.

That was core original value, but we’re now moving to the second phase, really adding intelligence and structure to that process. The aim is now to get out more than put in.

What do you make of the rise of 'the cloud' and related services?

There are these buzzwords every year, and this year it's cloud. I don’t even know what cloud means exactly, it's just servers sitting somewhere. I do think that having your information everywhere is fundamentally important.

From now on, people expect content to be everywhere. I think Evernote has helped with that some of that expectation, but Apple, Google and Amazon have also done a lot of great stuff.

Would you say then, that the rise of the cloud is coinciding with that of the rise of mobile devices, like tablets?

I think they definitely reinforce each other. Mobile devices have made it much more important to have content everywhere, whereas cloud services have made mobile more attractive. But I think the other part of that is that the capabilities of the device have become more important.

Why do you say that?

I think it is completely wrong for the consumer space, not necessarily everywhere else. The delight of the user experience is the most important thing and in any industry that is being driven by hardware obviously benefits from having something written natively locally for your newest, shiniest phone.

So as long as Apple keeps releasing great new products, and Android keeps improving, I think we will see extremely rapid hardware improvement over the next five to ten years. If there comes a point when hardware stagnates, then the lowest common denominator technology would begin to make more sense, but it would be outside the interests of the hardware vendors.

The device is still important for how good the graphics are, how great the animation is, and how quickly it does video. You still need the great experience on the device. This even applies to storage, as you don’t want to hit the network every time. The cloud is just where data is stored. I think the cloud is actually driving increased improvement in device hardware.

How have tablets changed Evernote’s business?

Tablets are great. We were very happy when Apple announced iPad, as a lot of our team developed software for the Apple Newton. Up until then, we were kind of resigned to fact that the tablet was never going to be popular.

So, on the day Apple announced the iPad, we were so excited that on the day Apple announced it, we announced that we’d support it, without even knowing what it was going to be!

On the day Apple announced the specifications, we actually cut out pieces of cardboard, based on the iPad's dimensions, and started designing iPad software. We made a real bet that iPad was going to be successful, and change everything.

You have six apps at the moment, how many of these are optimized for tablets?

We have Evernote on iPad, and we have an iPad app called Peek, which actually started off as being powered by the Smart Cover of an iPad 2. Then there is Evernote for Android tablets, as well as Skitch, while Skitch will also be coming to iPad pretty soon.

I think tablets are, in some senses, the most demanding platform for software, because nobody needs a tablet. You're willing to put up with compromises for your phone, because it's a necessary device. You also need a PC, but you don’t need a tablet, so there is no compromise, no excuse. The only reason you get a tablet is because they're great, and because the user experience is so perfect. You can touch every imperfection, and that makes tablets very difficult to design for.

What with the services of OneNote, Catch, even Dropbox, could there be some overlap with these guys in future?

There's more overlap with OneNote and Catch, but we don’t really think about competition. Catch is actually one of our partners.

Dropbox is really in a different space, and is really storage. They’re fighting a war to the death with Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft, and I think they might win. Drew (Houston) is a brilliant guy and they’re really smart. They have a good shot at becoming the kings in the online storage space.

Evernote is not really storage; it's really about capture, retrieval and context. With Dropbox, 100% of the stuff I put into it already exists, whereas almost 100% of stuff didn’t exist before I put it into Evernote.

Evernote is facilitating the genesis, but the real value is in the search. The actual storage, the thing you have to get right in the middle, is just the plumbing, infrastructure and I wouldn’t advise anyone to get into that space at the moment.

Are you looking to push Evernote as a service for enterprise users?

We don’t really think of consumers versus businesses as 75% of people use Evernote for business. We’ve already had some good movement within business, so the opportunity now is for us to make it a better citizen network, so that we integrate it with work environments and IT policies. We’re spending a lot of time on that.

The key thing to point out is, we are the customers of Evernote, and we build it for ourselves. When we were a ten person company, we built it for ten people, and when we become a thousand person company we will still be building for ourselves. I think it's inevitable that we will provide for a thousand person company, because we will be a thousand person company.

How fast can Evernote grow, and will there come a time when it plateaus?

Yes, there will be a plateau at some point, but I think that's going to be at one billion users. We think everyone in the world can benefit from Evernote.

On one hand, 20 million users is a crazy number, but then again, seven billion people have never heard of Evernote, so it’s still a tiny, tiny fraction. I don’t think our growth is going to slow down in the next years.

You said earlier at LeWeb that you’ve boosted the number of staff. I guess you’re also expanding to new offices?

We’ve currently got offices in California, Austin, Tokyo and Moscow, which all deal with product development and engineering.

We’ll bring new offices to Zurich (Switzerland), Singapore and Beijing for 2012 and, later on, we'll look to add more offices in Europe and South America after that.

You’re a big advocate of the ‘Freemium’ model. Is there not a temptation to hire some sales staff, to try and push adoption?

I don't think it's much of a temptation, as I don't want that kind of culture. We’re trying to build Evernote as a 100-year company and we want it to be a fun place to work at.

I play a lot of video games, and I am really influenced by video games as a philosophy. I think it's interesting in games, as they are the only type of complex software that noone is ever coerced into buying.

They are successful because people love them. You don’t use business software because you love it. We want Evernote to be a sort of thing where no-one is ever forced into paying for, that’s just our philosophy. We’re not making games, but we're making things that delight you. So far, it's worked pretty well.

Doug Drinkwater is the International Editor of TabTimes and is based in London, England.

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