UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

New Year Resolution: I Won’t Ditch Software on a Whim!

Posted by Brian Kelly on 9 Jan 2014

Why I’ll Still Explore New Tools and Services

In my previous role as UK Web Focus at UKOLN and my current position as Innovation Advocate at Cetis I’ve tried to be an early adopter of new technologies and services which seem to have the potential of enhancing the range of activities carried out in the higher/further education sector.  An important aspect of such evaluation is the open sharing of thoughts on the potential benefits of the innovations but also associated risks and concerns.

I will continue to evaluate new technologies. But there is a question as to what is being replaced if new technologies prove successful and become embedded in normal working practices.  Over the years this has happened with technologies such as Skype. As discussed in a post published in 2009 which reflected on Skype, Two Years After Its Nightmare Weekend, at one stage institutions, and indeed, JANET, where looking to provide standards-based VOIP services. In, back in 2006 a UKERNA report (PDF format) described how  “Uncontrolled use of Skype, and particularly its bandwidth-hungry super-node behaviour, is likely to breach one or both of these [Acceptable Use Policy]sections.” But how, I strongly suspect, use of Skype is now widely embedded across the sector (are there any institutions which still block the service?).

There are other services which at one stage were considered to have risks by IT service staff but which have similarly become widely used by the user community: Google Docs is a good example of a tool which is often suggested when you are collaborating with people outside one’s host institution. Clearly changes to one’s IT infrastructure does happen and seems likely to continue.  But what are the processes which one should take when choosing to replace an existing tool with an alternative?

Moving To New Tools – A Case Study

In a recent post Doug Belshaw, the Web Literacy Lead for the Mozilla Foundation, gave his thoughts on “Why I’m ditching Evernote for Simplenote (and Notational Velocity)”.

Since I am interested in new tools which can enhance my productivity or provide a richer working environment I was very interested in this post. As a long-standing Evernote user which I use on a range of devices I have an interest in looking for signals which hint at problems with the application and an alternative solutions.

However, on further investigation, I’m unconvinced that it would be sensible to move away from Evernote or make use of Simplenote.

Doug#s post references Jason Kincaid post on “Evernote, the bug-ridden elephant“. Jason has experienced problems with Evernote which led to data loss. I was pleased he shared his experiences and the approaches he took in identifying the problem areas. I was previously unaware of Evernote’s activity log. Jason described how the activity log contained “Thousands of lines of gibberish, dates and upload counts” although, confusingly, also complained that the file contained sensitive data. Anyway I looked at my Activity log file. It too, contains thousands of lines such as, earlier today:

10:14:36 [8840] 0% Connecting to
10:14:36 [8840] 0% * loaded updateCount: 628
10:14:37 [8840] 0% Usage Metrics: sessionCount=0
10:14:37 [8840] 0% Client is up to date with the server, updateCount=628
10:14:37 [8840] 0% * saved updateCount: 628
10:14:37 [8840] 0% Skipping uploading shortcuts because local shortcuts are not newer than the server shortcuts.
10:14:37 [8840] 0% Session terminated normally, elapsed time: 0s

A useful debugging aid, it seems to me. Indeed the Activity log did help to identify Jason’s problem:

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.

Oh, so there’s a bug in the software. But it has been identified and therefore it should be able to be fixed.

But there are other problems:

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.“.

The problems seem to be confirmed on the comments list and even the CEO of Evernote “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.

So there are problems. But these have been acknowledged and Evernote have stated that they work on improving the software

But I’ve not had problems using Evernote – and as I don’t use audio notes I’m unlikely to encounter the bug mentioned above. But since Doug has suggested an alternative I felt it would be useful to investigate Simplenote further.

I read information about Simplenote. But since my data will be held in the Cloud I am more concerned about the sustainability of the company rather than whether the software is open source or not. What do I find? The Wikipedia article for Simplenote is fairly basic. On further investigation it seems that a Mac app and an Android app were launched in September 2013.

Simplenote bug reportSince software is prone to bugs, it is not surprising that we can see examples of Simplenote users complaining of bugs. What is somewhat worrying is that, as illustrated, Simplenote’s official bug reporting service contains spam which has been there for over two weeks so far. And the bug report which was submitted in September 2013 has not been acknowledged.

Out of the frying pan into the fire? Isn’t there a need to investigate the business model for important tools and not just sect a tool because it is open source? At least Evernote have acknowledged there is a problem and have said it will be addressed. Evernote also seem to have a sustainable business model. Sadly, I see no evidence that Simplenote do!

What To Do?

It seems to me that ditching an existing tool which provides a useful service but which appears to have bugs for an unproven alternative simply because it is open source would be a mistake.

The dangers of having an over-simplistic view of the merits of open sources software were described in a paper on Openness in Higher Education: Open Source, Open Standards, Open Access by myself, my Cetis colleague Scott Wilson (who is now manager of the OSS Watch service) and Randy Metcalfe, former manager of OSS Watch. The paper describes how:

OSS Watch therefore avoids making specific software recommendations. Instead the principal task is to help universities and colleges understand legal, social, technical and economic issues that arise when they engage with free and open source software. The goal is not the promotion of open source software for its own sake. Indeed, for OSS Watch the choice of proprietary or open source solutions is immaterial. What matters is that institutions have the resources to think through their procurement, deployment, or development IT concerns in a sensible and rational fashion. The best solution for any single institution will depend upon local conditions and individual needs.

The paper goes on to add that:

This pragmatic approach to advice and guidance is consistent with that employed by UKOLN in its work on standards. It is also a guiding principle in the JISC Policy on Open source software for JISC projects and services (JISC, 2005). This policy is based on the UK government policy in this area and should be seen as an implementation of that policy.

The paper, which was published in 2007, focussed on institutional policies on use of open standards and open source software. Over 6 years later, in light of the importance of software which is not hosted within the institution but selected by individuals, there is a need to revisit the advice provided in the paper and explore how it can be applied when an individual is considering replacing use of an existing tool or service.

In the case of replacing Evernote in the comments on Doug’s blog post it was pointed out that:

Sadly there isn’t an alternative to Evernote if you store anything other than plaintext. PDF with annotation, automatic OCR on PDFs and image files, ability to attach MS Office files, audio notes etc. Evernote needs to stop with feature push and spend some time sanitizing what is already there.

And indeed, Jason Kincaid’s post was successful in getting his concerns acknowledged by the CEO of Evernote who responded by admitting that “that there is a lot of work to be done both on the application and service fronts.” A subsequent blog post  On Software Quality and Building a Better Evernote in 2014 was published on the Evernote blog which began:

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 post has generated a large number of comments (96 to date) which seem to primarily be from other Evernote users who are frustrated by bugs i the software and are unhappy that the official Evernote response was written following the publication of  Jason Kincaid, a blogger with a high profile.

In this post I don’t want to go into the ins and outs of Evernote’s limitations.  Rather I’ll conclude that alternatives to existing tools may not prove to address the limitations of tools which are currently being used and, indeed, may have other disadvantages, which may get worse if the company is not able to handle increased usage. In the case of Simplenote, for example, the online support service does appear to be non-existent. Ineed looking at the Support Center home page I notice a post entitled “Is Simplenote dying? I’ll concluded by quoting this post, published on 8 January, in full:

No blog posts since October.
Unanswered questions in support center.
Spam-filled support center.
Web app that CRAWLS.
Is Simplenote going away?

When announced it was closing up shop, I landed at Simplenote. I started using it for new notes right away, but I continued to look for an easy way to import my notes to another cloud-based note app. Yesterday, I gave up and did a manual copy-and-paste on all of my notes to get them into Simplenote. Now I’m experiencing performance issues I wasn’t experiencing before. I’m hoping this is a temporary thing, but based on posts I’m reading here in the “support center,” it looks like this has been going on for a while now. Please don’t tell me that I am going to have to migrate all my notes to another tool.

And no, there hasn’t been a response. Caveat emptor!


5 Responses to “New Year Resolution: I Won’t Ditch Software on a Whim!”

  1. If you’re interested in how you should evaluate the sustainability of an open source solution, read this OSS Watch briefing note:

  2. Hi Brian, first of all my apologies that your comments on my blog didn’t get through. Others people’s did and I haven’t got to the bottom of it yet!

    Tool use is an individual thing and my blog posts about different ones I use (or don’t use) are meant to serve as thought pieces rather than exhortations.

    For me, the Kincaid post on Evernote was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I’ve experienced data loss and flaky behaviour. I also don’t need most of the functionality that keeps being added.

    Simplenote was acquired by Automattic (the organisation behind WordPress) in Q3 2013. As a long-standing WordPress user this makes me happy and secure in the knowledge that Simplenote has a future. :-)

  3. Hi Doug
    Thanks for the reply. I tried 3 times to submit my comment on your blog but had no joy (even though it said it had been submitted for moderation).

    I think, though, that you undersell the influence which your digital presence has (almost 10,000 followers on Twitter!). And since you commented thatMy blog post on Evernote made the front page of Hacker News:“you are clearly aware that your ideas are picked up by others and may influence them. Indeed you have just written a post in which you seem to encourage people to Find what you can influence, and focus your attention.

    It’s good that Simplenote has been acquired recently. I hope that that does lead to enhancements to the service, including responses to the support desk, and a sustainable future.

    PS In the comment I tried to submit to your blog, I said I was pleased that you were back in the online world after your two month absence. I do enjoy reading your posts and your tweets.

  4. Graham Klyne said

    Hi Brian

    FWIW, I’ve been using Simplenote+Notational velocity for a couple of years, and generally have had no problems (finger trouble aside).

    Concerns about sustainability of the cloud service are ameliorated by the fact that NV maintains a simple plaintext (HTML) copy of all notes in the local file system, so if the service dies, I still have my data, and use of it on my laptop. What I might lose is the ability to see and update notes in my phone or on other machines. In this respect, it’s more dropbox than Google docs.

    Evernote I tried and quickly dropped because the extra functionality got in the way of the main requirement for taking and retrieving notes. For me, super-fast incremental search trumps the extra facilities.

    I’m not sure what this says to your wider point, so I’ll leave it at that.


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