Can You Get It Out?

May 22, 2011 by Gabe | [mmd] |

I’ve been enjoying Dr. Drang’s tales of file format lock-in and his crusade against closed formats for his data. His stories always feel eerily familiar.

I bounce back and forth between Macs and Windows machines in my daily life. My OS polytheism goes way back. I started with an old custom built 386 PC in high school. In undergraduate, I took advantage of the steep Apple student discount and acquired a Mac IIci. During graduate school, Windows was the cheaper and logical option so I moved to a Dell (and regretted every minute with that brick). Finally, I moved back to a Mac after grad school. Much of my day job is spent on Windows still. Inevitably I have files created in Office for Windows and older files created on Word for Mac. Of course these files are not smoothly transportable. Specifically, documents with considerable formatting and embedded images generally fail horribly when moving from one version of an OS to another.

I don’t have a good solution for fixing my old files, but I do have a motto that reduces the chances it will happen with new files.

If it’s not portable, it’s not permanent.

I love new apps as much as the next guy. I was using Evernote before Phil Libin propelled the product into the top tier of Mac and mobile apps. It’s a truly wonderful application and service. I paid for the premium service for a couple years and used the heck out of the iPhone app.

One day I decided to do a little experiment and tried to export all of my Evernote files and import them into Devonthink Office Pro. Both applications do OCR. Both render HTML very well. Both also support a variety of file formats. I thought it would be an easy project. I ended up with a mess of poorly rendered files that were all missing their underlying OCR data. To be fair, Evernote is probably doing the best it can with exporting to a universal file type. I'm also confident that the source files were not always the best either.

I was quite disappointed, but it motivated me to make some changes. For long term note-taking, I gave up the convenience of Evernote in favor of alternatives that provide more portability.


I maintain all of my text notes as Simplenote/Dropbox text files. I use the Simplenote iPhone and iPad apps. I also use Notational Velocity (actually, I use NVAlt) on the Mac and Resophnotes on Windows.

These text files are portable and can be edited on any OS. I typically write in Markdown so I do get some basic formatting for making lists and I can export to a variety of formats easily. The real downside is that I can not include text formatting without using Markdown tags. The upside is that it is highly likely the text will be accessible for my lifetime.


Evernote was great for taking photo notes. Snap an image of a whiteboard and you get a photo plus searchable text. That’s pretty powerful and I still use that feature occasionally. While OCR of a handwritten whiteboard is pretty impressive, it’s rare that I actually need that. What I need is the content from the meeting easily accessible and portable to other apps. For example, I may want to zoom in on the image and add some additional notes or markup. I also usually transpose the content into Simplenote so that I can start defining tasks or projects. I’ve settled on a couple alternative iPhone apps that do a spectacular job of capturing the image and sharing it with other apps (and Dropbox).

Genius Scan (website) is my preferred app for snapping photos of white boards, scanning documents or remembering a parking spot. The $2.99 upgrade from the free version gets me Dropbox upload too, so the photos are available to all of my devices. A very good runner up is the iPhone app Scanner Pro

If I need to convert a document to text then OCRkit beats Evernote hands-down. Not because the OCR is better (I don’t think it is) but because it actually outputs text that I can copy and edit. Evernote really just does the OCR to support searching and when you export from Evernote, you lose the OCR.


There are two significant benefits to my note-taking system:

  1. Text notes and PNG files are portable and can be used across multiple OS' and applications
  2. By not relying on Evernote to do my note-taking for me, I am more thoughtful about what goes into my notes.

My Evernote archive was overflowing with dendrites shoveled in through the years of web browsing, brain storming and living life. When there is zero friction to adding content to a notebook, the notebook will become a junk pile. Curation is the path to high quality notes.

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