Online Notebook Smackdown: Evernote Vs. Springpad

I’m a digital pack rat, which means I tend to get unreasonably excited about online notekeeping systems. I’m driven by the conviction that there’s got to be one best way to use the Internet to save and retrieve every bit of information I might want to look at later, whether that means Web clippings, important e-mails, voice memos, receipts, photos, maps, shopping lists, restaurant reviews, instruction manuals, or whatever. Of course, you could just store all this stuff on a single hard drive—but then you’d have to carry that drive with you everywhere. Putting it in the cloud means it’s available from anywhere, including your mobile devices.

I thought I’d found the beginnings of an answer back in 1999, when a developer at the Silicon Valley startup where I was working created, in his spare time, one of the most elegant content management and publishing systems I’ve ever seen. It was intended as the custom backend for the news website I was managing, and the beautiful thing about it was that you could easily create categories for articles, and categories-within-categories, and categories-within-categories-within-categories, then post stories to as many categories as you liked and navigate to them using a nifty system of nested links. It was like one of those cubby hole racks for your closet, only infinitely expandable. I thought it would make a great product on its own, but alas, the startup was in a different business (e-books) and when it eventually died, so did the publishing system.

I’ve been searching for a replacement ever since. Right now I think there are two main contenders for the title of best online notes application: Evernote and Springpad. I signed up for Evernote—created by the Mountain View, CA, startup of the same name—shortly after the Web version of the service was launched in June 2008, and I’ve stored just over 2,100 items there, averaging about three per day. And I’ve been following Springpad closely since Charlestown, MA-based Spring Partners opened their service to the public in November 2008. You can read my review of Evernote here and my news articles about Springpad here, here, and here.

If you’re the kind of computer user who spends a lot of time grazing for information online, or if you’re just a busy person juggling a lot of plans and commitments, a cloud notekeeper would probably be helpful. Both Evernote and Springpad let you capture information in multiple ways—whether you’re at your computer using a Web browser or you’re out and about with your mobile device—and they both make stored notes easy to find it later. But when it comes to what you can do with your notes, and how the companies earn money, the two services couldn’t be more at odds. Today I thought I’d compare the two tools, with a focus on the major similarities and differences rather than the specific features (which are many; Evernote’s product overview page is here and Springpad’s intro video is here).

SpringPad's Web interfaceIf I were forced to cut to the chase, I’d have to say that Evernote is great for geeks and serious info-hoarders while Springpad is better for shoppers, cooks, soccer moms, and other average folks doing everyday stuff. But for the details, read on.

1. Evernote costs money if you use it a lot; Springpad is free forever. You can sign up to use Evernote for free, but non-paying users have a file upload limit of 40 megabytes per month. That might be enough if you’re only saving Web clips, but if you’re uploading stuff like Word documents or Powerpoint presentations, you’re going to exceed it fast. A premium Evernote subscription, which raises the ceiling to 500 megabytes per month, costs $5 per month or $45 per year. Springpad, by contrast, is totally free and solely advertising-supported. Spring Partners makes money through lead generation—for example, by partnering with brands who buy targeted ads that show up alongside your notes. If you’ve just saved a Consumer Reports article about circular saws, for example, the ad slots on your note page are going to be pretty attractive to Lowe’s or Home Depot.

2. Once information is in Springpad, it’s even more useful than it was before. Once it’s in Evernote, it just kinda sits there (with one important exception). This is probably the most fundamental difference between the two services. The folks at Spring Partners have built software that enhances your notes with relevant information. Say you’re creating a note about a restaurant where you might want to eat: Springpad will recognize that and automatically include a link to ratings and reviews on Yelp. Making a note from a movie review you saw online? Springpad will show you movie times and link to the DVD on Netflix or Amazon. Evernote, on the other hand, figures that users just want to save stuff, so its interface is solely optimized for copying Web content or local files to the cloud-based system, then searching or accessing them. It doesn’t seek out related information: what you upload is what you get. (The exception is in the area of search. One of Evernote’s selling points is its automatic optical character recognition software, which analyzes photos and PDFs for text and indexes the notes based on what it finds. So if you upload a scan or a snapshot of a business card or a tax return, you’ll be able to find it later from Evernote’s search window.)

3. Evernote has dedicated software for Windows and Mac; Springpad is a pure Web service. If you install the Windows or Mac versions of Evernote on your computer, you can store copies of all of your Web-based notes locally, which means you don’t have to have an Internet connection to access them. But if you’re always plugged in or within Wi-Fi range, it doesn’t make much difference.

Evernote's Web interface4. Both Evernote and Springpad have nifty mobile apps. Evernote launched an iPhone app in December 2008 and an Android app in December 2009. Springpad came out with an iPhone app last month and will release an Android version in May. I’ve used both apps on the iPhone and they’re pretty good for capturing or reviewing notes when you’re away from your computer. Both let you snap and upload photos. The Springpad app’s two coolest features are the local search, which lets you find and then make notes about nearby stores and restaurants based on your current location, and the barcode scanner, which lets you take a picture of the barcode on almost any product, then automatically retrieves information about that product and makes it into a note. The Evernote app includes a built-in voice memo recorder that lets you make audio notes that are up to 20 minutes in length. (The Evernote app is particularly beautiful on an iPad, and I’m told that an iPad version of Springpad is in the works.)

5. Evernote is a medium-sized, well-funded Silicon Valley startup; Springpad is smaller and scrappier. Last November, Evernote secured $10 million in new venture funding from Morgenthaler Ventures of Menlo Park, CA. Springpad, meanwhile, is making do on a $4 million June 2008 Series A round from Cambridge, MA-based Fairhaven Capital. Evernote is located in the world capital of Web startups, while Springpad is that loneliest of beasts—a consumer-facing Web company in the Boston area (it’s one of only two Web startups in all of Charlestown, as far as I know). Such details shouldn’t matter to users, but they may be of interest to veteran startup-watchers, or to people who like to bet on underdogs.

So, the choice between the two cloud notekeeping services really comes down to what you’re looking for. To use some possibly unflattering similes, Evernote is like a really efficient file clerk at an old-time newspaper who spends all of his time in the morgue, organizing and indexing drawers full of clips. Springpad is like a big dog who wants to be at your side everywhere you go and do everything you do. Put another way, Springpad is like Archilochus’s fox, who knows many little things, and Evernote is like the hedgehog, who knows one big thing.

Jeff Janer, the CEO of Spring Partners, stopped by Xconomy last week to show me some of Springpad’s latest features, and I asked him how he describes the differences between his product and Evernote. “We’ve gotten lots of press about being a serious Evernote competitor,” he said. “We do overlap significantly with them on just capturing notes. But we’re very different in the context of what you do after you save it. They are a personal organizer, a search index for your stuff. Our aspiration is to be more of a personal assistant. Because it’s structured data that most people are saving, we can append information to it. If you’re capturing a note about Blu-Ray players, we can show you a price comparison or link you to reviews on CNET. It’s not just ‘Capture and organize,’ but ‘How can we help you out?'”

Which approach will give rise to the stronger business is, in the end, hard to say. For Evernote, the path to riches is simple: the company just has to sign up millions of premium members. But that could be tough if it has to compete with free alternatives like Springpad. For Spring Partners, the challenge is very different: the company has to turn each stored note into a lead generation opportunity for an advertising partner. Given the variety of activities most consumers are engaged in all day long, there ought to be lots of possibilities here, but exploiting them will involve a lot of sales and business-development work on top of the old-fashioned programming.

Personally, I’m more of an Evernote guy. But then I’m an alpha geek. I think Springpad’s “addressable market,” as the MBAs like to put it, is probably bigger than Evernote’s, since it includes almost any consumer with a computer and/or a smartphone. In the end, my guess is that there’s room in this market for both foxes and hedgehogs.

For a full list of my columns, check out the World Wide Wade Archive. You can also subscribe to the column via RSS or e-mail, and you can download Pixel Nation, an e-book version of the first 80 columns, as a free PDF file or a $4.99 Kindle edition.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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