Moleskine Goes Digital: The Story Behind Evernote’s Smart Notebook

Xconomy National — 

Certain pairings make the world a better place. Peanut butter and jelly. Fred and Ginger. Pinot Noir and chocolate. Evernote and Moleskine.

That last one might not be familiar to you, yet. But a few weeks ago, the Milan, Italy-based publisher Moleskine introduced a new line of “Smart Notebooks” designed to be used in conjunction with Evernote, the cloud-based notekeeping tool. I’m an inveterate note-taker and a huge fan of both companies, so I immediately ordered one of the notebooks. (They’re priced at $24.95 for the pocket 3.5×5.5-inch version, and $29.95 for the larger 5×8.25-inch version.) I also got on the phone with John Hoye, director of partnerships at Evernote, to get the full story behind the collaboration. (A writeup of our talk is below.)

For the Smart Notebook, Evernote and Moleskine worked together to simplify the job of capturing your paper notes in digital form and saving them forever in your Evernote account. “There has been no easy way up to now to digitize [a bound notebook] unless you lop off the spine and scan it,” Hoye points out. “Most people who use Moleskine don’t want to destroy a notebook in order to make it digital.”

I’ll testify to that. Evernote’s solution is to turn the camera in your mobile device into a portable scanner, leaving the tricky parts—like cropping and squaring up page images—to software.

Evernote Smart Notebook by Moleskine

Evernote Smart Notebook by Moleskine

I’ve been playing around with my notebook and the upgraded Evernote iOS app for a couple of weeks now, and I think it’s a great example of the new kinds of hybrid physical-digital experiences that we can enjoy thanks to the mobile revolution. I like it because it starts with a common real-world experience—jotting or sketching in a paper notebook—and, through the medium of the smartphone, marries it with all of the Internet’s tools for organizing, sharing, and archiving your creations.

On the outside, the smart notebook doesn’t look special, except that it’s embossed with some cool Evernote designs. Inside, however, the pages are ruled using a special dotted pattern, and there’s also a bright green bookmark ribbon. To get your notes into Evernote, you use a feature of Evernote’s iOS app called Page Camera. (It’s only available for the iPhone, the iPad, and the iPod touch at this point—an Android version is on the way.) When you snap a picture of a finished notebook page, Page Camera looks for the dotted lines and the ribbon and uses those cues to automatically crop and straighten the image, which is then saved straight into your Evernote account.

As a fun bonus, the notebook also comes with some colorful “smart stickers” that you can apply to your notebook pages. You can customize the app to assign specific tags or categories to the page images when it sees the stickers.

Sketches from Italy - Saved to Evernote from my Smart Notebook by Moleskine

Sketches from Italy - Saved to Evernote from my Smart Notebook by Moleskine

Why would you want to copy your paper notebook page by page onto the Web? For all sorts of reasons. For one thing, Evernote’s optical character recognition technology means that your written notes will become searchable once you upload them. You can also share digitized pages with friends or colleagues, and organize alongside other types of media in custom notebooks. For example, I put the sketch at left into my Italy folder, which also contains photos, receipts, and itineraries from my recent trip to Rome, Florence, Venice, and Milan.

There’s also just something cool and fun about the Evernote-Moleskine collaboration. It’s a best-of-both-worlds situation. It’s certainly possible to take notes directly on your smartphone or tablet—I’ve written about several of the top digital notes apps, and Evernote itself has bought two companies, Skitch and Penultimate, that offer fun tools for drawing and taking notes on your mobile device. But even on a top-of-the-line tablet like the iPad, you don’t have much control over things like the position of the writing tip and the width of your stroke. In short, there’s still nothing like putting pen to paper.

Especially in a Moleskine notebook. With their creamy high-quality paper, dark leather covers, and elastic straps, Moleskines are a delight to own and a pleasure to write in. Not only that, but they’re instantly recognizable—and reek of what brand strategists call “aspirational” appeal. Just buying a Moleskine notebook makes you feel smarter and more creative. If you walk into a coffee shop with a Moleskine under your arm, everybody assumes you’re getting ready to think big, caffeinated thoughts—which, by itself, can be enough of a boost to get you thinking more creatively.

Now, with the Smart Notebook and the Page Camera feature, you can take notes the way you always did, and still save and share them online. So the Moleskine partnership was a smart play for Evernote. But it could be just the first sign of what’s coming from the company. When I got on the phone with John Hoye last week, I asked him whether Evernote and Moleskine have more features in mind for subsequent versions of the notebook, and whether there might be other hybrid digital-physical products in Evernote’s future. His answers were intriguing.

Wade Roush: What made you think that you could use software to improve on the old-fashioned paper notebook?

John Hoye: Many people are at their most creative when they’re putting pen to paper. We wanted to embrace that and add our own technology to make it even better and more useful. Moleskine has a wonderful brand presence in the market, and their users regard their paper notebooks as an invitation to be creative. The idea of bringing the two brands together made a lot of sense for both companies.

WR: What was it like working with a paper-goods company?

JH: This idea has been around Evernote and Moleskine for some time. A lot of people working on both sides brought their ideas to the table about how this would look, in terms of preserving certain aspects of the Moleskine experience. There are some obvious cultural differences—they’re an Italian company, we’re an American company. They sell physical goods, we’re a Web services company. But there was a lot of familiarity with Evernote amongst the team at Moleskine, and if you were to survey the creatives here at Evernote, there were a lot of people already using Moleskine notebooks. So we actually knew a lot about each other.

Photographing a notebook page using the Page Camera feature in Evernote's iOS app.

Photographing a notebook page using the Page Camera feature in Evernote's iOS app.

WR: What were your most important goals for the first version of the product?

JH: The point of it was to bring the notebook alive in a digital sense. We wanted to make sure that we could get things into Evernote where users could take advantage of Evernote’s capabilities in terms of organization, searchability, sharing, and tagging, as well as the anytime-anywhere aspect, while making sure that the image quality was there—that we were doing a good job capturing the page and representing it inside Evernote. So the design goal was to make sure that we had some fidelity to the original [notebook pages] and to get pages into Evernote as quickly as possible.

WR: To me, when Evernote puts its brand on a physical notebook, that’s like saying there are still certain limits on what we can do digitally, and that there’s something about the experience of writing or sketching on paper that hasn’t been captured by apps like Skitch or Penultimate. Do you agree?

JH: I think what we’re saying is that your work style is your own, and if you want to take advantage of digital tools, those tools are out there. And there are some very good ones from Evernote, including Skitch and Penultimate. But if you are going to be most creative in a world where you are putting pencil to paper—whether you are a writer putting words on paper or an artist sketching and drawing—there is still a way for you to take advantage of the whole Evernote experience. We don’t want to draw a line and say “Digital only from this point forward.” We want people to be able to embark on that experience on paper, and then export it into the digital world.

WR: Other companies like Livescribe, the digital smartpen maker, have come up with ways to digitize written notes. Why did you settle on the page-camera approach?

JH: When you think about Moleskine specifically, you have a bound notebook, and there has been no easy way up to now to digitize that unless you lop off the spine and scan it. Most people who use Moleskine don’t want to destroy a notebook in order to make it digital. They want to work with it as they go, digitize it as they go. The page camera feature embraces that.

WR: You provide some “smart stickers” along with the notebook that people can use to make sure that their digitized notebook pages get automatically tagged inside Evernote. Do you think a lot of people are going to use those?

JH: Tagging is still a relatively new concept for a lot of people. You are either a huge tagger or you don’t tag at all. The smart stickers are a way for people to get started in the world of tagging a Moleskine page. It’s a limited set of stickers, and we thought that if we gave people customization options, so that they can actually change what the stickers mean, then over time we would begin to get more feedback from customers about what they wanted. This is really Phase 1 of smart stickers. If we get some reactions to it we will see how we might evolve it further.

WR: Are you thinking about additional ways to integrate the paper and digital experiences?

JH: This is the first notebook and the first release of the page camera, so yes, we’re already thinking about ways to make it better and improve the experience. What we really want, now, is for customers to experience this and to start talking about it to us and to each other, so that we can begin to weave their requirements into how we evolve the page camera as well as the physical notebook.

A sample page from Evernote's Smart Notebook, showing "smart stickers" (pink arrows)

A sample page from Evernote's Smart Notebook, showing "smart stickers" (pink arrows)

WR: Do you have any favorite examples of stuff that people are doing with their smart notebooks?

JH: We just started shipping, but I have seen some references to writers who are taking notes with their Moleskine notebooks, and then using the page camera to enter that into Evernote, and then associating other content with the digital note. From there, they can start associating notes together and identifying them as part of the research for a book or an article. Or maybe you are using the Web clipper and capturing information about lots of subjects—now you can have your physical notes brought into that same notebook on Evernote.

Another example I saw was a creative collaboration, where somebody was sketching in the Moleskine notebook and using Evernote to get it into a shared notebook, where other people could then view the information and act upon it. That is a really interesting use case. When you think about it, in Web development, and in some of the visual arts, a lot of it is collaboration, but when an idea originates on paper it’s really hard to share it. With the Evernote integration things can be shared nearly instantly.

WR: It seems like the Moleskine partnership is in line with some of the other things Evernote has been doing lately to bridge the gap between the digital world and the real, physical world. I’m thinking about dedicated Evernote apps like Hello, for keeping track of the people you meet, and Food, for storing pictures and information about your restaurant meals. In the long run, do you think Evernote sees itself as a hybrid online-offline company?

JH: This gets back to what we were talking about earlier—how are people most comfortable? How do they want to work? Our tools should embrace that rather than redirect that and say “Sorry, you can’t be creative that way, you have to be creative this way.” If you want to work in a Moleskine notebook and that is where you are most comfortable, we are going to help you do that.

We can look at all sorts of different hybrid environments, because the real world is a hybrid environment. We have a paper life and a digital life and I don’t think we need to draw lines between them. Evernote is a company that can bridge both sides and do it quite well. The reaction [to the Smart Notebook] has been very positive so far, and the team is really jazzed about where we can go from here.