Stop with the Sticky Notes: 7 Safer Note-taking Tools to Bring Your Family’s Notes Online

How do you store your family’s notes online securely?

The answer, it turns out, lies in open source, multi-platform, and decentralized online notebooks.

But before I explain, let me back up a minute.

I’ve been having an ongoing conversation with my wife about storing our accounts and passwords online in a notes app. We both need to access our account info while on the go. And we need an easy-to-use, hopefully free online notepad that we can view and update while picking up the kids or waiting in line at the bank.

Our conversation sounds something like:

“Where can we place all this private data so we can access it easily?”
“On our phones, maybe?”
“But then if a password changes, we’d have to remember to remind each other of the change. And isn’t it unsafe if the phones get lost or stolen?”
“Then maybe save it in an online notebook like Evernote or Google Docs?”
“Umm. You *do* know those companies can access your data anytime they want, right?”
“Yeah, but would they?”
“They most definitely would. And besides, even if they don’t, why take the chance?”
“So what do we use that’s private, that can sync on our computers and phones, and won’t be seen by snooping companies?”

There wasn’t a good answer for some time. And I got tired of searching for sticky notes that had fallen to the floor or physical notebooks that were left in the wrong car.

I wanted online tools that only my wife and I could access, and that could be stored and launched from where we chose.

So I did some research to find real solutions.

Why Not Simply Use Evernote, OneNote, Google Keep for Family / Work Notes?

I hear you saying: “Why don’t you just quit complaining and use Evernote, OneNote, Google Keep, Simplenote, Bear, etc.?”

Well, because you don’t own the companies that offer those tools. So you can’t make the rules. They offer a centralized service (all the data is stored by them), which means you’re using their tools on their terms.

Sure, you can still use them. Each is a fantastic notes app, and I’ve used many of them for years to capture work notes or collaborate with teams large and small. But even with global initiatives like GDPR forcing companies to be more transparent, there will always be some level of unwanted access and possible snooping into your data on these tools — whether by humans or intelligent bots.

And if there’s anything that the 2018 Facebook/Cambridge Analytica fiasco has proven, it is that a centralized system is not the safest option. You and your data are vulnerable when stored in a single place.

If You Want Control, You Need Apps That Give You Control

The solution then is to store your data on your terms. You should be able to control where it’s stored, how often the app is updated, who can access it, how you import/export it into other tools.

There is a large number of developers working on wide spectrum of solutions that are open source, multi-platform, and decentralized. That means the tools give users total control over their data. And these solutions include everything from a free online notepad to social networks to real-time chat software.

Some of them are built on blockchain and can be found on the State Of the Dapps curated list or the Universal Dapp Store. Others can be found by searching Google, Twitter, Facebook, Product Hunt, or various forums and Slack groups.

Here are the tools I found to solve our dilemma.

Standard Notes, a Free Online Notepad That’s Encrypted

I found Standard Notes thanks to browsing the F-Droid app marketplace for free & open source Android apps. I immediately put it to use as a writing scratchpad and a makeshift account info/password locker.

Standard Notes is elegant in its simplicity: it’s a tool for capturing plain text work notes. It’s an open source, multi-platform, note-taking tool that has end-to-end encryption (using AES-256) so no one but you can see the data you store in it. Plus you can further lock down your data with a master passcode.

The app can save automatic backups as .TXT files onto your computer or mobile device. And because it’s just plain text, your backup file sizes are measured in mere kilobytes.

It’s eerily similar to Simplenote — except for the fact that you KNOW your data is safe here. According to Standard Notes users who are more knowledgeable than me, user data in Simplenote is only encrypted in transit and not at rest. That means, when you’re not syncing your notes, your Simplenote data sits unencrypted on a server somewhere. In contrast, Standard Notes encrypts both in transit and at rest, and never touches a server without being encrypted.

There is one drawback to Standard Notes though (which could also be a silver lining). It’s plain text all the way. No images, no rich text formatting or markup, and definitely no attachments.

If, like me, you got used to the sleek feature set of Evernote, you will ache to be able to drag PDFs or photos into your notes. Maybe even format text or add H1 and H2 markdown to them. But this limitation is also what makes it so fast and nimble to use.

The basic Standard Notes free plan is already powerful enough for daily use, but if you purchase an “Extended” subscription ($34.99/year), you gain access to:

  • Two-factor authentication,
  • Unlimited usage of themes & extensions (e.g. markdown editors, coding editors, task editors, nested folders, and more),
  • Note version history for up to 100 years, and
  • Automated backups to email, or a file sharing service such as Dropbox, OneDrive, and Google Drive.

Joplin, an Online Notebook that Can Replace Evernote

The second tool I highly recommend is Joplin. It’s a free, open source, multi-platform, decentralized note-taking tool — meaning the developer has no way to see or even store your notes because you can choose to host these notes wherever you like: on your own computer, or your Dropbox account, or a domain. Plus, it’s also got end-to-end encryption.

I tested it over several months, and am convinced the developer’s heart is in the right place: he responds quickly and listens to user feedback. The tool itself can already blow Evernote out of the water when used to keep an individual’s notes online. I use it as a full replacement for Evernote, especially with the addition of its web clipper browser extension.

Joplin allows you to format text using markdown, which is a nice change of pace from the plain text of Standard Notes. (Though I personally prefer rich text formatting because I grew up on Wordpad.) But at least Joplin gives you 3 options for viewing your notes: in plain text, in markdown, or split screen, which does eat up your screen real estate.

I can’t really complain about that minor irritation because it’s all offset by the fact that Joplin has the ability to store attachments and display images! Your attachment file sizes are only limited by the amount of storage you have in Dropbox, or your hard drive, or server. (Just a note: it won’t display PDFs.)

It’s offline first, which means you don’t need a wifi signal. It will store the data on the local app before trying to synchronize via the web. And once you set how often you want Joplin to synchronize, it will automatically backup your data.

Some of its most recent updates (and there seems to be one every week) have given Joplin powerful features, which are surprising from a free tool:

  • A web clipper browser extension, which turns any selected text on a webpage into a markdown-formatted note
  • The ability to drag a notebook into another notebook to make it a sub-notebook. (Notebook Stacks, anyone?)
  • The ability to import from Evernote (.ENEX files) without much fuss.

This is how you know they’re on the path toward taking market share away from Evernote. And I cheer them on.

Etherpad, a Real-time Note-taking Tool for Teams

If you need a single place to take notes in real time with multiple participants, then there’s Etherpad. It could be useful for work (think weekly meetings, or attendees taking notes at a conference), or for when you and your spouse are listening to the school psychologist talk about nurturing communication skills in your elementary age children.

It’s a free, open source note-taking software where each participant gets a color code so you can see who’s typing what. And there’s a real-time chat box on the side for conversations that don’t need to make it into the document.

Access to the shared doc (called a “pad”) is by giving a participant the unique pad URL. This can be made more secure by requiring a password.

You can choose to install Etherpad into your network for better safety, or simply use some of the existing public Etherpad instances that other groups have already set up. Note however that some of those public instances automatically delete pads that are inactive after a fixed time period.

If you’re worried about your pads being accessible to others, no one else will have access to a pad if they don’t know the URLs. But to be safe, store more sensitive notes on Joplin or Standard Notes.

EtherCalc, an Open Source Online Spreadsheet

And where would a set of family tools be without a spreadsheet to balance the household budget? (In the red, I assume.)

EtherCalc is the solution. It’s a free, open source web spreadsheet where users can edit the same sheet simultaneously. All changes are instantly reflected on all screens, making it perfect for brainstorming ideas, building a library index of all the DVDs or books at home, or simply tracking the monthly bills.

Like EtherPad, access to your spreadsheet is a matter of sharing the URL. No other bells or whistles.

Export your spreadsheet into HTML, CSV, or Excel or restore previous versions of the same spreadsheet easily.

If you intend to use EtherCalc offline though, you may run into some difficulty as you will need to install Node.JS. (Tip: if you don’t know what it is, then don’t even think about it.) So as long as you have internet access, you may as well stick with the web app, and simply create a private spreadsheet within your browser.

KeePass, a Free Password Manager for All Your Accounts

The lynchpin tool in your household arsenal is the password manager. With the enormous number of websites and accounts you access on a regular basis, you need something more robust than sticky notes on the edge of your home computer’s monitor.

There is a wide range of professional password managers out there that offer premium features for monthly subscriptions. Those may be too complex for your household needs. If you simply need one that syncs between your computer and the smartphones you and your spouse use, then a freeware, open source solution is the way to go.

KeePass is one. It can be installed in a server or a filesharing tool like Dropbox, and can then be made to sync with all your mobile devices as well as your browsers. It has various versions for each of the different operating systems: MacPass for OSX, KeePassDroid for Android devices, and so on. But they all talk to one another because they’re all built from the same foundation.

Best of all it’s free and with some browser extensions, you can even configure it to automatically fill in form fields once you land on a webpage requiring a log in.

If you need more security, lock all your passwords behind a master passcode. And then have KeePass generate longer, more secure passwords for each of your accounts. No more need for a note in Joplin or Standard Notes for your Facebook login, for example.

Or: Simply Use Old School, Portable Outliners on the PC

If you simply need to read your notes online though, there are simpler ways.

Some years back, I answered a question on Quora about note-taking tools that can be used by multiple users. At the time, I suggested two simple portable freeware options for the PC: MemPad and Minipad. They still work.

Both tools are examples of old school, tree-style hierarchical note takers (AKA outliners), which are sorely missing in today’s landscape of tags and folders. They’re text-based, so no attachments or images — but you can easily link out to local files and store the links in the text.

They can both be installed on a USB stick, your computer hard drive, a network drive, or even run on Dropbox (or similar cloud repository) and theoretically used with coworkers/family — although probably not simultaneously. Someone out there test it to see if it works.

What Tools Do You Use?

I’m curious to find out how other families do it. Do you all share one Google Doc? Or are there more esoteric tools involved? How do you deal with security and privacy? How do you deal with the possibility of companies seeing your data when you use their free tools? Sound out in the comments.