Quitting Evernote for DEVONthink

The story along the way of my personal process to change my Information management system. Also, how to quickly setup your own remote WebDAV storage.

Evernote everywhere

Evernote is quite a pervasive phenomenon and numerous apps have a dedicated pipe to the platform. And for good reasons, Evernote is an excellent Information Manager and it has been around on time for the Cloud frenzy and modern mobility expectations.

I’ve been a customer since 2012, paying for the Premium features.
I primarily use Evernote to archive PDFs, Web pages (it has a very efficient web clipper) or anything else (podcast audio files for example) I find during my researches on the internet. More secondarily I store my own work and notes. So far Evernote has been a quasi-perfect fit for me.

So why quit?

Small friction points, big caveats. Overall, despite the tremendous value Evernote brings to me, I have never been completely satisfied with it.

The little annoyances

I use a lot the Web clipping feature. I want to have only the essential content of a web page, having only basic formatted text and eventually the embedded pictures. On my Mac, the browser plug-in does exactly that (via the “Simplified article” option). But I’m also a heavy iOS user and the web clipping feature on iOS is not as featured as on macOS, you will have only a Full page clipped. Nowadays the Web is full of heavy pages, cluttered with frames, javascript, comment sections and so on. I don’t need/want to archive such things. Small detail may be, but a real drawback for me.
I also have some concerns about the proprietary format used for the notes. I see them as a container with eventually, my original files in them.

Privacy

By design, the service stores your data online unencrypted (please note transport is encrypted) as indexation, OCR and search analysis are done server-side. Evernote team has been communicating on the matter not without some missteps, waving and changing their Privacy Policy as they optimize their business model.
I also keep in mind that from a legal point of view, I’m a foreigner storing stuff on U.S. soil and only protected by public facing business commitments. 
I use Evernote to archive publicly accessible and legit content or my own notes, yet the pattern of my interests induced by an analysis of my +7500 notes is private information and I’m not happy with the fact that a Machine Learning engine, an OCR process, and any Evernote team member might be able to snoop on my data.

Evernote history

Aside the mentioned Privacy Policy fluctuations, Evernote history had some worrying events that damaged the confidence I had on the service.
When CEO Phil Libin moved away in 2015 and alarming articles started to flourish, I started to look for an alternative. Looking back, my paranoid reaction was driven by the heavy dependency I have with the service. And… as I couldn’t find suitable solutions, I let it go…
Until one year later, when subscription plan prices went up significantly, my intention to move away from Evernote was set for good. That is… as soon as I could find a replacement fitting my expectations.

Searching for alternatives

During the past 2 years, while keeping my decision to quit Evernote in my ToDo list, several factors evolved on my side:

  • My growing awareness about digital means and encryption for a better privacy as I continue to gain some experience on a now 3-years old activity: managing my own online Linux servers, configuring and maintaining the services hosting my personal data. All the nifty-gritty securing my stuff is now a persistent topic for me.
  • The ongoing shift regarding creation capabilities from legacy computers (aka PC) toward smartphones and tablets. Not to mention mobile user markets being nurtured on digital experiences without any PC. And I’m keen on following the trend here, expecting to have full capacity while being mobile.
    In short, as an Apple customer, I’m progressively changing my workflow so I can uniquely rely on my iOS devices for everything.
  • I started to pay more attention to apps interactions, emphasizing apps specialization (vs all-in-one software) and system-wide support data exchanges. With iDevices maturing dramatically with iOS11, the momentum seems about right.

By telling you all that jazz, my intention is to highlight the fact that context and ecosystems are evolving. We have now powerful devices in our pockets, with professional capabilities (with the proper workflow) for content production.

It’s DEVONthink

I found my alternative to Evernote thanks to Federico Viticci, founder of MacStories.net and very skilled contributor to many articles and podcasts leveraging iOS to its full potential and promoting quality apps.
My rule of thumb: When Federico says he is using an app, you must pay attention to such app. It may not fit your needs but it’s most certainly a good app.
So… A few months ago, when Federico mentioned DEVONthink here and here. I started to be interested… but still in a lazy mood regarding the potentially drastic changes it may imply for my 5-years old habits with Evernote.

Then Evernote renewal yearly subscription alert kicked 2 weeks ago. A renewed motivation grew in me and this article, specifically comparing DEVONthink and Evernote, convinced me I must give a try to it.

Some decisive points in favor of DEVONthink came immediately to my mind:

  • Sync storage can be done with AES256 encryption, with your own passphrase.
  • There is an extensive choice of Sync storage locations (WebDAV, DropBox, Box, local NAS…).
  • Content is managed in its original format unless you choose to convert it.
  • Web clipper on both macOS and iOS client apps is quite good as far I can tell.
  • iOS app may not be as featured as its macOS counterpart but interactions with other apps on iOS are excellent.
  • Indexing and smart filters are all done locally, on the client apps.
  • Client apps fully support Markdown markup format.
  • Import from Evernote is built-in and went quite smoothly, with metadata, tags, etc…
  • There are no subscription fees. License is valid for major releases, i.e. Paid upgrades only happen from 2.x to 3.x for example.

Some negative points I keep on DEVONthink so far:

  • User interface on the macOS app is a bit outdated. Yet efficient but it feels like “for engineers by engineers”. (ok, I’m being picky here)
  • RSS feed reader is only available on the more costly Pro (or Pro Office) variants of the macOS apps. I would have appreciated having this feature in the regular one and in the iOS app.
  • Cost for both macOS and iOS apps demands you consider the move as an investment (but remember, only once).
  • Web Archives are directly editable in the macOS client app, not in the iOS client app.

Up and running

I downloaded the macOS Pro variant (there is a Trial period) and I bought the iOS app (sadly, no trial period).

I choose to use one of my Linux servers (Debian9), already running an Apache2 instance, to quickly setup a WebDAV service dedicated to DEVONthink sync location storage.

On a side note, this particular server is for my internal use only and ports directly exposed to the internet are restricted to SSH and IPsec (VPN). The existing Apache2 configuration is fine-tuned but it doesn’t use HTTPS as the only way to reach the web server is via my IPsec tunnels. This is why the WebDAV configuration below is pretty simple and without HTTPS.
If you are planning to implement a WebDAV server exposed to the internet, I strongly suggest you enable HTTPS.

Now let me go through my minimalist configuration via a quick tutorial, assuming you know a few things on your own…

We activate Apache2 WebDAV modules:

a2enmod dav
a2enmod dav_fs
a2enmod auth_digest
service apache2 restart

We specify a dedicated WebDAV user (you will be ask to choose an user password) and we specify permissions on the password file:

htdigest -c /etc/apache2/webdav.passwd webdav accessuser
chown www-data:www-data /etc/apache2/webdav.passwd
chmod 640 /etc/apache2/webdav.passwd

We create the folder for the WebDAV storage with the proper permissions for Apache2 access:

mkdir -p /var/www/webdav
chown -R www-data:www-data /var/www/webdav

Let’s define the Virtual host for Apache2:

nano /etc/apache2/sites-available/webdav.example.org.conf

<VirtualHost *:80>
ServerName webdav.example.org
ServerAdmin webmaster@localhost
DocumentRoot /var/www/webdav/
<Directory /var/www/webdav/>
DAV On
AuthType Digest
AuthName webdav
AuthUserFile /etc/apache2/webdav.passwd
Require valid-user
</Directory>
ErrorLog ${APACHE_LOG_DIR}/error.log
CustomLog ${APACHE_LOG_DIR}/access.log combined
</VirtualHost>

We enable the Virtual Host and restart Apache2:

a2ensite webdav.example.org
service apache2 restart

Done.

Now, run the macOS client as it is the one able to handle the import from Evernote so it can populate the DataBase with your existing notes. Choose the WebDAV server as storage for the Sync location. Enter webdav.example.org, WebDAV user name (accessuser) and its password.
Don’t forget to setup a passphrase for the sync location in order to have your database stored on webdav.example.org fully encrypted.

Once your import from Evernote is done, the local DataBase populated on the Mac, you can have DEVONthink To Go (the iOS client app) syncing via Bonjour (fastest method) so it can populate it own local Database. And as you want to continue to be able to sync while away, add the WebDAV configuration with the same parameters as for the macOS client app, including the very same passphrase for encryption so it can access your DataBase copied on the sync location.

That was fast!

After importing locally my +7500 notes from Evernote, the synchronization of my 11 Gbytes heavy database to the WebDAV location (compressed down to 7.8 GB and encrypted) took only 6 minutes as I’m lucky enough to have a FTTH connectivity at home, a router peaking at 200 Mbps on an AES encrypted IPsec tunnel and a server in a datacenter only 4 milliseconds away (≈ 10 kilometers on the map).
Now as I’m adding new entries in my Database since several days, having a near instantaneous synchronisation is quite a pleasant experience I must say.

Conclusion

Moving to DEVONthink from Evernote is not a trivial change. The new tools available to handle my Information and Knowledge activities are quite different and in many ways, far more powerful. The learning curve has started for me but I feel DEVONthink is not only excellent but most importantly the proper fit for me. I’m just beginning to perceive how I can now extend my use of such tool as most barriers I had with Evernote have been lifted now.
I’m convinced I made the right move and, considering the significant improvements added to DEVONthink and DEVONthink To Go apps in 2017, at the right time. I’m also hoping for further improvements with incoming iOS11 and the strong push the new OS brings in terms of capabilities for the iPad toward Pro users.

Yann