Stepan Pachikov is one of those old-school Russian computer scientists who is still ten years ahead of everybody else. In the 1990s, he sold his virtual-reality company ParaGraph International to Silicon Graphics (which subsequently ran it into the ground) and its handwriting-recognition software to Microsoft (originally used in the Apple Newton, and now used in all Tablet PCs) for a total of $100 million. Recalling the demise of ParaGraph on a recent visit with me, Pachikov quips:
One person cannot ruin a good company. It takes a strong management team to do that.
These days Pachikov is working on a new startup called EverNote (which launched over a year ago and just this week released the new 1.5 beta version of its software). Like Google Notebook, EverNote offers a software download that lets you highlight and clip information as you surf the Web and stores your clippings for you online.
But EverNote goes much further than Google Notebook because you can also clip text from any Word document, Excel spreadsheet, PowerPoint slide, Outlook e-mail, or digital-ink scrawl. It stores all of these clippings on the Web in an endless, chronological tape that is highly searchable. (Because EverNote autotags every piece of data by time, file type, and whether there is handwriting or Web links in the clipping). Think of it as a personal database.
What really sets it apart is its ability to capture information from any picture you take with your camera phone, particularly photos of printed or handwritten words. Pachikov explains his goal to me this way:
I believe everyone has the dream of having photographic memory. Your camera phone must be your universal memory device—a container of everything.
What Pachikov wants you to do is take a picture of everything you want to remember with something you already carry all the time—your phone. The pictures then get uploaded to EverNote as you go about your daily routine and get appended as new posts to your personal tape. Pachikov calls it "a blog for lazy people."
EverNote captures the time and date, the location (i.e., the I.D. of nearest cell tower), and any text in the picture, such as a receipt or handwriting on a whiteboard. Even Microsoft's Tablet PC can only read handwriting written in digital ink with a stylus. Pachikov considers that old hat. His newer software (based on neural networks that learn what handwriting and text looks like) can now read handwriting and text in a photograph. To demonstrate, he snaps a picture with his phone of a Stormhoek poster in my office, which quickly and automatically uploads to his personal EverNote page on the Web. He then types in a search for one of the words in the poster—in this case, "puppy"—and the software highlights it in the image on the page. This capability is not turned on yet in the 1.5 version, but it eventually will be. (The software is free, but Pachikov hopes he can upsell enough people to a more powerful version that syncs with all your devices and costs $3/month).
While the technology is impressive, whether consumers will actually want to use it is another matter. So far only 600,000 have downloaded it, with 35,000 to 40,000 using it actively. I haven't been able to try it out myself because so far it only works with Windows (and I have a Mac). But you've got wonder: Have we become so dependant upon technology that we can no longer remember anything without it? Do we really need to digitize every waking moment of our lives? Perhaps this the beginning of the human-machine mind meld otherwise known as the Singularity.
On a more practical level, simply getting people to start using their camera phones as a life recorder will require a substantial behavioral shift (at least for anyone over 30). So will getting people to simply start clipping parts of the Web, e-mails, and documents that they want to save. After all, that's what Web and desktop search is for. The act of clipping presumes you know you will want that piece of information in the future, but most of the time search is an after-the-fact, retrospective activity. Of course, that can change. People are capable of forming new digital habits. The idea of using your phone as a universal memory device does have its appeal. Give it ten years, and the rest of us might finally get it.