Apparently Ariana Grande is struggling with finding a good note taking solution as much as I do, my arse left to cry too (almost) looking for it — who thought that of all things, the most mundane workflow, note taking, would be the hardest to find an alternative to! We are soulmates, Ariana and I!
As of 2 days ago, the “holdout” Google services on my phone are:
- Google Music (won’t go in the foreseeable future)
- Youtube (won’t go in the foreseeable future)
- Google Photos (who knows ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ )
- Google Maps (using it rarely these days, with alternatives getting better and better)
…and Google Keep.
But while I’m OK using Google Music and Youtube and Photos because weeellllllllll, let’s put an asterisk here, I had a problem with Google Keep. Note taking is a private thing; not always of course, 80% of the time you record mundane things like shopping list, a song title, the size of screws you have to buy in Gamma, or horrible word puns you want to use as a blog post title once, like that one with the Ariana Grande song and note taking apps… but I digress.
But sometimes you want to store important stuff: some doctor’s appointment related info, some government id related to your kid, some howto you created for yourself that would give away just a bit too much about your server config… This information I’m not comfortable keeping in Keep.
Oddly enough, the first group above is probably more useful to Google than the second one. I’m guessing that today they have better use of the data on my shopping habits or other preferences in Keep to target ads to me in Youtube (by now I don’t see targeted Google ads anywhere else), than my personal info. But first, this is exactly the issue, you provide access to behavioral information in exchange for some utility (ie. note taking), and sensitive information is almost always gets caught in the process. And second, you never know how that sensitive info will be used in 5 years’ time. As of now, I think they have better use of the mundane behavioral stuff than e.g. healthcare stuff, and I’m probably right. But imagine a future where, without the right privacy laws, this “accidental” healthcare info would form part of your profile, sold to insurance companies, employers… plus used for targeting, for good measure.
So Keep had to go.
But what’s a good alternative? Here, the getting stuck started.
Option 1: Nextcloud.
Nextcloud of course has a Notes app. It is bare bones, which is actually exactly what a Notes app should be. It handles .txt files, so your notes are part of the Nextcloud file structure, tags are folders, and you can browse these files from your desktop integrated Nextcloud folder if you want. It also does Markdown formatting, so it is
…except it does not have a mobile app. And while you could, technically, edit notes on your mobile (in a browser, in mobile view), I kinda need my notes on my phone, you know, in case I’m offline, which still happens time to time.
The Killer app
here would be of course a very simple notes app, syncing with my Nextcloud notes, local (encrypted) storage, simple Markdown support, including maybe checkboxes and tagging. In absence of this, I have to keep looking.
Option 2: Simplenote
If you look at alternativeto.net, and ignore the non-options listed on the page…
Well, let’s not ignore them just like that, ignore them after a 1 sentence explanation:
Microsoft OneNote: these days I’m avoiding it even for work purposes, because it’s horrible. Slow, way too complicated, shooting at many things, accomplishing none.
Evernote: I’m afraid it’s way too bloated for me. Last time I tried it was probably ~6 years ago, and I don’t suppose it lost features since; that is, from what I see now, it’s the Katamari Damacy of note taking.
…OK so that’s done, so if you look at position 3, it’s Simplenote. Developed by Automattic, so I have implicit love, and indeed I actually started using the app. Not bad, not bad.
No encryption, no additional protection, so confidentiality is pretty much on par with Google (ie. subpar; to my standards anyway), no WebDAV sync (so it sits in its own silo). No useful checklist function, but it has pretty usable tagging. After using it for a while, I ultimately decided against it, mainly because of the lack of encryption and/or WebDAV sync. I love the simplicity of this app though.
Option 4: Standard Notes
I also looked at Standard Notes. It has e2e encryption support, it has WedDAV sync support, and it has a decent Web app too. The problem? The free version is kinda basic, you get plaintext, not even Markdown (only in paid version), no sync of any kind (e2ee is still available though, that’s a plus)… and the paid version is bloody expensive.
9.99 EUR/month, or 49.99 EUR/year, or 149 EUR/5 years. For a note taking app.
Maybe it’s me, maybe I need to recalibrate what I think about note taking and the complexities involved. Maybe a note taking app does cost 9.99 EUR/month, or 49.99 EUR/year, or 149 EUR/5 years. Maybe my needs (a simple Markdown editor with WebDAV and e2ee) are too basic for the rest of the world. Maybe I could live with a 10 EUR/month fee for something with clearly more utility than my Youtube ultra plus premium account that is actually slightly more expensive… but I didn’t make that shift yet. It’s bloody expensive.
And don’t get me wrong here: I don’t mean anything bad to the developers, I wish them all the success with it that they can absorb. But actually, maybe it would be a good idea to create an intermediate tier without the bells and whistles and give it a bit cheaper. I bet there are potential customers out there who don’t need the “advanced editor”, the “spreadsheet editor”, don’t even know what Vim is, don’t care about Github pushes… but would happily pay some (but not too many) bucks a month for a good note app.
But I need to stop writing about Standard Notes because I already feel I’m talking myself into subscribing to it. So let’s see Joplin.
Eventually I settled on Joplin.
At least for a time.
Joplin is FLOSS software, this is a plus. It syncs natively to Nextcloud, that’s another plus. It has e2ee support, another plus. The fact that its developer is French (I think), and so you can pronounce Joplin as Joplin, is another big plus. (Heck, even if the guy is not French, I pronounce it as Joplin. I’ll even pronounce Janis Joplin as Janis Joplin from now on.)
On the negative side: it does not have a web interface. And while it integrates with, it does not integrate into Nextcloud. So I’m either using a mobile app (which is fine), or a desktop app (which is, in 2019, weird.) What I also see after some weeks of usage is there are frequent updates to the desktop app. This is good. But because of this, and considering how often I open Joplin on my desktop (not very often), my Joplin desktop workflow is basically something like this:
- I want to check or note something quickly, I’ll just quickly open Joplin
- Popup informs me there’s an update
- Download update
- Overwrite Joplin binary/etc. manually (I have to use the portable version)
- Restart Joplin
- Did I mention I wanted to do this quickly?
- Aand I forgot what I wanted to do.
Also, while Nextcloud integration is awesome, Joplin basically keeps a very verbose history of what you did to your notes. Open, modify, all actions are logged as metadata in the notes. What this means together with e2e encryption is my Nextcloud last modified files list is basically useless now, polluted with Joplin updates on weird random character filenames.
Still, Joplin is free (as in freedom), takes notes, and syncs to where I want it to.
So for now, Joplin stays.
But again, maybe a note taking app that saves to WebDAV/Nextcloud and has e2ee and does markup and maybe some other stuff is a complex thing. Maybe it is worth as much money as listening to DRM’ed music that I can’t even own. We’ll see. Tune in next time to an episode of Gergo impulse shopping a private note taking app for 9.99 EUR/month, or 49.99 EUR/year, or 149 EUR/5 years — admittedly, one of the more boring reality shows.
But at least a private one.