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Catch makes your notebooks social

A strong note-taking app for mobile devices gets interesting features for sharing, although they could make an awkward fit.

Catch is adding a group "Stream" function to its great single-user note-taking apps. Catch

I have to start this review by disclosing a gigantic bias: Evernote. I love it. I live in it. I do all my writing in it (I'm doing so now). I also like Evernote CEO Phil Libin. He's an interesting guy and great to hang out with. Ok? Bias.

But--sorry, Phil--Evernote the app is getting big, old, and suffering from some bloat. There are new apps coming along that are pure and elemental. One, Catch, reminds me of an early Evernote. Catch is also trying to go in a different direction from Evernote, with new social features that are launching today. While I like this app as a standalone product, I also think that trying to make a personal note-taking app a group product is an incredibly hard job.

There are iOS and Android versions of Catch, and a Web app as well. They're cleaner, and more contemporary than their Evernote counterparts. The big differentiator is Catch's filing system. It's based on hashtags, which is a neat trick. You just type a note like, "For #ProjectX team, don't forget to order T-shirts," and Catch will create a tag or label called "ProjectX" that shows up in your navigation.

Evernote, by contrast, uses tags that you have to enter in to the tag field when you're writing a note. It works, but it's slower. Evernote also has a very good search feature, so you don't technically need to use tags to find things again, but the hashtag concept is, I think, better. It's just enough of an organization scheme to really work -- not too onerous, not too loose.

For these reasons I like Catch. What I'm not sure about is its new direction, launching today: It will now give users "Streams," or multi-user notebooks that act as Yammer-like catch-alls for group thoughts. "You can start the seed of an idea in Catch," CTO Andreas Schobel told me. "You jot it down, then include people." And then the idea is that they catch up and carry the ball forward. "It's the natural evolution from keeping a journal," marketing VP Robin Harper added.

Theoretically, this makes sense. We work in teams, and we need to share notes in those teams. And technically, I think Catch can add this feature without junking up the interface too much.

But individuals work differently than groups, and I'm not sure that blending a private note-taking app with a group-think product works from a positioning perspective. Now, I have seen some products do both: Google Docs comes to mind. It's both incredibly useful for individuals and great for doing group work. Evernote lets you share notebooks, too. To be fair to Phil, it's a feature I've asked for. I thought I would need it. But I've used it maybe once.

So I am concerned that by focusing the company on groupware, Catch will lose its beauty as a single-user note-taking product. The socially-enabled version of the product should be available next week. The version in app stores now is still for the solo user.

My recommendation: If you take a lot of private text or voice notes on your smartphone or tablet, consider Catch in addition to Evernote. Special case: If you take a lot of picture notes (whiteboards, for example), Evernote's cool capability to search for text within photos makes it the winner.

For sharing notes, start with Google. If you start to run out of gas there, be prepared to do a lot of work lobbying your co-workers to adopt a note-taking app before it becomes a good group solution for you.

Rafe's rating: Catch

  • Product quality: Four out of five stars. Really lovely and fast note-taking app, now getting some potentially useful group features that, hopefully, won't dull the single-user experience. Missing a native app for Windows or OS X, although the Web client is good.
  • Business quality: Four out of five. Nearly the same freemium model that Evernote has. It's worked for Evernote, although it took that company years to achieve financial success.
Note on the Rafe's Rating scores: These are solely my opinions, informed by my experience reviewing consumer technology products and covering startup companies over the last 20+ years.