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How Evernote designs a world without apps (Q&A)

CEO Phil Libin talks to CNET about Evernote’s latest milestone, designing for wearable tech, and how the future is app-less.

Evernote CEO Phil Libin. Evernote

In the early days of Evernote, CEO Phil Libin said he would check his screen every minute to see how many users the productivity tool was picking up. Now, he nearly missed celebrating Evernote surpassing 100 million users.

"We got too busy to think about it too much," he said while at the Collision Conference in Las Vegas this week.

The milestone, announced Tuesday, comes at a time when Evernote is busy expanding beyond the digital world. Founded in 2008, the company's main product is a note-taking app that lets users store and sync information in the cloud. The company unexpectedly launched a line of physical products about six months ago, and it is actively designing Evernote for a slew of wearables, including the Pebble and Galaxy Gear watches.

Evernote now boasts 101 million users, with 75 percent of those outside the US. The growth in the international market is not too surprising to Libin, who said 50 percent of the app's users were international within the company's first year. And while the figure is a landmark for Evernote, Libin has a much bigger goal.

"What we're really trying to do is build for busy people," he said. "There's about 1 billion of those people in the world."

He's estimated the amount of "busy people" in the world by calculating the number of LinkedIn professionals who work primarily with information, and adding students since they will enter that professional world.

Evernote has tough competition, particularly from productivity titan Microsoft and its slew of office products, and cloud-storage company Box, which launched Evernote competitor Box Notes in June. It's unclear how many users Box Note has, but Box's business service has a total of 20 million users. Microsoft Office, on the other hand, has already hit that 1 billion user mark.

That doesn't deter Libin. He thinks the apps built by Microsoft are continually less relevant to how people approach productivity. Part of his strategy to get more folks on board with Evernote is a continued focus on the relationship between the physical and digital world.

While people found it odd that Evernote wanted to sell everyday physical items like backpacks, wallets, and socks, Libin said the company is pretty happy with the results. Evernote has sold about $7 million worth of stuff since it launched its marketplace. About half of that revenue comes from people who have been using Evernote, but have never paid for software.

Libin said the extra revenue stream is nice, but the real benefit of the products is practicing design.

"The idea is we want to experience designing for the real world," he said. "The line between hardware and software is continuing to blur, and it will go away in your everyday interaction in the world. The next stage, 10 years from now, people won't be able to separate the real world from the digital."

This also means apps will go away, including Evernote's, he said. It's a topic that's been discussed before with digital assistant technology like Google Now and Siri serving up various services, essentially making apps redundant. Libin said Evernote is gearing up for this transition.

He spoke more with CNET about how people will interact with technology in the future and what it means to reach 100 million people. Below is an excerpt of the interview that has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: In your blog post you point out that while there are 100 million people who use Evernote, there are still about 7 billion people who've never used any Evernote product. You said both numbers are pretty inspirational. What did you mean by that?

Phil Libin: It's humbling to think we made something that 100 million people have used and for them, they chose to do it. Nobody's boss made them use it. It's cool to have 100 million, but it's much more interesting to think about the people who haven't used it. Ninety-eight percent of people haven't used it and they should. We want Evernote to make people smarter; we make it for ourselves, and we feel like everybody can benefit from it.

A majority of your users are overseas in Asia and Europe. How did you guys get there? And what does it mean to design productivity apps for an international market?

Libin: It's the same product everywhere. We design for the whole world. If you start designing just for the US or for Silicon Valley, then yes, you'll have to make different versions. But if you design for everyone, then you only need one.

I was in China last year. There are a lot of GM cars in China, but they're really different from GM cars in the US. They have a different look and branding; they are optimized for the Chinese market. Brazil also has a lot of GM cars. They are also different. And GM cars in Europe are different. GM spends huge resources trying to optimize for each local market. But, BMW sells the same product everywhere. Apple sells the same products everywhere. At the low end, you might have to optimize for local flavors, but at the high end, everyone loves the same great stuff. So how do we make it better for everyone?

In other countries, there are problems that affect some things worse than others -- like a difference in keyboard layout. It may be more severe, or maybe we hear about it there first. But it just helps us improve the product.

What is an example of an issue in one country? How did its solution help the product overall?

Libin: A lot of our searching technology, the way we search, it was working better in Western languages because of the way words were tokenized. In Chinese and Japanese languages, the words have no spaces. We had to rewrite all of our search algorithms. In designing that, it improved everywhere.

With all these companies jumping on the note-taking bandwagon and developing their own note-taking apps, like Microsoft's One-Note and Box Notes, how does Evernote compete? What sets your products apart?

Libin: The idea of productivity that existed 20 years ago, Microsoft Office, has become less and less relevant to what actual people need to do from day to day. It's about how you enter the content. Unless you're making a flyer for a lost kitten, you don't actually need it to look like pieces of paper. There are newer companies that aren't even pretending to be about paper.

There's always competition. When we launched Evernote, we had a hard time getting money. Every smartphone came with a free note-taking app. We've never had more competition than on the day that started. We don't worry about it, because it doesn't help make your products better. We make productive partnerships instead. You partner with anyone you can, and you make good products. There's a lot of companies that are competing with us that we partner with, and those relationships are going to get more interesting.

Designing for a wearable isn't as simple as putting your app on a watch. What are the biggest challenges behind putting Evernote on a wearable, and what have been the advantages?

Libin: There's huge potential. All of us are trying to figure out what's actually going to work. Within two or three years, it'll be very mainstream. Every time you've had a major transformation with the types of computers you use, the previous generations have become unimportant. When we were all using desktop computers, the average session was two hours, typically once a day. For PCs, how do I make someone productive for two hours at a time? The average session for phones is two to three minutes, but you check it 50 times a day. For wearables, that's down to one second, but you check it a thousand times a day. How do you design a productivity experience for one second?

I think apps are going to be meaningless. Evernote will understand all of the devices that you have and interact with them.

Five years from now, your interaction with technology is going to feel a lot less like filling out forms and pushing buttons. The relevant companies aren't going to be apps. We have to make that transition. It isn't so much about wearables. This is the same when you're doing things for something like TV. There's all these apps on the TV you have to scroll through. There's the remote for the TV and then the remote for the cable box. You have to flip through different inputs to find the right one. The technology is forcing you to do the work.

None of that makes any sense. It's not that the screen is too small. It all has to become much more disciplinary, the simultaneous development of the hardware and advances in machines learning. The technology has to know what you want to do before you do it.