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Google adds note function Keep, and it’s a keeper

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Updated: April 27, 2013 6:11AM

Android made a transformative leap forward last year with the release of version 4. But there was still one thing missing from Google’s menagerie of free mobile apps: a note taker. It was a baffling omission. One of the primary roles of a mobile device is to help you to capture and organize ideas and information as you make your way throughout space and time.

Now, there’s Google Keep. It’s tempting to conclude that Keep is Google’s attempt to horn in on some of Evernote’s territory. Actually, it’s even more tempting to make a “Google releases Keep” gag, but the day grows long.

After a day with Keep, I don’t think that Keep was intended as Google’s challenge to Evernote. Keep isn’t nearly as ambitious as Evernote. It looks like a hybrid of a Windows Phone live tile display and Pinterest, and its interface is as simple as its feature set.

Tap to create a note. You can give your note a title and an optional color. The home screen of the app arranges your notes as squares. You can rearrange them just by dragging and dropping. Keep can also be accessed through widgets on your desktop. If you’re using Android 4.2, you can also access it right through the lockscreen, for quick note capture.

That’s pretty much it. You can’t add tags, or organize items into notebooks. Sharing notes with other people happens through Android’s plain-Jane system-wide Share button. Text formatting is non-existent; the only flair in that category is the ability to create a note as a to-do list, formatted as a list of checkboxes.

Is Keep a power tool? Nope. It’s clearly a consumer-focused app intended to carry water for ordinary consumers. It’s OK to disappoint the people who want to manage the interlocking fiefdoms of finance, scheduling, and incompetence associated with a kitchen remodeling project ... if the simplicity of the app encourages thousands of others to use it to remember stuff like the shirt sizes of nieces and nephews.

Besides, I don’t think Keep was appropriately named to begin with. The real focus seems to be on the “Getting” of information and not the “Keeping.” Speech to text works excellently. You can capture a photo as a note within the app, and Keep is a good target for Android’s system-wide Sharing feature. Net result: You see something on your Android phone that’s worth remembering, and then you Share it into Keep in one clean step.

You can get to your notes through any Android device to your Google account, or from any other device through Google Drive. You can hit to access and edit your notes. Alas, the webapp isn’t as fully featured as the Android app. I hope that changes soon. The one thing that made Evernote into an important tool for me was the ubiquity of the service. Whatever I have at hand can be used to feed a note or a thought into Evernote.

Google Keep is a neat freebie on its own, and like I said, it spackles an annoying long-standing gap in Android. But it’s clearly going to be built up as an enhancement for Google’s entire portfolio. Gmail, Maps, Search, Google Plus, Google Drive, Chrome (and here I mean the browser, the Chromebook, and ChromeOS)...all of Google’s products can feed information into Keep, and Keep can expose those notes to every other app and feature. Within the universe of Google products and services, Keep will become the verb of the thought “what I’m looking at right now is worth hanging on to.”

That’s a common enough thought that Google is well-motivated to grab that verb for itself, instead of handing it off to Evernote or another app that takes you away from the Google environment.

And even if a Keep user never reaches the true Google Singularity Event Horizon, they’ll still have a free nifty little notes app. It’s a Win.

Oh, right: Google Reader.

Yeah, ever since Reader’s cancellation last week I’m a little bit worried about getting so excited about a brand-new Google software product that I eventually couldn’t live without it. Keep could turn out to be another case of Google rolling out an interesting idea and then canceling it once they start getting bored, or just restless for a bigger and fresher idea.

Witness Google Wave, the communications infrastructure that seemed like a collaborative tool with a good future, but which ultimately proved to be little more than a skunk works for Google Plus. The risk is worth commenting on, but not harping over.

I see Keep as a middle ground between the two excellent notes apps with which I’m most familiar. If Keep were even simpler, it’d be the Notes app that ships with iOS. Notes focuses solely on the task of being A Yellow College-Ruled Place To Keep Text, and it executes that task flawlessly. It’s iOS and MacOS-only, but you’re not completely stuck inside the Apple ecosystem; the marvelous webapp edition is practically indistinguishable from the desktop app. So let’s score Notes as “platform independent-ish.”

Evernote is the app you land on if you truly want to use a this type of app everywhere. Native clients exist for any operating system that’s proven its ability to breathe without the aid of a ventilator. And unlike simpler apps, it can juggle multiple aspects of your personal and professional life across hundreds, even thousands, of scraps of data, and you can share notebooks with other Evernote users to produce a kind of communal brain-dump.

Keep smells like glue, not like glitter; I feel as though it’ll become more valuable as Google integrates it directly into more products. It already works great with Google Now. Say “Google, take a note...” and whatever you say next goes into Keep.

It ought to integrate well into Google Glass, too. Glass is intended for simple transactions between the device and the user. It’s not hard to imagine any of these Keep notes right here on my Android phone’s screen appearing exactly this way in a heads-up display.

Good God. When did technology reporting become like archaeology? The large tech companies release a new product or service, and we scrutinize this new piece as though it’s a freshly unearthed fossil. It’s interesting in and of itself...but it’s more interesting for what it might suggest about the rest of the beast, remaining to be discovered.

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