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Article by Jimmy Matthews III

In case you missed the furor over the past few days, Google has introduced a new note-taking product called Google Keep. This product was teased on March 18th when the web site drive.google.com/keep accidentally went live. A few tech bloggers and journalists dove-in and gathered an immense number of screenshots and gave their thoughts about Keep before Google suddenly pulled the plug on the mysterious new service mere hours after it had gone live.

In this article, we’ll cover what exactly Keep can do, as well as where it succeeds and where it fails. Finally, we’ll cover the big question that is on everyone’s mind: Why would I use Keep instead of a well-established service like Evernote?

What is Keep, and What Does it Do?

As mentioned, Keep is a note-taking service that Google has released publicly (http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2013/03/google-keepsave-whats-on-your-mind.html) as of March 20th. Some intrepid readers may be thinking, “didn’t Google already have a note-taking service that was killed off a few years ago?” This is completely accurate, and the company did in fact-kill off their Google Notebook service in the middle of last year (http://www.google.com/googlenotebook/faq.html); however unlike the recent shut-down of Google Reader, the Big G provided their users with a concrete transition plan, which included automatically migrating the Notebook data into Google Docs (now known as Google Drive).

Keep appears to have picked up exactly where Notebook left-off, albeit with a much cleaner web interface, and a similarly clean-looking Android app, which makes syncing your notes across multiple devices a breeze. The interface allows users to create flat text notes, ordered lists and image-based notes–all of which can be color-coded, archived and searched with ease. Beyond those features, Keep has nothing else to offer. Despite the misleading URL for Keep, it’s not currently integrated into Google Drive, though this has been promised as happening “in the coming weeks”. It should not be a stretch of the imagination to take this as meaning that “My Drive” will feature a sidebar link that will allow the user to access Keep without leaving the Drive interface. It also wouldn’t be a surprise if this comes coupled with a minor UI refresh for Drive to give it a cleaner interface similar to Keep.

Where Keep Succeeds

At this point, Keep features a very minimalist interface, which does not get in the user’s way. Instead, the user is able to focus on the task at hand, which is taking notes, and making lists. In this area, Keep is a clear note-taking power house. The minimal interface helps make using the service a very efficient task, and this also carries over to the Android app. Simplicity is key, and the fluid performance can not be overstated when it comes to getting things done.

Power users will be able to appreciate the fact that Keep does feature a fairly decent set of keyboard shortcuts for navigating around the web interface and allowing them to quickly edit and create notes. Sadly, there are a lot of issues related to these shortcuts, which we’ll detail in the next section. At the very least, the starting set of keyboard shortcuts is more fleshed-out than even those available today for Google+.

Where Keep Fails

Consistency: Why does it seem like every time a new Google product is unveiled, their mission of providing “a clean consistent interface” gets trashed? This usually gets rectified within a reasonable amount of time, but it’s a frustrating experience for the early adopters of their products that forces them to adapt as the “beta first” products mature. The UI of Keep is simply not consistent with the rest of their flagship services like Gmail, Calendar or Drive, and until this happens, there is going to be a usability delay when users switch between those essential services.

Keyboard shortcuts: The previous section mentioned that the keyboard shortcuts were a successful element to Keep, but there seems to be a plethora of issues with these shortcuts. First and foremost, there are missing functions that require the user to switch over and use the mouse. If there is any action that requires the usage of a mouse to interact with a product, then the keyboard shortcuts almost immediately lose their value. This is harsh, but true. For an example of all-inclusive keyboard shortcuts, look no further than Google Reader. There was not a single action that required the use of a mouse, and that was the primary reason that Reader was considered a “power user” tool. It enabled the consumption of content to be done at a rapid pace, to which there is no comparison. There are so many bugs when it comes to keyboard shortcuts in Keep that they need their own post to fully detail all of them. In the interest of time, those will not be included here.

Multiple Views: There are two ways to view the content in Keep: List view and Grid view. When switching to Grid view, a glaring defect is immediately obvious to the user: “what happened to the lists?” Suddenly, all “list” elements are collapsed into a flat text-based note. Each item within the list is included on a line with empty line-breaks between each one. The only way to intuitively identify a list is if there are already items that had been checked-off as completed, which appear as text formatted with “strike-through” style. One major disadvantage here is usability. There is no way to interact with a list while in grid view. The user is forced to change to list view in order to modify the check box that indicates an item has been completed. This is a stunning usability failure.

To further the frustration for using Grid view, all of the keyboard shortcuts related to creating new notes places the user back in List view, and there is no way to organize the notes from the web. In the Android version of Keep, the user is able to drag-and-drop the notes to reorder them, almost as a way of prioritizing the current items. This functionality is completely lost when using the web, and again: this is a complete and utter failure in usability.

Trash: Why is there no trash? Surely this service is intended to have consistency with Gmail on some level. The keyboard shortcuts for Archiving or Deleting notes are the same across both, and just like Gmail, you have the fleeting option to “Undo” either of these actions. Occasionally (and no thanks to the buggy keyboard shortcuts), an item can be accidentally deleted by the user. If the “Undo” link is not immediately selected to save the note from certain death, there is no safety net. The note is simply gone forever, and cast off to the bowels of Google’s servers.

Lists: This goes back to the failure to provide a consistent experience across products on Google’s part. Their Tasks product, which could be considered a subset of Gmail, has an excellent mechanism for creating ordered lists. You can nest lists and set reminders and calendar entries based on the content of individual items in your lists. None of these features carry over to Keep, and it’s mind boggling. This also opens the question as to what the future holds for Google Tasks. Will it be axed? Can it be merged into Keep? Why do they both exist right now, but with divergent usability and features? There are a few other nagging issues on lists like empty list items being entirely too easy to create, which don’t get automatically cleaned as well as the final item in every list being a non-removable empty check box, but those are less atrocious offenses than the ones that get in the way of being productive.

Is Keep Ready to Replace Evernote?

No. Not in any way. At this point in time, there are way too many features that are missing from Keep that will keep away long-time Evernote users. Chief among those missing features would be tagging, nesting/grouping of notes and the built-in OCR (optical character recognition) that allows a user to search and categorize images or PDFs that have been uploaded into their collection of notes. Another glaring omission is a web app. While Evernote has an extension/webapp called Webclipper–which makes saving webpages and articles to notebooks a snap–Keep has no such thing. Users are forced to bookmark the web page or use the Android app with no other alternatives.

Additionally, there is quite a bit of mystery over why Keep was released on a nondescript Wednesday in the middle of March. In the week prior to Keep’s unintentional leak and then subsequent unveiling by Google, their power consumption service Google Reader had been killed off. This caused a tremendous uproar all across the internet with a very vocal user base screaming about how they had been done a great disservice and that Google could no longer be trusted. It is impossible to rule-out the possibility that Google wanted to give the internet something else to talk about to try and quell the fury caused by announcing an upcoming shutdown of such a tremendously awesome service.

This is especially curious because of the unfinished nature of Keep. The “Google bar” that runs across the top of the Google ecosystem was introduced as a way of unifying the various Google products and tying everything together with a clean, consistent interface. But if that were the case, why does Keep have an old and outdated version of the Google bar? In fact, some might might even see it as spiteful that the “More” drop-down that can be found on Keep’s Google bar not only hides away Calendar and Drive (two essential services), but it still includes a link to Reader. Ouch. What happened here?

The outdated Google bar, coupled with the various bugs and interface quirks, not to mention the number of times that the service appeared to have crashed shortly after the big reveal tend to suggest that Google wanted to rush this product out before it was good and ready. While that may be true, there is no doubt that Keep has a long way to go. If Google wants this to be a serious contender to replace note-taking services like Evernote or task lists like any.do or their own Tasks service, then they have a steep climb in front of them. We can only hope that Google spends the time and resources necessary to build upon the promising base that they’ve established with the release of Google Keep.

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