In my previous life, I worked closely with software developers. I greatly admired their work, but I was also continually frustrated by their approach to problem-solving.

“Why can’t it do that?” I’d ask.

“Because it can’t,” would be the inevitable reply, delivered in a manner that suggested the meeting was over and that we should never broach the subject ever again.

“Yes, but why?”

“Because to make it do that, we’d need to re-engineer this, and then that would throw that out of whack because we don’t have the right server to maintain that part of the code, which is also linked to the integration we have with that piece of third-party software which requires those components to run on the old server we have in John’s office.”

“Ok. How long will it take to fix this?”

“Six months.”

“We need it for next month’s product launch. That’s too long, and you’ve known about this for six months.”

“Ok. It’ll probably take about three months.”

“That’s still too long… and how have you suddenly halved the time required? Regardless – we need it next month. What do we need to do to make this happen?”

“We can’t do anything until John updates the version of Windows on that server, and he can’t do that because he’s also using it as his main desktop computer and our helpdesk software isn’t compatible with the latest Windows. And, that isn’t the main problem. You see, we’re halfway through converting the entire code base to version 9 of Delphi, and we can’t do anything until that’s done, anyway.”

Exhausted? Me too. It’s how I lost most of my hair.

I remember having to explain to one of our developers that people actually used the stuff we were making. That’s right – we weren’t doing it for our own enjoyment (although even that was questionable); once developed, the software we created headed into the hands of customers who expected it to do the stuff we promised it would.

Customers don’t give two shits about code maintenance, third-party integrations, or poor infrastructure investment. The software just needs to work and provide the features they need. Equally, they don’t like to be surprised or left feeling constrained by decisions made entirely on behalf of the developers.

Occasionally, I’ll come across a modern app which brazenly displays the same incredibly irritating ‘we-know-best’ developer mindset.

Nebo is one such app.

What is Nebo?

Nebo is a note-taking app for the iPad, Mac and iPhone. The people behind it refer to their app as ‘the future of note-taking’, which is quite a claim.

Since the introduction of the Apple Pencil, note-taking on the iPad has exploded. I’m a full convert and use my iPad mini complete with Apple Pencil 2 and Paperlike screen protector daily to jot down my notes and thoughts. My app of choice for this is Notability, but there are countless alternatives, and, as always, I want to keep my options open.

That’s what led me to Nebo. There are several fans of this note-taking app on my Discord server – and those guys really know what they’re talking about.

They’ve got a point, too – because Nebo is seriously impressive.

The GREAT things about Nebo

There is some seriously impressive tech going on behind the scenes in Nebo. It features, arguably, the most incredible form of handwriting recognition I’ve ever seen.

Let me put this into context: my handwriting is atrocious. I’ve worked on improving it over the last twelve months, but it still resembles a scribbled, incoherent mess, half the time. Even I struggle to read it.

Nebo doesn’t. Somehow, it always manages to ‘read’ my handwriting and immediately turn it into text. It actually does it on-the-fly, too – a feat you can witness thanks to the small conversion preview pane that’s automatically placed above the sentence you’re writing.

You can even use gestures to edit your text. For instance, underlining a passage automatically turns it into a heading, while striking through your text deletes it.

It is seriously impressive stuff.

However, I’m a man of simple requirements, and there are two things in Nebo that benefit me far beyond that handwriting recognition, but which are unlikely to make the headlines.

The first is the user interface, which is brilliantly simple. This is crucial for any note-taking app; you need to be able to dive straight in and start writing or doodling. Fiddly interfaces with multiple points of entry into your notebooks immediately kill the dream of digital note-taking.

The second is something that has always plagued note-taking on devices like the iPad: inadvertent zooming.

This happens to me all of the time on Notability, Apple Notes, and when using the S Pen on the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra. It might be my handwriting style, but the portion of my palm that rests on the screen while I write will often initiate the zoom feature or inadvertently scroll the page. It’s disruptive and has resulted in me gingerly placing my hand on the screen every time I need to write something.

That doesn’t happen with Nebo – because you can’t zoom into your notes. This makes utter sense; you can zoom into paper, can you? As a result, the writing experience on Nebo feels far more natural and less hazardous.

So why have I decided to ditch Nebo and go back to Notability?

The WORST thing about Nebo

The best thing about Nebo is also the worst thing.

Remember that conversion preview bar I mentioned earlier? The one which converts your handwriting into text as you write? As cool as it is, you can’t fully turn it off. The same goes for gestures – they are completely un-toggleable.

This means that the conversion preview bar is ever-present. As soon as you start writing, it appears, and it constantly gets in the way. If you accidentally write into the conversion bar, it’ll often delete whatever it is you were attempting to write – and the undo button won’t save your bacon.

And those gesture controls – oh for the ability to turn those off. In Nebo, it is impossible to strike through a piece of text and leave it in that state, because as soon as you draw a line across a piece of text, the text disappears. But what if I want it to remain crossed out, Mr Nebo?

It gets worse. Sometimes, I’ll draw a horizontal line to section off my notes. Do that in Nebo, and it’ll unexpectedly split the page in two, and provide a new grid-style section beneath the ruled section I was previously writing on. At what point did I ask it to do that?

I’m happy for Nebo to be ultra clever if I want it to be, but I should also have the option to turn it into the most basic of note-taking apps if that’s all I need. The ability to disable all of the automatic handwriting recognition stuff would enable me to bask in the glory of the aforementioned simple features that make Nebo a better note-taker than Notability.

I’m going to throw another spanner in the works, I’m afraid. As clever as that handwriting recognition is in Nebo, I do question the benefits it offers. Aren’t handwritten notes at their most useful and cherished when left in that state? Unless people find handwriting quicker than typing, it feels almost superfluous.

Final thought

What frustrates me the most about Nebo is that it could be fixed completely with a couple of toggle switches to disable the smart features if the user isn’t fussed about them.

Just give me a blank page which does nothing more than display exactly what I’ve chosen to write or draw on it. That would, in my mind, make it the best note-taking app out there.

“Just use a more basic note-taking app,” you may scream. I shouldn’t have to, I’m afraid. I’m willing to put money into the pockets of developers who recognise the simple features that matter, and as noted earlier, Nebo has, ironically, nailed a few of those. The fact it has such incredible smart features should be the icing on the cake – not a hindrance.

You are so close with this, Nebo. But, sometimes, you can be too clever.

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