As the CEO of Amplenote and the developer who originally programmed noteapps.info, I spend a lot of time thinking about and writing about note taking apps. In this pursuit, I have to remember the differences between something like 50 note taking apps that have thousands of users as of 2023. One mental shortcut I use to make it easier to remember note apps is the idea of "first generation," "second generation," and "third generation" note apps.
In this post, I will describe characteristics and examples of note apps that fit each of these labels. In the process, perhaps others will better under the history of electronic note taking?
"First Generation" note apps are the ones that launched between 2000-2012. Most first generation note apps died in the 2010s, but there are a few that are still hanging on in 2023.
First Generation greatest weakness is that they were designed before mobile, but this deficiency also had its upsides. If you take Microsoft Onenote, probably the classic remaining First Generation note app: it is hard to imagine that it would have launched a draggable text block-based UX if mobile devices had been around when it was designed. It is only in the last year or two that apps like Milanote are returning to the idea that perhaps note content can be modularized and still work on mobile.
First Gen apps also were built largely before the era of web applications, which makes them weak when it comes to integrating with markdown and keeping standardized formatting. Among the chief factors that broke Evernote's long dominance in note taking apps was when it realized it could no longer keep notes synchronized when they were filled with stray HTML characters due to the original app being built on the belief that most all formatting would be applied within the desktop app.
These apps don't have any notion of first-party tasks. Navigation is typically handled via folder or non-renameable tag hierarchy. This can become pretty painful as the user accumulates thousands of notes and needs to evolve the composition of their note hierarchy.
Second Generation (2nd gen) apps launched between 2013-2018. Unlike 1st gen apps, they almost all have decent mobile experiences. But they tend to fall short of 3rd gen note apps in terms of backlinks and cross-purpose usage. Most of the popular 2nd gen apps have, as of 2023, turned toward becoming enterprise-y as they recognize the increased profit potential of leveraging their long-standing brand to lure in big business deals.
Second Generation apps were much more ambitious than their predecessors. Notion, which has slowly clawed its way up to the #1 spot among brand recognition, started with the incredibly ambitious idea that every table in every note could be an ad hoc database with enumerable column types. This had immediate appeal to business users, but Notion took its time before it started expanding to business. Since they didn't raise substantial capital until the 2020s, their first few years featured a lean, developer-driven company that blurred the line between "notebook content" and "published content."
With the exception of Bear, all of these note apps emphasized collaboration. If one remembers that they launched in the same era that Google was blowing people's minds with demos of a Google Doc with two user cursors, it makes sense that these apps felt pressured to "me too" the unprecedented collaborative opportunities that Google was proving possible during this time period.
These apps tend to have little-or-no backlinking functionality, and the functionality of their web apps tends to be very limited relative to the 3rd gen apps. Bear famously began teasing their web app a couple years after launching in 2016. 5+ years later, that app is still "on the way," which is much more reasonable if one understand the wide expanse between the APIs used to build a note app native to macOS and those that can be used to build a web app.
Whether they'd care to admit it or not, most Third Generation apps were born trying riding the coattails of the hottest note app of 2018, Roam Research. This means that they all include backlinking, and they all offer advanced ways to control which incoming links should be shown. Also, like Roam, almost all of them offer ways to visualize how the links between notes are connected in a graph view.
Very few of the 3rd gen apps have made any effort to connect to business users. Obsidian and Logseq don't even offer a built-in "share" faculty, which would have been anathema to any 2nd gen note app. But it seems that modern audiences have come to find a lot of value in a note app that works as an extension of the brain, and that extension doesn't need to directly interact with others' brains in order to help its users think more clearly and get more done.
Most of the 3rd gen apps have first-party tasks, that can do things like support recurrence. Some, like Amplenote, have not only tasks but also its own native calendar that can be fully 2-way synced with Apple, Google, or Outlook calendars (part of its "Idea Execution Funnel" to help users ascend from "rough ideas" to "scheduled events"). 3rd gen note apps also tend to have more of an emphasis on user privacy than previous generations, with all of them offering either local-only note storage, or a means to encrypt notes locally so they could not be viewed by the note app provider.