Could Notion be More Than Just Another App?

Published: 2020-05-04

Lately, I've been using Notion.so quite a lot. I use it for my own personal note-taking, I use it for my startup, and I use it for writing this blog.

It's a very flexible product that has such promise.

The potential for greatness

Notion and tools like it get me excited because they make certain digital tasks much easier or more enjoyable. Unlike Evernote, I can actually imagine Notion becoming my second brain and storing all my data about everything that doesn't have a dedicated database (I'm not going to store users for an app in here, but for things like task lists or blog posts it's great).

Signs of trouble

That being said, I'm worried for Notion. Not Notion the company—by all accounts they're doing great and hiring ravenously during peak Covid—but the potential product. The product as-is is quite good, and will certainly remain quite good for a large swath of users. This is why I'm not worried for the company. However that great potential the product has seems to be in danger.

Why?

Notion has thus far embraced flexibility, striking a nice balance between flexibility and being a UI-based program (UI-based software can never be as flexible as code). The database feature is extremely useful for certain types of data.

The thing is, its not quite flexible enough to capture many use cases for databases. Most notably:

A database has to interact with other systems to be useful.

Where's the API?

This is where Notion currently falls short. There is no API*. No way for Notion to talk to other services or other services to talk to Notion.

Why this matters

There are many use cases which Notion could potentially serve but isn't yet equipped to do so. For example:

  • Backend database for data
    • Database for data? That sounds redundant. What I mean is that Notion probably won't be the backend for your next social media app, but it could be the backend for email signups as you validate your next startup idea.
  • CMS for anything
    • Like I currently do for my blog
    • Notion has two killer features: Content authoring and databases. Using Notion as a CMS combines both. The editing experience is top-notch (if you like markdown) and the databases provide a great content creation and management experience for authors.
  • Source of truth for disparate data sources (dashboards)
    • With an API you could pull in and sync data from numerous other sources. Giving insight to teams that don't want to interact with APIs or don't want to open 12 tabs to see all the information they need.

The flexibility is the key. Many companies exist to provide visual databases, CMSs, dashboards. However they either lack flexibility or don't offer the oddly effective marriage of prose editor and spreadsheet application that Notion does.

Just another app?

So many apps these days don't play nicely with other apps. They in fact try to lock you in or keep you within their walled garden as much as possible. For example, consider how many social apps will open links within the app and obfuscate the the button to open in a browser (maybe this is only relevant to iOS users).

It's not just apps though. Notion reminds me of Apple (not an app, I know. Bear with me).

It's an unfair comparison, but the reason is this: Apple makes good products, but their products are hampered by artificial limitations imposed by the company. iPhones and iPads cannot be great products because Apple locks them down and intentionally limits their usefulness. Apple does at times expand the usefulness of their products, but they do it at their own pace and on a one-off basis. They do not improve Siri's AI, they add useful-yet-limited integrations like sports, weather, movie tickets, etc. They open up the API Siri API but only for approved use cases rather than opening it completely and/or letting Siri accomplish existing tasks by integrating it with the OS. They dictate how their products will be used, which stifles creativity. A "bicycle for the mind" should adapt to you, not the other way around.

I'm worried Notion could go the same path. I'm worried they won't add an API, or it will be watered down and only support "approved" use cases. I'm worried Notion will try to address integrating with other apps by adding limited one-off integrations over time, such as adding new types of embeds. I'm worried the community won't be empowered to give Notion superpowers.

I hope I'm wrong. Notion could be a life-changing tool.

* There is an API, which is how I can write my blog in Notion and have it published to my website, but it's Notion's private API that the Notion apps themself use. This means it will almost certainly break at some point as they iterate on their product, requiring more work to update and maintain integrations like this blog. Moreover, since there are no docs the process of figuring out how to work with the notion API is much like reverse engineering.


About me

I'm Ian. I'm a software engineer. Here are some things I'm into: javascript, functional programming, simplicity, Mandarin. If you want to chat you can find me on Twitter and GitHub.


PrevAll Posts