OneNote genesis

OneNote started as an email exchange between myself and Steven Sinofsky, the Senior VP for Office, Nov 27, 2000. We were talking about how there wasn't much in the way of software to deal with information that was not yet a document. This coincided with the end of the OfficeXp development project. I had recently become the Group Program Manager for Word halfway through the project. The OfficeXp development cycle had bothered me as I felt we had not really moved the needle enough in terms of solving user problems in Word, at least partly because we were confining our thinking to simply how to make a word processor better. Steven described some thoughts he had about “ephemeral information”, and the idea of outlining. Outlining sort of turns me off, because it is one of those things most people can’t bring themselves to do, but the ones who do it rave about it. It’s a classic “niche”. But I liked Steven's idea that we could build a new app if necessary, rather than be stuck grafting things onto our existing tools.

I thought more about how to dramatically make work easier or better for lazy unstructured people like me, as well as organized people like outliners and users of filing cabinets, and the idea came to me of a tool that would let me manage the tremendous amount of stuff that people tell me in meetings or on the phone, or that I read, or just think of on my own. Most of this ends up being junk anyway, but a lot of it is really valuable, and so much is lost since the only tools I have are my memory (failing) and paper, which I lose pretty quickly. (In fact, I recently cleaned out my office and found four separate paper notebooks with three pages of notes in each. That was all I had got to before losing each one.)

Over the 2000-2001 holidays I thought about this more (not that I thought hard - it was more of a percolation). In January I blasted out a draft “vision” document to describe a new tool that would be what I would want to make my daily work life more effective. Of course it wasn't just for work - it would be useful for all sorts of things. In fact when you break down work into its component parts, your non-work life or student life starts to be pretty similar: things to do, important stuff to remember, things to review, and a bunch of stuff you think you might need some day but can’t be sure. Not to mention phone numbers, passwords, frequent flyer numbers, people’s names and addresses, links, blah blah blah. Things that defy categorization (or do they?). The key insight I had at this point was that whatever this tool was, it had to let you capture the thought or piece of info as you had it without forcing you to deal with any software goo up front. To take a note in Outlook you had to find the place where you were allowed to take notes. But if it was a phone number, you were supposed to use Contacts, but you had to create a contact and name it before you could save the phone number. Post-its beat that hands down. This new tool, which I called “Scribbler” would be as close to electronic paper as we could get to make capturing information easy, but then have much more power than paper to help you deal with the stuff you put into it.

About this time the TabletPC was getting going, and that seemed like an interesting effort. It is always good when there is “synergy’ happening. New hardware that was sort of in the same space as the software I wanted to make would help. But realistically, it would take years for TabletPCs to take over the installed base even if they were a runaway hit, so with Scribbler I decided we should target desktop and laptops PCs, but be sure to be great on the tablet, where you’d have all the power of a laptop but also ink and pen UI. So we had to build a great keyboard app first and foremost.

A note on my blog experience so far. Already three comments on my first post – very promising. I can see how this might become addictive.

Comments (58)
  1. Awesome product. Welcome to the blogosphere!

    When will we be able to blog from OneNote?

  2. Marc Orchant says:

    Thanks for sharing the story. As a confirmed OneNote junkie, I’m really looking forward to seeing what the future holds. FWIW, please add a word count feature! The lack of word count and find-and-replace are my only serious complaints about what is otherwise the best 1.0 product ever from Microsoft.

  3. Adam Field says:

    Well let me say thanks for onenote

    I love it

  4. William Dowell says:

    A fantastic product. A well designed ap from the bottom up and one that, as a student, I find incredibly useful and use constantly. I have made suggestions on future enhancements in the public newsgroups, and shall try and think of me. Just dont forget: naming of sub-pages :-). Many thanks

  5. Lawrence Lean says:

    Its very interesting to read the genesis of the OneNote product. Thank you.

    And thank you for the product itself.

    Through the wonders of blogging I am here!

    I am currently in the phase of using it to make things orderly for me as I traverse life with many threads and problems that previously had to be put on the backburner that sometimes never got back on the stove, so to speak. We will of course see if OneNote is the answer for that. I have a deep suspicion that it is as I cannot really take my hands off of it: goodbye Word except for interoperability (will Word become my Adobe Acrobat?).

    In just a pause here however, I went to One Note and organized a Life SubSection for each of my kids and yes, I will go to the tab for each kid when something comes up, add the content as it fits or create a subspace for when it does not. When I need the information, its there, and in my situation this will be very organizing vs. the document/folder paradigm.

    Now expressing my happiness with this great tool, I would be remiss in how, automatically, each kid’s section got its own pastel shaded colour that made each created subsection distinct: beautiful work there vs. just inheriting the default template …

    Indeed while one may not have a need for contemporaneous information or documentation in life, when one does, well I have it (he bows to the West to Redmond).

    I do of course as an arm chair quarterback wonder where this app will go in the future: the dustbin if it fails to accrete market share or that maybe it becomes integral to the Office 2003 suite and follow on’s. That is of course the $64 Million question and is up to you and your coworkers.

    I have of course lots of comments on the UI and the lacking of some features, but remembering back to other 1.0, (Access comes to mind), this is great.

    But one thing, if you feel too warm and fuzzy, you have lots more work to do with the app to make it much more adaptive to how users have worked with MS Apps before. Or what would be even better to know, did you want to break the mould, to force a shift in paradigm? I suspect the latter as I keep adapting to the One Note ways versus my intuition as to how I think it should work.

    For example I found it rather nice to drag and drop files from Explorer to OneNote, and get a nice link created, but there is no insert from OneNote to attain the same effect … at least none that I have discovered. It would be nice to have an insert link function … and to link between One Note content too (I could go on about setting up the parallel in a mimicry of brain synapses and neurological content storage but we have to save that one …)

    I do know that I will shortly do a text search on my hard drive, select the files for each of my children, and drag the links to the subsection for each, to vet them there. I think it will be wonderful in this way to organize the letters, notes, and pictures I have already made, that are in many subfolders that will now be accessible from one spot.

    (In the slick suggestions department: you can back up the One Notes files automatically, but you cannot ‘reach out’ and backup the linked material … yet. On moving to a new computer, this will be a problem … can you put it on your problems to solve for customers list for V2.0 or for the Longhorn era? It would be slick to be able to use One Note to serve as the intelligent aggregator of content and be able to back up that content too).

    Can you tell I really like working with One Note 🙂

    [written in One Note …]

  6. Alex Odintsov says:

    Great product!

    I have tired of word files all over "My Documents" and finally I can see everything in one place. There are a lot of things that can be improved tough. I was beta tester (not sure if you guys got any input from me, because there was no replies) and now I’m wondering if there is a place where we can submit the enchantments or problems.

    In particular, one thing makes me crazy, when I drag and drop an email from Outlook 2003 in to OneNote, it copies only the header, not the e-mail’s body. Sub-pages can not be titled – so I have one main page with 20 untitled sub pages and I have to go through half of them to find the right one.

    Anyway, again – great product, thanks a lot!

  7. I love OneNote. Sure beats having lots of Notepad and Paintbrush windows open. 😀

    Tell me one thing, though… Why isn’t there a save button!? I keep hitting Ctrl+S all the time! ARGH!

    clears throat Job well done, altogether. 🙂

  8. Julio Campos says:

    Hi Chris!!!!!

    The Onenote is just great! I participed in the Office Beta, at the begining i just cant understand the utility of Notes…

    But after i installed and use….


    Its a great product, congratulations!….

    Greetings from Lima, Peru.

  9. Tim Marman says:

    To summarize my post, there are still three major things on my wishlist:

    * Extensibility / programmability

    * Journal-esque inking

    * Proper flow for ink (so when you erase, it flows the same way text would)

  10. OneNote has revolutionized the way I work and has become indispensable to me since the very first beta.

    The only thing missing for me is a comparable app on the PocketPC. I REALLY need to carry OneNote information with me while mobile.

    Thanks for a great product.

  11. Hey! Great blog so far. I am a huge OneNote fan myself – glad to see someone from your team blogging about it.

    Keep up the great work – you and your team are really making a difference to those of us that have come to rely on your products to work efficiently.

  12. Welcome! You’re a hero of the people!

  13. the tool I use for those snippety things is called ClipMate ( and it captures Clipboard entries and stores them temporarily, with the option to move them into permanent ‘collections’. That kind of a link with the clipboard would be ideal for OneNote(and no, I don’t mean the loathly Office Clipboard – I use a ton of other apps and I don’t need to lose 1/10th of my screen to see the info!). What’s very nice about ClipMate is a shortcut key to open it at any time (Ctrl-Alt-C) so I don’t even have to go look for a toolbar icon to get to it.

    Fascinating to see the start of OneNote… why not post a shot of the corridor filled with notes that you guys studied?

  14. dave says:

    terrific product but you have to do something about the price! i show it to a fair few people who get excited about what they see but lose interest when they hear how much it costs

  15. Hi Chris,

    Obviously I use, as everybody, OneNote quite often, but there are issues:

    1.) I can’t print to OneNote, like I can to Windows Journal, why?

    2.) Are there memory/perfomance issues? As I have more then 15 sections open, my Acer TM 100 needs 10sec to scroll one page.

    3.) Why is there no shape/formula recognition as well?

    4.) Why is there no free .one reader? This is the biggest issue collaboration wise!! And that reader needs to be cross plattform, but make the development incremental please, a Win viewer first, then Mac, then Linux… Remember Adobe, first was the reader…

    5.) Since I’m at whishes, some academic CSCW people repeatablly ask for recognition of non-linear text (text which is in circles or written around an object).

    6.) Some random executives ask for a transparent background, so they can see the applications running below OneNote, full screen.

    7.) The way OneNotes stores it’s documents is not transparently (the non IT transparency) enough, I want to know (and control) where sections are saved at, this could be done more explicitly.

    8.) Finally OneNote probably suffers most of the feature discovery effect, it took me 6 months to try OneNote for anything, because it didn’t apeal to me, further 4month of dicovering where my files went and an other month to understand the search and outlook integration. I’m not dump (ok, maybe I am :), I just don’t have time to "discover" I need to be advised, in other words, where is clippy?

    Well, not considering the history, I see why there has been a focus on notyetadocument documents, but these two worlds need to marry, an intercfae which works bothways to and from documents.

    Heck, my mind even jumps at auto categorizations (strongly baised because I’m looking at decisoin trees an bayse atm) of notes ans such things…

    Just my 2 cents of effort on making the world a better place 🙂

  16. Benjamin, I only wish everyone used OneNote often as you say! Here are short answers to your wish list:

    1. no time – on our list

    2. probably not what you think

    3. no time, on our list

    4. no time, and you can post as web page

    5. not a common request, doubt we’ll do it

    6. not feasible until Longhorn

    7. you can control this in Tools/Options

    8. check out the tutorials on the web (multimedia). Sorry it was unintuitive for you.

    (9) autocategorization – on our list

  17. It looks like I’m learning something about the dev process at Redmond: Meet time, under budget, by any feature cuts possible while still earning new/maintaining old customers 😉

    Thanks for the quick answers. Here are a few thoughts still:

    4.) I know, but it doesn’t help much, I’m loosing the search and the categorization (among a lot of other stuff), so I’m printing to .pdf as a work-around.

    6.) I know, my prototype (not OneNote connected) sucked 🙂 And it’s more related to WriteAnyWhere not being configurable, sorry to bother.

    9.) Awsome!! Ontologies by any chance on the map? I understand if you can’t answer this 🙂

  18. Benjamin, different teams have different methodologies. For example, Windows, since it is a platform, can’t really cut features once it announces them. And it tries to announce its feature set as soon as possible to get developers using it. So instead it relaxes its ship date requirements. As you may know, there are three variable in development: features, schedule, and quality. You can only hold fast to two of those so one has to be allowed to change. In Office it is features, and in Windows it is schedule.

  19. Apart from Outlook, in which I practically live at the moment, OneNote is increasingly…

  20. Apart from Outlook, in which I practically live at the moment, OneNote is increasingly…

  21. OneNote is the best addition to Office for years. But, as always, I have a few wishes for it 🙂

    1. Why oh why isnt there a Pocket PC edition? That would be the single biggest addition as far as I’m concerned to both OneNote and the PPC system. I take notes in seminars or in the library, and having OneNote in my pocket would be wonderful instead of plain old Word or Notes on the Pocket PC.

    2. Structured information. Having a hierarchical way of placing items on a page would be an excellent way of organising notes. Similar in the way outliners worked in the past.

    Anyway, there are my wishes 🙂

  22. Philip, because someone would have to make it. That would mean not doing something else. See for explanation.

    As for structured information, if you type something, then Enter, then Tab, you are building an outline. We have a lot of features around outlining, and they even work with ink. There is also an Outlining toolbar. If this isn’t what you mean, could you explain?

  23. Ron Jeffries says:

    Just started using OneNote, and it looks

    promising. I am hoping it is easy to back

    up the files, also that I can run it

    on my laptop at work and easily sync with

    a copy running on my home compter.

    And if you put it on a Pocket PC, I may

    jump ship from the comfy world of Palm. It’s that good.!

    -ron jeffries

  24. Onenote backs up your files for you – you can change where they go, how often, and how many copies in Tools/Options. You can also use your own backup software – the files are kept where you tell OneNote to keep them (also controlled in Tools/Options). Default is My Documents/My Notebook

  25. Owen Allen says:

    I’d like to see a task pane that listed my most recently edited pages, so I could click on the page link instead of having to re-navigate through folders to find the other page.

    I may be editing 2 or 3 pages at a time, taking notes in different sections, or multi-tasking, and swapping from page to page and back to the previous page is distracting.

    OneNote ROCKS!

  26. ketsugi says:

    I really like OneNote, and wish I attended more lectures in school so I could actually use it more >_>

    I have to agree with Omer that the lack of a Save function is mildly distracting. I suppose OneNote auto-saves the data, but it is a marked divergence from how the other Office apps function.

    Phil’s comment about the lack of a PocketPC version also hits the mark. A PPC version of OneNote would be a great tool to use; and the PPC platform seems more appropriate for the kind of functionality OneNote is meant to provide.

  27. doofusdan says:

    I’ve told our MS reps that it is really a shame that OneNote is not part of the Office 2003 Pro suite (or any Office suite version, for that matter). It is a great app that I think would make justifying the O2k3 upgrade for a company much easier; and if it was on everyone’s computer, many people would try it out and fall in love. But since it’s a separate purchase, fewer people will try it, and fewer people will get use from it. This is a shame, because it’s one of the best things about O2k3.

  28. Owen, do you use the Back and Forward buttons in OneNote? it is not quite the same as what you described, but you can at least get back to where you were and then forward again.

  29. Steele Price says:

    OneNote is the best tool I have ever used for Organizing Notes, but is pretty awful still for Inputting Notes.

    I have been using it daily for a couple months now and think this is a lot more than just my own observations, there are some things horribly wrong, like turning all Ink into an unrecoverable jumble of nonsense.

    I just don’t think I can reasonably live with the record while note taking option any more so I have resorted to my own technique of combining Journal as Input and linking that file in for Ink.

    Even with it’s shortcomings, I find OneNote an indispensable tool.

  30. Steele, if you are having trouble with ink, I encourage you to look that the various FAQs on the web that give pointers on how to have the best experience with ink. A few simple habits will make things much better.

  31. Steele Price says:

    I have.

    My only real wish is that there is an absolute positioning ability for Ink. so I can drag it around without it being re-organized into the Outline Hierarchy automatically and shifting everything around. There is no way that I see to get around this currently.

    Think of it like annotating.

    Maybe an option for the selected Ink Group to be free floating in addition to "treat as graphic/handwriting", seems like the appropriate place.

  32. Steele Price says:

    I have.

    My only real wish is that there is an absolute positioning ability for Ink. so I can drag it around without it being re-organized into the Outline Hierarchy automatically and shifting everything around. There is no way that I see to get around this currently.

    Think of it like annotating.

    Maybe an option for the selected Ink Group to be free floating in addition to "treat as graphic/handwriting", seems like the appropriate place.

  33. m says:

    I’m a user of OneNote since the beta builds around a year ago (shipped via CD from Microsoft) and it’s an application I use on a daily basis. There are a number of features which would be great (better integration with Word and Outlook, password-protection, and better image handling as sometimes images do not move with the text) – but it’s an impressive product nevertheless and it’s good to see a blog from one of the team members!

  34. G. Wake says:

    I’ve been digging and like the ideas behind OneNote immensely. It seems like an extension of how I already manage things with paper. However, before I invest time and money into using the product, I really want something that will be usable with PDA. It doesn’t have to be fully functional, but even if it would extract a few to -do lists or something along those lines. Maybe it already does and I’m just not finding comments on that? What are the plans if it isn’t already accomplished?

  35. Rhonabwy says:

    So while I’m being pensive, I’m also doing some focused surfing tonight (as opposed to the mindless variety) – starting…

  36. Jeremy Marx says:

    I absolutely love OneNote. As a student, I’ve been using it for several months, and am now using it to organize my senior paper. However, it’s not without some room for improvement..

    1. Security. Oh my gosh, how badly does it need security!! Not just sharing security, either. Let’s see some encryption!

    2. Better exporting. .mht is great, but it’s not enough. I’d like to see exporting to XML.

    3. Save to ftp. A recently published book on OneNote (already!) claimed I could set the My Notebook location to a Network Place. However, my OneNote says that Internet Addresses aren’t allowed. Same with the backup location. I need a way to automatically save/read a copy to/from an offsite location.

    4. Multiple window panes! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished I could look at two or more notepages at the same time.

    Do you realize that if you extended OneNote just a little, by allowing a section tab to display any content that the Windows OS can display, you’d have a brand new, extremely intuitive GUI?

  37. Hi Jeremy – glad you’re finding OneNote useful. For your questions:

    1. you can use the encryption services built-in to Windows to encrypt your files on disk if you like so that people accessing your machine cannot read them. You can also password protect your screensaver, so that people without your machine password cannot get at your notes even if you leave the machine on and logged in.

    2. I’d love to hear details on what you would do with the XML.

    3. You can Save As and put in a UNC (file share) or URL (e.g. as the save location. You can also set your backup location to be a UNC path (file share). I set mine to be my other machine in case I lose my Tablet or the hard drive packs up.

    4. Try the Window/New Window method to get multiple OneNote panes.

    Yes, the idea that Onenote could be a "shell view" has definitely occured to us…

  38. Niko says:

    For unorganized people like you and me I would recommend checking out the tips at .. I’ve trashed my notebooks with 3 pages of notes and I’m trying to learn to keep stuff in order. The tips seem to work… check it out and maybe you’ll figure out some innovative features for v3.

    …which Mac users like me will maybe see in Office 2008. 😉

  39. Jeremy Marx says:


    Referring to XML, I guess what I was getting at, loosely speaking, is allowing other (non-Microsoft) applications to understand and manipulate a note. For example, let’s say I want some of my notes to be automatically imported into a non-Microsoft database on my website. With XML, it’d be easy to write a script to read in the information, translate it into SQL statements, and send them up to the server. That’s only one example; I could think of dozens more.

    To be honest, I’d love it if all Office apps had the option to save to XML by default.

  40. OneNote has been a godsend for me, esp. since Ecco Pro folded years ago. I’d been looking for a decent outliner since. I even bought NoteMap, which is quite good, but lacks the broad flexibility of OneNote. OneNote is so good that I actually composed a book in it – 178,000 words!

  41. Jeremy – thanks for the details. You described the most common suggested use, so that’s consistent with other feedback so far. What are the other dozen? 🙂

    Zaine: Yikes!

  42. Sam Smith says:

    OneNote is targetting a large audience, a lot of us are very disorganised, this probably even applies MORE to very professional people.

  43. Ditman says:

    Great product…but….. I wish when I dragged a chunk of a doc or xls, it notated and linked where it came from, exactly the way it does with chunks dragged from the internet.


  44. APerson says:

    How is OneNote different/better than the much longer available and free – EverNote?

  45. Ditman: good news (2 years later!) 2007 will add a link back to the document you copied and pasted from.

    Aperson: I generally don’t like to get into comparison discussions with other products. That said, if you use EverNote and OneNote you’ll pretty quickly see that EverNote, while it has a few nice things about its approach, doesn’t really scale well to multiple projects, note taking, multi-user collaboration, annotating research driectly (such as writing on stuff you collected), etc. For example, you aren’t able to easily switch between "projects" and maintain context (e.g. what page you were on and what you were last looking at) since each time you switch categories the EverNote database is requeried and you start over. EverNote is mostly a data categorization tool which is fine but OneNote covers quite a lot more ground. BTW, not that it matters much but since you mention it OneNote was released at least a year before EverNote…

  46. Anonymous said:

    Managers love to give more reasons why lots of managers are a good thing. Why lots…

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