OneNote and Version 1

Let's say you manage a development team that has a few developers, a few testers, and a handful of Program Managers. You've already laid out a "vision" for a product you plan to build, and most everyone privy to the plan seems to think the idea is solid enough to be valuable and maybe even successful. You’ve got a stable environment and funding for the time being. You start laying out the development plans based on the rough "specs" you have laid out. Of course it is still early so the specs lack detail, but you can at least estimate the work at the level of developer-month (what one developer can do in a month, including bug fixing). So you do some rough calculations and determine that it will take about 8 years of solid development to deliver on your “vision”, taking into account stability work, bug fixing, and of course a whole lot of features. Of course, long before you figure out that it takes “exactly” 8 years you stop bothering and start thinking about what to do in the shorter term.

Ok, so producing a new product at that timescale is clearly not practical. Your funding will dry up, or the market will move on and leave your product obsolete long before you ship it. Maybe you could put more people on it. But then you run into one of the rules of thumb of software, which is that more people make things go slower, not faster. Yes, more code is written quickly, but that is actually the problem. (it is sort of like asking 6 people to write a novel in 2 months rather than having a single author do it in a year - not particularly effective)

You determine you really need to get into the market in about 2-3 years. You now have some options. You could build a foundation for the 8-year product vision - a skeleton framework that is not fleshed out. That would be like shipping what you have after 2 years of the 8 year project. But customers rarely find houses with foundation and framing but no walls to be worth paying for, even if it is the frame for a mansion.

Another option would be to build a room at a time. Of course you have a plan for the whole house, but for starters, you'll build a complete dwelling which is just the entranceway and the living room. You're careful to finish it out nicely so it is livable, and even throw in a fireplace along with a nice TV and a sofa. Now you have a nice little chalet which people will pay money for. Some will even say it is just right. But most will say "I love it, but I want more - a kitchen, bathroom and bedroom would be great." Someone else says they also want a garage and a play room. Someone else says they'd like an office. But importantly, many people are pleased with the chalet, and recommend it to their friends, even though they often add that they'd really like it to be more of a condo or a mansion. After the chalet is open for business, you get to work on the next extension - a kitchen and bathroom, as well as raising the ceiling of the living room to make it more elegant. Once you’re done with that, more people will be happy but there will still be quite a few saying you're missing a room. Eventually you'll get the mansion built, but it will take you longer than it would have taken to build it straight through. More importantly, you'll have built the mansion using feedback from the people using the chalet and other stages, so you can make sure it is designed for exactly what they need, not what you imagined they would need years ago.

Naturally, this is about OneNote and its development process. Sometimes people tell me it is a great app and they love it. Others say that too, but they have a list of additions they would like. Still others say it is unbelievable that we would release the product without X feature they need, which to them is the whole point, and what we delivered is useless.

The challenge for the team making the version 1 application is to build that chalet - the subset of the entire plan which has value to enough people all by itself. Where you see most version 1 products go wrong is that they build the chalet but they forget a wall, or they forget windows and instead build a hallway leading nowhere.

There are lots of reasons for this - that will be the subject of a future post.

Comments (26)
  1. Omar Shahine says:

    Software is of course, just a snap shot in time.

  2. fred says:

    Hi Chris. Thanks for your blog and laying out the background of OneNote. I used EccoPro for almost ten years and never thot I’d find another program that used the outlining design that matched the way my mind organizes information. OneNOte is getting there.

    I appreciate the "meta-story" of this software and look forward to ongoing tales as OneNote matures and "new rooms" are added.

  3. I’m also really enjoying these stories about the history of OneNote – keep it coming!

  4. Brandon says:

    OneNote is, I would dare to say, the most useful application we’ve used to manage ourselves and especially our "where’s the any key" kind of clients. Looking forward to more, thanks for the blog!

  5. Nic Wise says:

    Omar: I’d say that you are right – just the snap in time is usually 3-12 months BEFORE release 🙂

    Chris: Really enjoying the OneNote stuff – keep it coming 🙂 . Its a product I didn’t know I needed until I tried it. With a tablet, I’d use it LITERALLY all the time – I have a laptop, and I’m not comfortable using it in a meeting (yet), but I generally put my scribbles into it once the meeting is done. Way better than the 5 or so note books I used to have.

    As for additional features? Well, its most likely there (I just need to find it) but a "paranoid backup" would be good – eg, export ALL pages, folders etc to a single file, and be able to re-import them. Keeps the paranoid in me happy 🙂 Other than that, I love it.


  6. Nic, The built-in backup actually does backup all your files and you can restore from it too (Try help/Open backup). You can also tell OneNote to keep multiple backups, and keep them in any location (such as on a share on another machine’s HD).

  7. Good post. But at the risk of beating an example to death…instead of a Chatlet with things “thrown in” why not a starter burby home with all the basic fixings? “Hallways to nowhere”, happen in Chalets, but not in starter homes. Chalets are for vacations, for mountain-view ski resorts, for special use functions, you don’t live in them year-round. A starter house, would still allow for remodeling, for adding-on, material for the eventual makeup of a mansion, but with a solid core from which to develop. If the 1.0 is so problematic, the market won’t trust a 2.0 or 3.0, let alone an ‘8 year dream plan’. You really have to hit the ground running, as good product feeds itself.

    In terms of OneNote, it is a solid product, but the dual metaphors results in interoperability mismatches. OneNote is halfway there, but the Inking leaves much to be desired; looks good on paper, not quite there in real-world use, And its odd hierarchical tabbed-approach gets in the way of free-forming note-taking. And it needs better support of OLE objects, Ink functionality, Indexing, Document Security features, Drawing tools, API and etc. Welcome to the Chatlet, I guess those are the next extensions. Don’t get me wrong, OneNote is such a great tool, but I guess I was thinking in terms of all the extended Ink hooks and interoperability. But I am in the minority…as more laptop users. 🙂

  8. Christopher, I guess the point of my post was to show that because this product has to be designed for millions of users who have different needs, we won’t be able to completely please everyone in the first release. That doesn’t mean we please no one – far from it. In order to produce a product in a reasonable amount of time, we have to pick a set of functionality that solves a useful set of problems for a large enough set of people to make the product viable. I think OneNote 2003 does that, or we would not have shipped it. Does it have everything we could imagine? No. Does it have everything any specific user wants? Hardly. Does everyone find it useful yet? No. But, does it solve a large enough set of of problems for a large enough set of people to be broadly adopted in its first release? Yes.

    Next time we will be more complete, and more people will say the product is valuable for them, and the current users will say it is even more valuable.

    OneNote is a "starter burby with all the basic fixings" – to many people. Other people will require a spare bedroom – or a jacuzzi – and be astonished that we didn’t include it since it seems so basic to their requirements. Can’t be helped.

    But hundreds of thousands of people already think it is pretty useful in its current incarnation…and I’m Ok with that 🙂

  9. Oh I agree. And its extremely useful in its present incarnation, solving quite the range of problems and I am among those hundreds of thousands. I use it without fail. I’m a true believer.

    However "Ink as Ink", I view as more than a "spare bedroom" or a "jacuzzi". However, the law of numbers is not on my side. But once Tablets become more pervasive, a dream at least.

    Same letdown per Office 2003, in which tons of Ink functionality was supposed to be present. Tablet Office XP Pack was clunky and quite buggy, but everything was supposed to be fixed in Office 2003; Outlook tasks, contacts in Ink, work in Ink total. Ack, not there yet. Likewise with OneNote (as it is alone in its handling of Ink) but with Lonestar and Longhorn, all a moving target. But I have faith, OneNote will get there. I just want Ink as Ink, not having to follow differing conventions per each application. 🙂

  10. Christopher,

    We also viewed "ink as ink" as critical to version 1. That’s why we did a lot of work to get it to ship quality. As I described in my other posts on handwriting, we can do much better, but I am satisfied that we did what we needed to claim that we do ink as ink. You can handwrite and draw anywhere, you can search ink, you can switch pen colors, you can use a highlighter of your choice, you can use note flags on ink, you can re-order inked items in a list, etc. We can and will do more, but ink is in "the chalet" of v.1.0.

    As for Office, we did a lot of ink work, although I do not recall promising "tons" – it wouldn’t surprise me if some eager beaver did say that at some point. A subset of what Office2003 did was separately done as a preview that could be installed in OfficeXp, which probably made it look as though Office 2003 didn’t do a lot that was new, but in fact we built all that ink functionality from scratch. "From zero to what you see" was a lot (e.g. writing on top of docs in Word, PPT, XL). And you will see more in the next go round. Again, it wasn’t everything we could imagine, but writing on docs and replying to email with ink were our top two goals.

  11. Writing on top of docs, and replying to email? Rewritten for Office 2003, good (in fact great), but I recall doing such at Launch with the base Tablet PC OS. Hardly strikes me as that revolutionary in terms of functionality. To Microsoft’s credit however, the Office 2003 Ink was MUCH more stable than Office Pack for XP. 🙂 But yes, it did look (and feel) as tho Office 2003 didn’t do anything new.

    Writing on top of docs is just an overlay, how so very dull. How about interacting WITH? 🙂 For example: Total page-layout with Publisher using Pen. Excel total Ink functionality; Excel symbol reco. Ink in Access, hello? Powerpoint control via Pen. Word copy-editing controls. Would be KILLER to have the copy-editing symbols ( avail. as a part of Office 2003 as Ink. And Outlook, hello? Tap tap. But the third-party, Tablet PC Enhancements for Outlook ( helps out here, tho I want much more. Ink for Outlook Tasks, Contacts and Appointments got strategy taxed out? To me that would seem dead-central. The lack of such has moved lots of people away from Outlook (and Office) to Tablet Planner. And the Ink email is too static, zero interaction there too.

    Granted Lonestar’s new TIP moving along this path, but I am thinking more Grand Canyon expansive. 🙂

    PS – Great blog. Don’t mean to comment tit for tat; just expressing conceptual frameworks per se.

  12. Chris,

    Again, it wasn’t that Office couldn’t think of those things, but we used up our whole budget implementing and stabilizing the coe functionality. Since the Tablet team had used a similar budget of developers of their own to implement a basic version of what we did in a throwaway add-in, the work we did seemed only incremental since we could not build on anything they did in the office pack. If you had never seen the officeXP add-in, you would have thought the work done in 2003 was substantial (since it was). We warned the tablet team that if they did a throwaway add-in it would make the office2003 work look lacklustre, but they needed something at Tablet launch. It doesn’t always work out. Look for much more impressive stuff next time in Office.

  13. kip says:

    Thanks for blogging, keep it up. Because of this blog, though, I now think and refer to your product as "1.0 Note". hmmmmmm

  14. Well, I stand by the first release of OneNote as a full-featured application that is useful in many scenarios for many people. No application does everything you want it to, even those in their 10th version.

  15. Uniquely, OneNote is one of the BEST first-version apps I’ve ever used, and it has been astoundingly useful to me. Like Nic Wise, I didn’t realize I needed OneNote until I tried it. Ninety percent of the time, I use it for outlining papers, ideas, to-do lists, directions/instructions, and even books. What I didn’t expect is its hybrid nature – OneNote is not a PIM, organizer, or such, but it can be made into one. Its lack of formal structure when first creating a note might be troublesome to some users, but after a short time, it turns into brilliance, when I realize that "I" get to organize and categorize my data, thoughts, and ideas, and I’m not forced into to pre-defined, separate structures or compartments inside a PIM, for example.

    The one thing I’d want is a way to jump from one note to the next inside a tab. Perhaps there’s a keyboard shortcut for it, which I’m studying now, but that’s my first request for OneNote 2.0.

  16. Zaine, if you need a shortcut to jump down the page list one at a time, then it is Ctrl-Page Down/Page Up.

    To jump between notes on the same page, use Alt-Down Arrow

    If you are looking for a way to hyperlink between two items on differnt pages, then you’ll need to wait until next release…

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  18. A collection of some good posts by other Microsoft bloggers to tell a tale about quality in software development.

  19. A collection of some good posts by other Microsoft bloggers to tell a tale about quality in software development.

  20. Let’s say you manage a development team that has a few developers, a few testers, and a handful of Program Managers. You’ve already laid out a "vision" for a product you plan to build, and most everyone privy to the plan seems to think the idea

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