Why the OneNote 2007 and 2003 file format are different

The OneNote 2007 file format is quite different to the 2003 format. Here are some details on the implications of this and the reason behind the difference.

Impact of this difference on interactions between OneNote 2007 and 2003 clients

  • OneNote 2007 can open OneNote 2003 files read only. This is the default. In this case the format will not be changed and the files will still be editable and viewable by another OneNote 2003 client, and they can be viewed in OneNote 2007 but not modified.

  • OneNote 2007 can UPGRADE OneNote 2003 files. The user is prompted and asked before doing this and it is explained that OneNote 2003 clients will no longer be able to open them. In this case, the file is now fully editable by all 2007 clients but no 2003 clients.

Why is the file format different?

The simple reason is to support new features. OneNote is still a relatively young app and we made some dramatic improvements in 2007 (our second release). In particular we added a pretty unique sharing capability that allows multiple users (or same user with multiple machines) to interact and edit the same notebook at the same time without getting locked out by each other or writing over each other. OneNote automatically handles merging and so on. To do this while retaining high performance, and autosave required some significant innovation in the file format. Among other things, we need to support multiple clients writing to different parts of the file at the same time through range locks rather than a whole file lock. This kind of interaction between OneNote 2007 and 2003 clients (which were not designed for it) was simply not possible, and would not have been possible among 2007 clients without changing the file format. Hence we concluded pretty early the need for a file format change.

In addition to that, we have a lot of new features that weren't supportable in the OneNote 2003 format. Among other things, they include:

  • Tables

  • Embedded files

  • Internal hyperlinks

  • Outlook task flags

  • New note tag types

  • Drawing tools

  • Document printouts (because we do them differently now)

  • Shared notebooks and merging (as noted above) 

  • Merge conflict pages

We understand this issue will cause inconvenience for some, and trust me we did not take this decision lightly. It was a very difficult and painful decision. We do think the improvements in OneNote 2007 are pretty dramatic and compelling and were worth the change. Thankfully many of our beta users seem to agree. Also the upgrade pricing for OneNote is reasonable, so given the compelling improvements we expect as most people upgrade (particularly those who want to share with other machines), this will quickly become less of an issue.

On a final note, rest assured that we are very committed to file format compatibility as a goal for future OneNote versions.

Comments (8)

  1. As those of you who are using OneNote 2007 know the file format in OneNote 2007 is completely different

  2. mcarbenay says:

    What I’m wondering is why, since you have changed the file format, didn’t you embrace the Open Packaging format ?

  3. DavidRas says:

    We didn’t switch to the Open XML format because we have some unique requirements for OneNote files. We save very frequently, and to do this fast without significant system impact (not to mention battery impact) from rewriting the entire file we use a special internal format. We also optimized this format for seamless sharing and merge. Without going into the details there are a bunch of things about our file structure optimized for this. The option for a OneNote Open XML format is certainly a possibility in the future, but it requires significant work from the OneNote team to optimize the format, and is not just a simple implementation in our case. So we’d be trading it off against other features that customers have told us ae important. Hence we’ll consider the trade off carefully.

  4. Louise says:

    I think it is a real pain not being able to edit onenote 2003 files with 2007.  I have just started using this great programme.  I use 2007 at home and and have managed to get my IT department at work to install the 2003 version.  There is no chance they will be upgrading to 2007 in the future (they have a "can’t do" mentality) and I am really frustrated that I can’t get the two versions to co-exist.  To say that this will quickly become less of an issue is short sighted to say the least.

  5. DavidRas says:

    I’m sorry about the inconvenience. Really, these kind of trade offs are tough. The trade in doing this would have been that we could not do many of the very significant new features we delivered in 2007. Based on most feedback we’ve had from users these new features were much more important, but clearly that won’t be the case for everyone.

    I’m curious about your IT departments resistance to OneNote 2007. OneNote 2007 will run fine with the rest of Office 2003. There is no requirement that they all be at the same version number. If your IT department just now deployed OneNote for the first time nearly a year after we shipped OneNote 2007, I’m surprised they didn’t just go for the most recent version (as they wouldn’t yet have any particular dependency on OneNote 2003). Was there a reason for that? Did they just assume they had to use OneNote 2003 with Office 2003?

  6. J-Mac says:


    I am not trying to speak for you here; just commenting on possible reasoning for an IT Dept’s resistance to upgrade to OneNote 2007 from OneNote 2003. (Other than the usual and customary reasons all IT Depts are resistant to upgrade!)


    Beside the fact that most IT depts have very little budget funds available to them for software purchases other than pre-approved software standards of the company, it is very possible, even likely, that the decision by Microsoft to NOT include OneNote 2007 with almost all editions of Office is why they will probably never upgrade to the 2007 version.

    Companies generally provide funding for X number of seats within licenses for their MS software – if they have 40,000 or 50,000 workstations or more running Office, upgrade costs for every version released can be prohibitive. That is, for the licenses themselves. Staff training is an entirely different animal! Training that many employees in MS Office is quite expensive. Many companies offer "lunch-time training classes" wherein the employees can donate their time and the company provides the trainers, material, and equipment. Even that is expensive, though. Then the loss of productivity inherent in a major UI upgrade like the ribbon interface is even more tremendous! There are many secretarial/administrative positions where the employee does not use a computer except for their specific work duties. Picking up a new interface does not come naturally to those folks. So many companies using Office 2003 are sticking with it for as long as possible.

    As for your point of just upgrading OneNote independent of the Office suite, this is not how corporations purchase software! Virtually none of them. They have the multi-seat licenses for the Office suites, and the upgrade pricing they can receive from Microsoft or the Microsoft reseller with whom they contract covers only upgrading the suite to the next version – not individual components of the suite – such as OneNote. I would imagine that the majority of large corporations in the US have not upgraded to Office 2007 for the reasons I stated in the above paragraph, and that those same entities do not have budgets structured to purchase individual Office components separately.

    If a company such as Louise’s is using OneNote 2003 it is very likely that they have a multi-seat license for Office 2003 – an edition that included OneNote. And if her company DID decide to upgrade to Office 2007, it will NOT include a new version of OneNote. Which is why they will not be using the 2007 version.

    I am presently disabled, unfortunately, but I handled most aspects of budgeting for a large utility and two large, multi-national engineering companies when I was able to work. And that was exactly how they operated.

    Best Regards.


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