OneNote and the Evolution of Productivity Software

OK, that's definitely an overblown title for the level of breadth & depth I'll be hitting here, but it's the proper spirit. Over the holiday I've been thinking about where the computer industry is these days and where it's headed, and in that vein I’m going to take a quick break from introducing new features in OneNote 12 to jot down a few thoughts about OneNote in the context of the ongoing evolution of software. As I see it.

OneNote (then code-named Scribbler) was an interesting project to me when I joined in 2001 because it up-ended the normal software way of doing things: open an application, select a document, do something with it, close the document. (Actually we hadn't designed any of the application yet when I joined, but it was clear that it was going to require a pretty different approach.) Almost all broadly used end-user software works that way, in domains ranging from musical composition to scientific charting to map creation. There have been a number of idea-collection applications over the years, most notably the collection of outliners and mind-mappers, but none of these caught on broadly to the degree that, say, word processors did. E-mail programs and personal information managers, once e-mail came along, were one of the interesting aberrations, because they delivered personal information, and were thus interesting to consult randomly, even when there was no task to do. Along with commerce and information on the Internet, computers started to become useful to have, well, just around for when you might need them. Computer games are similar, and I think it is not a coincidence that both PIMs and games are both invoked with some frequency in design discussions on the OneNote team.

OneNote is very much a child of this latter generation of computing. Stripped of all the naming & marketing you see now, the germ of the OneNote concept for me back when I joined the team was the "add-on pack for your brain" - the thing that remembers your good ideas later, and lets you get back to them more efficiently than your own brain does. This requires a substantial shift in the way of thinking about people use computers, from a task-oriented approach to a much more idiosyncratic "record this idea, then find that other idea for me" approach, which presumes that a computer is nearby and your data is accessible when the idea happens (or the need to find an old idea arises). When you follow this thread through the way that people across widely varying disciplines do their work - students, lawyers, consultants, engineers, salespeople, administrative assistants, etc - that essential idea broadens out into the more mainstream product you see today, connected much more strongly to real-world metaphors like notebooks and paper and to real-world scenarios like meetings and research. But it all threads back to that essential idea of "record information and get back to it later, because I may not remember it".

This required that we throw out a lot of standard software application wisdom. For example, we have no "save" command, despite a bunch of word-processor-like features, because we don't want to risk ever losing something you wrote down. Even the concept of a "document" is OneNote is pretty ill-defined. Many OneNote users have no idea where their OneNote files are stored, whereas very few Word users have that problem, since that knowledge is necessary to find the documents again. None of this was religion posited at the beginning by some specific designer; rather, it flowed naturally out of our analysis of the scenarios and problems we were trying to address. Computers (historically) make you think about files, but people don't. People think about where they put things in more literal terms. We considered radical approaches where there was no organizational system whatsoever - just a soup of facts or pages - but rejected them as the primary approach because most people do not choose to store all their paper documents, statements, etc in a single big stack. It's a natural thing for most people to think in terms of a specific thing living in a specific place. When it doesn't, it can be a little unnerving. (For all you have-no-hierarchy-and-always-search fans out there, we're hip to your point of view, but when you take the population broadly, most people really want both highly efficient search and a "default" hierarchy, so they have a sense that things are put in a particular place where they can go find them again if they can't think of how to search for them.)

E-mail and personal information manager programs like Outlook are interesting because they somewhat magically deliver information to you (once they're set up). It's often not clear where that information is stored, even whether it's on your computer or some distant server. There's no "save" command in the main application, although there generally is one while you're writing an e-mail. In these senses OneNote is similar to them, and they presaged what is increasingly reasonable to demand of all software, thanks to the Internet: that it simply understand who you are and make your information and settings accessible to you, regardless of where you are or what computer you're using. The investments in automatically merging changes from multiple computers, described in Chris' blog about shared notebooks, pave the way for a host of scenarios in which you access your notebooks from multiple computers, or multiple people access common notebooks from their computers. But there's still a lot more for us to do in this area.

Over the long term, the contribution I hope to see OneNote making to mainstream computing is to make computers a tool for collecting your personal information, whatever it is, and delivering it back to you, wherever you happen to be, and whatever kind of computer or device you happen to be using. I also hope to see collaborative computing impacted by our ideas in OneNote 12 about save-less simultaneous editing by multiple users, which is really just an extension of the ideas we developed for the personal scenarios into the collaborative space. In these sense it will be complementary to tools like Outlook, which deliver information from the outside world to you, and document authoring applications, which provide the modern equivalent of a lever for multiplying the impact of your work.

Comments (151)

  1. Nicely said, what I think needs to be done tho is have a like page, that is your own, and it syncs with one note so that you no longer need to be tied down to a machine that has the application installed.

    a one note webpage, like 37 signals back back, that syncs with one note and outlook would be great!

  2. dave t says:

    I use ON all the time both as a student teacher and when actually teaching. It is SO useful being able to grab info on the run and then quickly use it again to form the basis of another more formal lesson plan produced in Word or Excel etc.

    If ON12 goes the way you describe then information handling will become second nature for teachers and their students; we will not only share our information for a lesson but also assess ourselves, help other students, be more organised and so on. As said above a start page would be great. I have been tweaking my Outlook Today page <a href="; target="_blank"> (See here)</a> and something like this combining my email contacts, tasks, calendar and <b>links</b> to information required for each calendar item or tasks would be incredibly useful. Not to mention geekiness supreme to baffle the bosses with….thanks for your insights!

  3. I LOVE OneNote so far, granted there are a few things I would like to see improved … linking to other pages and outside programs is one, but that looks like it’s being taken care of.

    Also, I would really like to see the user have more ability to add additional pens and highlighters and to have much more flexibility in the selection of colors for Note Flag highlighting. Right now, there are really only about five useful colors for note flags … most are way to dark to be of any value.

    It would also be nice to be able to search for specific types of note flags. For example, to be able to do a summary page of just the phone calls, or just the to dos.

    I am starting up a seminar series this year to teach law students how to improve their performance in law school. OneNote is going to be a big part of my presentation, since I have found dozens of ways to use it for preparing case summaries, study outlines, all sorts of things.

    However, I would like to get my hands on OneNote 12 before the seminar series starts (Summer 2006) so that I can make my presentation as up to date as possible. Is there any chance that the new version will be out by then?

  4. Steve N says:

    While I live the power everyday of OneNote’s capacity to capture my personal brain-dumps, I’m actually more excited about using it in a collaborative environment for markup and annotation of Marketing/Advertising creative.   Working at an ad agency I’m shocked at how challenging it still is to control and contain the process of getting a print piece or web page out the door for a client.   In the five years I’ve been here, it seems to be getting worse.  All collaboration with our clients happens via fax, e-mail and pdf…. if you can call it collaboration.  

    Enter: OneNote.  I’m piloting this with a client now over Sharepoint and it holds great promise.  The ability for us to drop a piece of advertising creative into a note and let us concurrently discuss it and mark it up is amazing.  Unfortunately, its a bit of a forced-fit as OneNote lacks a few of the basic tools to make this happen (I think), like threaded notes/comments, ability to easily and visually attribute notes to each user.  I’m looking forward to v12 as it could be the holy grail for folks that need to work quickly across organizational boundaries on documents that are about to go to press with huge investments.  I know Adobe PDF was supposed to do this, but it really doesn’t work for the kind of real-time collaboration you need when you are pushing out stuff like we do.  Way to go MS!  Looking forward to 12.

  5. Jim Sweeney says:

    New to this blog but watching the evolution of ON very carefully.  As I see the developers are using the term collaboration more and more, and with the advent of Groove announced into the MS Office sphere, is there a possibility that ON becomes subordinate to the collaborative capabilities of Groove?  Will users be able to share, replicate and review ON folders as they do in Groove workspaces?  Just some comments.  


  6. Timo ex-Microsoft says:

    This is a more evolutionary comment to this subject since this was the original outset I’m commenting on, so here goes.

    Everything inbetween the storage of information and it existing in our consiousness are transport mechanisms. It is reasonable to assume that the images in life, as in information in any form, that makes us remember situations are the their uniqness compared to what has been experienced before on a personal level and the priority of it, as in the focus we have given the particulars.

    Another is the mechanical easiness of input and retrieval of these experiences. I use the word experiences since this is mainly, but not only, how the mind tend to store and file information.

    Most of us can remember almost anything in life from every day we have been alive as long as we get enough of reminders to open up the path to the experience. Be this photos, someone talking to us about it, smell, sounds, or anything else that brings back enough to open up a long enough thought path to the scenario.

    For an application to be successfull in providing the level of details we need to be able to process information further, to amend it, to share it, question it, etc. would be to enable and provide logical thought directions for the mind to wake up and get stimulated.

    In my mind One Note is the only application that comes even close to want to emulate, support and enhance human thinking. The save command was a good example mentioned earlier of something that has grown out of our understanding of saving something inside an application, but not never when we scribble something on a piece of paper because there it’s save forever once it’s written.

    However nature as we know it can be improved by sharing and duplication in a way that normally is impossible in life. A note in out pocket is not shared with anyone. And when we share it we share the original information from the note. With sharing this can be improved. The problem with sharing are the mechanisms, mentioned earlier, used for this link between our mind and the actual storage.

    The tools to access the information are limited to a devices connected to particular delivery service, such as the internet for example. And the limited time we have to change and enhance our way of working. There is a built in resistance to change and input of effort to learn someting new rather than just modify our current understanding of the perfect way of information management. Or as I would like to call it management of experience.

    This entry is now growing too long so I’ll start to summarise a bit. One Note has many obstacles to overcome to become broader and more successfull in providing this managemtn of inforamtion. I’m not talking about Office as the placeholder of information management tools tools but of information itself, be it characters, letters, numbers, sound, pictures, spreadsheets, graphs, even including smells, imagionary images, feelings, experiences of any kind.

    One Note input mechanism range, to be individual enough to accommodate someone that is new to all this or someone that has developed this a lot further and vider should be broad enought to be able to do the same thing in many ways through keyboard, mic, autocollection, interaction, and referencing.

    The storage of this information has to be able to be singular or synchronised across multiple locations. This allows for information availablility for other services outside of One Note. This bring onboard information formatting. Other applications outside of the Microsoft suite has to be able to work with the data. To be available for full editing on a variety of devices and viewable on even more. User defined real time collaboration with unsolicited editing possibilites by 3rd parties if so configured.

    To mimic the mind, information should be linkable and referenced to unlogical maps. Meaning that an experience or a piece of information can be both work only and private for example. So a classic directory tree structure doesn’t work at all since data objects are forced under specific predefined directories. A relational grid mapping is flexible and extensible.

    It’s almost that one could say that One Note could be the collector, storage and manager of information under creation and Word the formatter to classic format as we used to see it. However, how it is consume should not be limited to how we work with it. timo2 (at)

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  30. Usability says:

    Firstly, I have got to say that OneNote 2007 is a mega-hit. It’s the best bit of software I have seen or used in many years. So well done to the whole team !!

    There is one major niggle/request for a really speedy patch I have in the upgrade to 2007. (Unless I have not RTFM’d properly.) I have recently bought a PocketPC running WM5. The most useful feature about the WM5 device is the much maligned NoteTaker app. Why ? Because it allows me to open up a new note, and literally scribble with the stylus what I want to make a note of immediately, without haing to mess around with typing, or anything really. It’s VERY fast. This I like. And lo and behold, these was a feature in OneNote 2003, whereby you could automatically upload all Notetaker notes into OneNote. Brilliant ! Just what is needed. The menu item was "Copy from Pocket PC or Smartphone to OneNote"

    (Pasted from <; ). Now, in 2007, I am blowed if I can find it, and so I can’t integrate my much used Notetaker app with OneNote 2007. Disaster !!! The only work around I can find is to sync to Outlook, and then use the screen clipping tool to put the note intp OneNote. Notetaker is also properly integrated into Pocket Informant, my PI of choice, but the key reason for its use is that it can handle scribbled notes effectively and very quickly, especially when used with PI. It also integrates beautifully with Calligrapher. I have also looked at OneNote mobile, but this has no ink facility and is designed for smartphones. So please, pretty please, can some kind person put that option back in until OneNote mobile can handle ink and is available for touch screen devices on WM5 ??? !!!! If anyone at the OneNote team wants to contact me, please feel free to use the e-mail address used when registering for the blogs.

    For me, speed is the vital thing, and having a paperless scratchpad and an alarm device is really the most valuable thing about my WM5 device when I am out and about (and I can keep it in my pocket so it can be with me everywhere) (well nearly everywhere!)


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  51. OK, that’s definitely an overblown title for the level of breadth &amp;amp; depth I’ll be hitting here, but it’s the proper spirit. Over the holiday I’ve been thinking about where the computer industry is these days and where it’s headed, and in that

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  53. tim says:

    * The zoom on onenote is pretty poor, even tho it’s something i use all the time – and such use is intrinsic to the use of a program like this.

    * I suggest you either:

    – add + and – buttons for instant zooming (with adjustable default zoom)

    – add a slider

    – make canvass avab to xp users

    It’s poor and should be fixed. It’s intrinsic to the way users use the program – which u will see for yourself if you get researchers to observe them.

    This comes close to a bug.

    Otherwise, love the program – so thanks for the rest of it!

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