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.