OneNote is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Microsoft Office family. It gets no respect, and it’s hopelessly misunderstood. That’s a shame, because this hard-to-categorize application incorporates some of the freshest thinking I’ve seen out of the Office team in years.
OneNote uses a metaphor that most people can relate to easily. If you're skeptical, why not give it a try? Collections of data are organized in notebooks, which can be subdivided into tabbed sections, each of which contain one or more pages. On a page, you can type notes, scribble with a pen, paste a drawing or a snippet from a web page, and create links to external documents or locations. You can clip a section of a screen for later reference. You can even embed audio and video recordings in a notebook page and synchronize the recording to your notes.
Sounds simple enough. So what’s misunderstood?
For starters, some people think OneNote is only for Tablet PCs. That’s understandable, given that OneNote is routinely bundled with Tablet PCs, where its support for ink is first rate. But it works just fine with a keyboard and a mouse. On my Tablet PC, I probably use the keyboard for 80% of my note-taking.
And then there’s the question of just who OneNote’s designers had in mind when they built this program. I’ve been struggling for years to find a place to keep track of disparate information about projects, which can come from e-mail, Office documents, or Post-It notes. The more you have to keep track of, the more you’ll like about OneNote. But the only retail version of Office 2007 that will include OneNote is the Home and Student edition, which is bound to create the unwarranted perception that this is primarily a tool for use in the classroom. Sigh.
It’s enough to scare off people who have jobs and businesses and an insatiable thirst for gathering and organizing information. Which is a shame, because they’re the ones who will get the most out of OneNote.
And the program is about to get some big improvements. Over the weekend, I installed the latest updates (Technical Refresh 1) to the Office 2007 beta, including OneNote. All I can say is, Wow.
The level of integration between Outlook and OneNote in this beta is impressive. Clicking a toolbar button in Outlook lets you send any item to a OneNote page, where you can mark it up or take notes during a phone call or meeting. In OneNote, a Tasks toolbar lets you flag a name, a word or phrase, or any object and turn it into an Outlook task, appointment, or contact. You can manage to-do lists and flagged items from either program.
As a way to organize web research, OneNote is incredibly useful. When you cut a snippet from a web page in Internet Explorer and paste it into a OneNote page, the program automatically appends a link to the original source. (Firefox users, you can get the same functionality with this extension.) You don’t have to be meticulously organized to find stuff in OneNote, thanks to its excellent free-form search tools. The best part is its ability to convert ink to text on the fly and include handwritten notes in search results.
If you’re skeptical, why not give it a try? The OneNote 2003 trial page allows you to play with the interface in a terminal server window. That’s a useful way to experiment, but a much better alternative is to get the 60–day trial version (an 80MB download or available on CD), so you can get past its not-so-difficult learning curve. (And keep in mind that OneNote 2007 improves by leaps and bounds over the existing version.)
And if anyone from Microsoft happens to read this, can you please explain why this program gets so little respect?