Microsoft's most misunderstood application

Microsoft's most misunderstood application

Summary: 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.

TOPICS: Microsoft

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?

Topic: Microsoft

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  • What's new about OneNote?

    This has been around since the days of Lotus Monarch. Please don't try to sell us more Microsoft warez. We gave at the office.
    • Lotus Monarch?

      I've been reporting on the PC industry since 1987, and I've never heard of Monarch. You might be thinking of Agenda, I suppose, but otherwise I don't get your point.
      Ed Bott
      • Maybe Lotus Magellan

        I think he was thinking of Lotus Magellan--which was a great file indexer, fuzzy searches and all; but it didn't go anywhere and it certainly didn't have the organizational capabilities of OneNote.
  • OneNote is interesting but. Only useful for/on MS systems

    I have a Tablet which I removed MS. Replaced with Linux. Modified with an on demand touch screen, so I can use Xkboard (touch typing on the screen with one hand {and even shells}) as well as the pen, screen capture, notetaking & Poor handwriting (but sometimes useable) & Voice. (Again poor but sometimes useable)

    Great tool ... for me...(can still pull up any Windows image in VM or Wine) rare if ever needed

    See no real advantage in the MS solution as it forces you to use their unnecessary or unwanted
    middleware..............Is that what they call applications/programs now?
    • Yes, and this is the *Microsoft* Report

      >> OneNote is interesting but. Only useful for/on MS systems

      Props for the avant garde punctuation. But really, do you not expect that when you visit the Microsoft Report, you will read about Microsoft software?

      Ed Bott
      • Rule #1

        There can be no discussion of Microsoft software without somebody making the point that (Linux/FreeBSD/Mozilla/anything free) is far, far better. Or did you forget?
        • Free

          Hey anything free is always better, did you ever see anyone refuse free beer.
    • 95% of the market

      >Only useful for/on MS systems

      So it is not useful on 5% of the consumer machines on the market? Big deal.
      • Same old argument

        perhaps the linux world would be as clever to create such a useful tool...oh I forgot they do not have that level of creativity
  • I have it, I am not impressed

    I have seen OneNote at Microsoft presentations and I have it as part of a MSDN subscription and I tried it once. I was not impressed so I uninstalled it. It doesn't address any vital need that I have.
    • Solution

      You got this right, I have it too, but as far as I can see it is a "solution that is looking for a problem to solve".
  • Thanks -- I'll give it a try

    I've had a free copy on my shelf for some time; just never took the time to try it out. Now I will. Do you like Zimmerman's "Complete Guide to OneNote" since "SE Using Office 2003" doesn't have anything on OneNote?
  • Management challenge

    I've been using OneNote from day one and it's perfect for me as a writer and researcher. However - and this isn't really a criticism of the software - the problem is that my 'tabbed binder' has become so big as to be unwieldy. It's bursting at the seams and there is a major housekeeping job to be done. I hope some thought has been applied to this 'user laziness' problem in the 2007 edition.
  • Try Evernote

    Evernote is free (without the Ink capability) and
    I have found that it works well and has all the capabilities that you mentioned.
  • Is there a similar application available for Max OS X?

    • Oops! I mean Mac OS X, of course.

    • For Mac OS X

      Here are a couple that come to mind for OS X and praised by
      many who use them:

      Circus Ponies NoteBook (since 2003)
      DEVONthink Pro
  • OneNote needs Respect

    OneNote has challenges inherent to something that requires a fundamental change in the way we think aobut things. We have been taking notes and managing information in various silos for many years and grown up without the ability to do either together. Microsoft is just starting to recognize the product value as are businesses only begining to learn how it can improve their individual and team productivity. It reminds me of the book 'crossing the chasm'. there is much to be learned here from the concepts in the book. I work closely with the OneNote product at Microsoft and firmly believe it will be part of the office suite and on as many desktops as office someday. When we will 'cross the chasm' for the wide audience of people that should be using the product is anyone's guess. My guess is 5 years and no, I am not a gambler.
  • I totally agree. OneNote in Office 12 will be amazing.


    I totally agree. OneNote has become an invaluable tool for me and many in our company. I have been tracking the OneNote blog by Chris Pratley ( and highly recommend it for insights into OneNote 2007.

    Dave Jaworski
    PassAlong Networks
  • OneNote is my most used application

    I started using one note on a tablet and then when i moved to my Dell D810, transferred the license. I use one note for everything, meeting notes, planning, followup for next quarter, year etc. My peers are amazed at my "total recall" of events. In fact, i just document meetings, decisions etc and OneNote makes it easy to recall.

    The rest of Office is a waste of money. I do 3-4 presentatios a month. Any presentation package would work. Most memos and documents are done in either email or one note. I don't need to produce formal reports, and for the few that I do, I prepare in OneNote and hand to my admin for formalization.

    Want to make a great presentation? Plan it in OneNote, rehearse it, and then prepare the slides that emphasise the presentation. OneNote becomes the talking notes, not the slides.

    When researching, adding web clippings, screen clippings etc. puts your comments in proper context. OneNote tracks the original source as a footnote. I haven't seen anything work better.

    Tablet pen annotation is neat, but the current version has flaws that don't make a compelling reason to stay on a tablet.

    Finally, hold a group meeting (we do a lot of those) and each member can share a OneNote session and in real time, add their comments, observations and each person's contribution shows up in the OneNote document.

    From a productivity point of view, OneNote is a better tool than the entire office suite. I could get rid of office in an instant, but OneNote, is a reason to stay with the MS product.

    There is no Mac equivalent. OmniOutliner Pro with OmniGaffle Pro is close, but it's not as complete.