Microsoft, if you want to beat Evernote with OneNote, you're going to have to take the gloves off

Given some of the challenges Evernote has been facing recently, Microsoft has a prime opportunity to provide OneNote as a compelling substitute -- if the company makes migration easy and seamless.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Microsoft has been showing it's got game of late. From the strong growth in Windows 10 adoption (despite annoying some long-term users) to its compelling new hardware products to its very strong showing in cloud-related businesses, Microsoft seems to have gotten its mojo back.

One reason is the company has shown a willingness to play where the customers like to hang out. There's a solid Office offering on both iOS and Android, and the Microsoft Garage projects have often landed on non-Windows platforms first.

I was thinking about this as I was struggling with a synchronization problem with my Evernote. I have a premium Evernote account and have uploaded and stored a tremendous amount of information there. I'm using Evernote right now to write this article.

Sometimes, however, Evernote glitches. Once in a while sync doesn't happen in a timely fashion or double notes show up. Formatting is occasionally wonky, especially when editing and reading notes across platforms.

Even so, Evernote is relied upon by millions of users, many of whom, like me, would have a very difficult time managing their activities without the product.

Recently, however, Evernote has attracted some unpleasant reporting and raised some red flags. Most indications are that the company is doing well, but the recent news about management shuffles is a bit worrisome. First, long-time CEO Phil Libin left the company in July. Linda Kozlowski was appointed COO of the company this summer, and then, three months later, resigned. Most recently, in September, the company closed three of its offices around the world.

None of this spells doom for the company, but when I was out at a meeting where I very much needed my latest Evernote note (and it wasn't showing up on my phone), I recalled the recent news and wondered if perhaps it might be time to give OneNote another spin.

OneNote is Microsoft's relatively unknown component of Microsoft Office that is taking on more and more of the characteristics of Evernote as a note and information gathering and curation system. The last time I looked seriously at OneNote was when I moved from Zotero to Evernote quite a few years ago.

At the time, OneNote didn't have anything resembling cloud-based syncing (Zotero did, but it was terrible, hence the move to Evernote). But now, OneNote has cloud-based syncing, and that means it's possible to jump between devices and access your notes. Some people, like our own Matthew Miller, have even left Evernote for OneNote.

It's easy enough to try out OneNote, especially since the product is free to download. Where Microsoft runs into problems is attracting heavy Evernote users like me. While I'm often willing to jump from application to application in search of the best performance, Evernote has a level of lock-in that Microsoft is currently unable to overcome.

I have nearly 10,000 notes. If I were to use OneNote, I'd need all that information to show up in a OneNote repository -- without a lot of work on my part or compromise in implementation. My Evernote archives are mission-critical.

Third party option

While Microsoft provides no Evernote-to-OneNote import capability, there is a third-party tool called Evernote2Onenote that can get you part of the way. I decided to test it out. My plan (since I'm not ready to move off of Evernote) was to install Evernote and OneNote onto a virtual machine, turn off the network (so all my private data doesn't sync to Microsoft's service until I'm ready), and try the conversion.

Setting up OneNote hit a few snags. It's a Microsoft product, so what else is new? I went to OneNote.com and downloaded the "Free Download" (big button in the middle of the page). I tried running it and was told my 64-bit Windows version was not compatible.

It took quite a lot of digging to find the very small size font link that led to a download of the 64-bit version. (I noticed that for "best compatibility" Microsoft recommended downloading the 32-bit version -- which isn't compatible.) As always, at no point did Microsoft make things easy. How hard would it have been to offer two download buttons, or one download installer that chooses your version? Or even a link to other versions in the error message? But, no.

Attempting to use OneNote is equally no fun. It requires you to sign-in to your Microsoft account. After typing in the account I use for the Office 365 program I currently pay for, I was told that account doesn't exist. I dug around and finally created a new account, which allowed me to sign in and use the account.

I decided not to run the test, because while OneNote stayed running when I disconnected the network, I was concerned it would sync everything as soon as I reconnected the network. Further, I had no idea about the provenance of the third party tool and I just didn't want to take a chance that the tool would suddenly hoover up all my personal information to persons and parts unknown.

Microsoft's opportunity

This is where Microsoft has room to step up. OneNote may be a better tool than Evernote (I honestly don't know because I can't test it with 10,000 notes and articles). Microsoft is certainly a more solid company than Evernote. While we can generally assume Evernote will be around for the long haul, we know Microsoft will.

Without a doubt, then, there might be an advantage to adopting OneNote instead of Evernote. But Microsoft has to make the transition seamless, without the normal hair-pulling Microsoft tends to require as part of the adoption process for any Microsoft product. It needs to be reliable, bullet-proof, able to withstand a wide range of edge conditions, fast, and hassle free.

I'll tell you this, though. If Microsoft did take the gloves off and provide rock-solid migration to OneNote, then I'd consider the move. And Evernote might need to think twice about its future strategy.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

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