Microsoft's Notes and Tasks strategy explained

Microsoft's Notes and Tasks (NoTa) team is 'in the business of giving people's brains more storage space.' Here's how they're working to fulfill that goal.

Microsoft has been making lots of updates to its various note-taking and planning products as of late. Microsoft has added a number of new features to Sticky Notes, including the ability to sync sticky notes across devices. It is integrating its To-Do successor to Wunderlist with Cortana, as well as with the Microsoft Launcher for Android. Meanwhile, the company continues to add new features and capabilities to its OneNote flagship product on a regular basis.

I've also been interested in Microsoft's note-taking focus, given the obsession by the Surface team with moleskin-type foldable devices where lists and notes seemingly would play a big part.

There is a method behind the feature-update madness, according to Jared Spataro, Corporate Vice President for Microsoft 365. I did an email Q&A with Spataro this week, hoping to get a better handle on the company's strategy in this space. Here's what I asked and what Microsoft answered, slightly edited for clarity.

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Credit: Microsoft

MJF: Which teams are currently part of Microsoft's Notes and Tasks unit? (OneNote, Sticky Notes, To-Do, Planner, others?) Who runs this group and when was it created?

Spataro: Microsoft's Notes and Tasks team (NoTa) was created in 2018 and includes OneNote, Sticky Notes and To-Do. Microsoft Technical Fellow Laura Butler joined the OneNote team in 2017 and heads up the NoTa team. Marcus Ash, General Manager, joined the team in 2018 (after working on the Cortana team) to head up tasks.

MJF: Is NoTa part of Executive Vice President Rajesh Jha's Experiences and Devices organization?

Spataro: Yes, Microsoft's Notes and Tasks unit is a part of Rajesh Jha's organization. (MJF says word is that Corporate Vice President Joe Belfiore oversees NoTa in Jha's unit.)

MJF: Why isn't Notepad also part of NoTa? Will it be at some point?

Spataro: NotePad is not currently part of the NoTa team. At this time, we're currently focused on applications and services that help people manage tasks and notes across Microsoft 365.

MJF: Why is Microsoft combining all of these different note-taking/planning apps and services into a single unit?

Spataro: Microsoft offers a variety of tools to make keeping focused and staying connected easy, and to help make the hard tasks, effortless. The NoTa team was created to help everyone stay on top of it all--to remember, think, organize and act in a time when we are inundated with information overload at work, home and on the go.

MJF: Is Microsoft's mission to infuse some or all of its existing apps with note-taking/planning capabilities? Or is the idea to keep these separate but able to be integrated with other apps?

Spataro: Both - we want to offer people a variety of options to help them achieve the task at hand, regardless of whether they are in Outlook or OneNote, on their mobile or in a browser.

MJF: In blog posts about note-taking and planning apps, Microsoft officials often say the goal with these is to allow users to stay in their (work)flow by making these kinds of tasks adjuncts to what they're already using. Is this an accurate way to think about the NoTa team's goal(s)?

Spataro: The NoTa team's main priority is helping people complete notetaking and task management scenarios as effortlessly as possible. We achieve this by making your thoughts and intents readily available, regardless of the app you're in or device you're on. By eliminating, as best we can, barriers to recalling and retaining information we hope to help people accomplish more, in less time, so they can get back to focusing on what matters most to them.

MJF: How does Cortana fit in with NoTa, now that Microsoft is repositioning Cortana as more of a productivity aide than a standalone personal digital assistant?

Spataro: Cortana is key to achieving our mission to help people quickly and effortlessly capture their notes and tasks, naturally. We recently announced forthcoming To-Do integrations to make it even easier for people to make lists and reminders, and retrieve notes they've added to To-Do, and we look forward to building in even more integrations in the future.

MJF: Does Microsoft see note-taking and planning activities that span business and consumer audiences? Is there a difference in the way the company approaches these audiences from a note-taking/planning perspective?

Spataro: We are focused on helping people complete note-taking and task management scenarios that span work and life and can be used on the go, across devices. There are of course security and compliance considerations we need take into account when readying tools for use in enterprise scenarios, however our approach to helping people remember, think, organize and act spans audiences.


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MJF: How does Microsoft's work around trying to extend Windows to non-Windows phones (with the YourPhone app and Microsoft Launcher) mesh with what NoTa is doing?

Spataro: We want to bring the ability to remember, think, organize and act to everyone, regardless of what device they are on. Our goal is to reduce friction, make people productive, and help them get to what they need fast.

MJF: Microsoft has a LOT of different note-taking and planning tools. On the communications side of the house, many users are confused about what to use when -- Teams vs. Yammer vs. SharePoint Groups, etc. How will NoTa avoid a similar kind of confusion, re: which note-taking/planning tool to use when?

Spataro: Each of our tools has a specific purpose. OneNote, for example, focuses on capturing and managing notes. To-Do is designed as a simple app for managing tasks and lists. And while these apps individually serve specific functions, they're even more powerful when they integrate with one another, allowing people get work done naturally.

MJF: How will NoTa affect Microsoft's decision to continue to integrate tasks in Outlook (with those tasks being different from To-Do tasks)?

Spataro: Tasks in Outlook are powered by Microsoft To-Do. Based on customer feedback, we brought these experiences closer in recent months starting on Outlook.com, which now has the same experience as To-Do on the web.

MJF: Anything else users should know about where/why/how MS is going with notetaking and planning?

Spataro: We're in the business of giving people's brains more storage space. When people use our tools we hope to relieve some of the stress and pressure to keep track of it all. At the same time, how people think and organize is extremely personal and evolves over time. Our tools are intended to grow and evolve with the user, helping them think, organize and get things done in a way that fits their circumstances.

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