OneNote to rule them all?

Microsoft's OneNote used to be the hidden jewel in the Office crown, now on its own and with a public API, it's time for it to highlight Microsoft's new direction.
Written by Simon Bisson, Contributor on

There are apps you use, apps you like, apps you love, and then there are the apps you can't live without. They're the apps that are at the heart of your personal workflow, the reason why you BYOD and BYOA, the tools that Satya Nadella's really talking about when he talks about "productivity".

For me, one of those apps is OneNote. Often described as the hidden jewel of Office, it's at heart an electronic notebook; a place for freeform notes and for clippings from the web and other apps. Born in the early days of the Tablet PC, it was Microsoft's little gift for those of us who held the faith and clutched our Wacom pens to our chests with every new laptop.

But now tablets are everywhere, along with smartphones — and OneNote is everywhere with them too. It's on my iPad, my Nexus 7, as well as my Surface and my Dell Venue Pro, not to mention my phone, where Cortana takes notes for me.

Cortana OneNote
Ask Windows Phone's Cortana to "Take a note", and you can dictate straight into OneNote.

Way back when, I used to be a research engineer in a telecoms lab, I'd fill paper notebook after paper notebook with ideas, with references, with experiment designs, with results, and with — well, actually I forget what with.

Forgetting was the problem with all those notebooks, I'd had to index them with Post-Its, but it was still impossible to find the information I'd carefully stored. Those notebooks just sat on shelves, gathering dust, and when I left the company they were either destroyed or archived. That lab is now long gone, and with it all my — and my colleagues' — notes.

That was always the problem with knowledge management systems. How could we get all that paper information in electronic form? OneNote changed all that for me. All my notes are in one place, more than a decade of handwriting and typing — and they're all searchable. Then there are the notebooks that have been shared with friends, family, with editors, and with clients. Notebooks stored on server shares could be shared between users, and used as a way of collaborating in a free-form document; an approach that's much easier to handle than collaborating in Word.

If that was all OneNote was, it'd still be a great piece of software, solving a problem most of us have. And for much of the last decade that's pretty much all it gave you. Sure, there were ways of using the Visual Studio Tools for Office to add your own code to OneNote, but it wasn't the easiest of tools to use — and was really only suitable for a limited number of scenarios.

Things started to change with the release of Office 365. OneNote started to suggest that you use SkyDrive (as it was) to store your notebooks. I took the plunge, and moved all my notes into the cloud. That simplified synchronising files between devices, and made it easier to work with my notes on mobile devices — including iPhones and Android phones.

OneNote on OneDrive
Storing notes on OneDrive lets them sync across many devices - and operating systems.

It's OneNote's new cloud-centric nature that's allowed it to expand from just being another Office app to being an endpoint for OneDrive — on many different operating systems and platforms, including its own web UI. It's that Web UI that's opened the door to new ways of working with OneNote, building on its web standards connection to OneNote files with a RESTful API that lets other apps (and devices) communicate with OneNote.

Opening up an API has opened up a wider range of scenarios for OneNote, most notably the ability to automate the application. I'm using the simple automation tool If This Then That with OneNote to automatically archive any link I send to Twitter. It's a simple use case, but one that highlights IFTTT's key ability: the ability to link the output of one service to another — and its list of available channels is growing, many of which offer triggers just like Twitter, triggers that can be used to feed data into OneNote. It's easy to imagine an IFTTT trigger tied to a Nest Smoke Alarm that automatically records its battery status, so a landlord knows when to change batteries.

IFTTT Nest-OneNote
Creating a IFTTT rule to link a Nest smoke alarm to OneNote.

Then there is hardware integration. I've long been a fan of LiveScribe's digital pens. There's something satisfying about writing with pen and paper, and seeing that content automatically transferred into digital form. The new LiveScribe 3 smartpen connects via Bluetooth to an iOS device running LiveScribe's notebook software. Open up the share options, and there's the ability to deliver that content to an OneNote notebook stored on OneDrive.

LiveScribe OneNote integration
Once connected, LiveScribe notes show up in OneNote — ready to use.

It's a surprisingly intuitive way of working - and one that goes beyond the traditional notetaking. LiveScribe's optical sensor works with a unique pattern printed on each page to map the pen's position accurately. Sketches and drawings transfer to the cloud seamlessly as a result. It's a tool that brings OneNote to artists and designers, letting them capture their images the way they always have — and letting them take those images straight into the digital world, ready for use in any application they want.

OneNote's API is relatively simple to use in your own apps; based around RESTful communication with the OneDrive server. Users need an authentication token, and your app can create new pages in specific sections of a notebook. Content is sent as HTML, with binary attachments for embedded images, video, and audio. It's all very straightforward, and makes working with OneNote easy to add to any app or service. To help you get started Microsoft has set up a console on Apigee's API management service, where you can create calls and see the responses, without having to build your own OneNote test harness.

With an API and a growing number of apps, OneNote is evolving into one of the first truly ubiquitous computing apps. Moving storage from your desktop to the cloud makes it much easier for Microsoft to add features — and it can also add them much faster. You only have to look at how it's responding to suggestions on OneNote's new UserVoice page to see the cadence OneNote is moving out now that it's been separated from the rest of Office.

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