What's next for Microsoft's OneNote

Microsoft's OneNote team has a lot on its plate, from honing its new Android tablet client, to improving the overall meeting experience.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

If there were one product that could be described as the poster child for Microsoft, the newly self-christened productivity and platforms company, it would have to be OneNote.


The OneNote note-taking app is made for dual usage scenarios, where work and home are not two totally separate experiences, said David Rasmussen, OneNote Group Program Manager. Rasmussen maintains growth has been "super strong," but won't offer up any OneNote download/installation figures. The largest group of users are enterprise users, he said.

OneNote is one of the four "hub services" on which Microsoft's Applications & Services Group is focusing. The other three are OneDrive/OneDrive for Business/SharePoint; Skype and Lync; and Outlook.com/Exchange. In some respects, OneNote has a smaller profile than the other three hubs, Rasmussen acknowledged. At least in part, that's because OneNote is newer than some of the businesses in the other three hubs. OneNote was born in 2003, but only became part of all editions of the Office Suite in 2011.

"Cross-platform is an essential part of our strategy," Rasmussen said. "We're trying to make sure anyone -- companies, individuals, educational institutions -- can use OneNote across different devices."

There are currently eight different OneNote clients now: OneNote for Windows, Windows 8, Windows Phone, iOS, Mac OS X, Android phone, Amazon Fire Phone/Kindle Fire tablets and OneNote Online (for use with a variety of browsers). Microsoft has provided 18 updates for these clients in total over the past 12 months, Rasmussen said.

"Cross-platform is an essential part of our strategy," Rasmussen said. "We're trying to make sure anyone -- companies, individuals, educational institutions -- can use OneNote across different devices."

Microsoft is in the midst of beta testing an updated version of OneNote for Android that will be optimized for tablets, not just phones. Microsoft opened the beta program in late March 2014 and has been updating the beta since. Fall 2014 is the target release date for this version, which means it could debut simultaneously with the rest of the touch-first Office on Android tablet suite which Microsoft is developing.

The coming Android release will support digital inking, allowing users to take handwritten notes or draw with a stylus or finger. It will add more formatting options, including font types, font sizes, alignments and tags, and will allow users to move between notebooks, sections and pages with a swipe. It also will add support for LG G3.

Microsoft also is working on an updated and revised version of modern/Metro-Style OneNote that will be part of the suite of touch-first Office apps known by some as "Gemini," which the company is expected to release in the first half of 2015. Rasmussen didn't share more about that version, other than to say "There's an evolution coming there."

Across the board, Microsoft is focused on helping OneNote users more easily see where they are saving any information they're putting in OneNote, as well as on managing multiple accounts more easily, Rasmussen said. Expect more investments in OneNote tutorials and guided-user education. That would be a welcome addition, given how many OneNote users and wanna-be users note in forums that OneNote is still much harder to use/learn than Evernote and other note-taking apps.

Behind the scenes, the OneNote team is working on updating its core storage and sync model. As a recent OneNote Microsoft job posting noted, "our core Storage & Sync model is still based on the original designs from the first version of OneNote. Notes were originally a collection of directories and files on the local drive. Notes are now a collection of directories and files in the cloud with a sync engine and caching placed in-between."

This design is "limiting from both the robustness and innovation points of view," the post continues. The team is looking for experts to help "build a modern foundation for all of OneNote's data" that will enable user sharing and collaboration at a finer level. "We need to support cross platform devices that have limited local storage and yet still provide access to all of your notes," the post added.

The post noted that the OneNote team will be coordinating with OneDrive and OneDrive for Business teams on "future Cloud storage designs." Those aren't the only teams with whom the OneNote team is working, however.

As evidenced by the integration of the OneNote functionality and the Surface Pro 3 pen, the OneNote team is doing a lot of work with both the Surface and the Windows teams, Rasmussen said. Rasmussen said there will be even more collaboration with those teams going forward, especially as Microsoft moves toward Threshold, aka, the next major Windows release which tipsters say will be out in the spring of 2015.

The OneNote team also has worked with Windows Phone around more integration around Cortana, Microsoft's personal digital assistant. And there will be more cross-team work between OneNote, Skype/Lync and Perceptive Pixel (PPI) teams, given all are very focused around improving users' meetings experience -- a pursuit of the Microsoft Office team for the past several years.

"A lot of company and enterprise usage comes in two forms: Collaborative notebooks for project plans and meetings," Rasmussen said. "There's been a lot of evolution in meeting notes, with OneNote as the starting point."

Once notes are available on the big screen, "that definitely changes the dynamics of meetings," Rasmussen continued. He said that OneNote has had a lot of conversations with the Lync and Skype teams about how to improve these experiences. And because users will want and need a more simplified user interface when using large-screen PPI monitors, there are areas where OneNote and PPI can work together to improve that meeting experience.

There's also work happening to increase the collaboration between Bing and OneNote, with Bing acting as the machine-learning, graph-based knowledge base of which OneNote can take advantage, Rasmussen said. The recent introduction of OneNote's recipe-clipping functionality, as well as the use of optical character recognition technology to send images and text for incorporation into OneNote are examples of this integration in action, he said. There will be more machine-learning-fueled capabilities coming to OneNote in the future, Rasmussen said.

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