Microsoft to Revamp OneNote Desktop, Kill Windows 10 Client

Posted on August 9, 2021 by Paul Thurrott in Microsoft 365, Office with 45 Comments

Microsoft had previously revealed that it would move forward with the desktop version of OneNote and OneNote for Windows 10. Now, the software giant says that it will revamp OneNote desktop to adopt the Windows 11 look and feel and will kill OneNote for Windows 10.

“We’re excited to share that OneNote on Windows will get a series of updates over the next 12 months,” the OneNote team revealed last week. “These updates include a visual refresh, the latest Microsoft pen and ink advancements, a new navigational UI layout option that can flex for customer preferences, and more.”

The “visual refresh” bit in the quote above links to Microsoft’s late June announcement about the Windows 11-inspired visual refresh it is providing to the core Office apps. But the other information in that quote hints that the revamping of OneNote will go a bit further than just lipstick on a pig.

Back in 2018, Microsoft announced that it would no longer update its then-final OneNote desktop client (for Windows), called OneNote 2016 and that it would instead move forward with OneNote for Windows 10 as its only OneNote client on Windows. Then, in late 2019, Microsoft reversed course, and said that it would continue adding new features to both clients. The assumption at the time was that OneNote for Windows 10 would eventually be deprecated and that Microsoft would move forward with a single OneNote client on Windows, and that that client would be the desktop version, which I’ll now call OneNote desktop.

That assumption was correct: Microsoft now says that it will “unify” the two OneNote apps on Windows, by which it really means that it is dropping OneNote for Windows 10 and moving forward with OneNote desktop. The OneNote team claims that this is possible thanks to “advances in Windows and Office,” and that the resulting client will offer the “simplicity of a single OneNote app” combined with “the interface and features you’re already familiar with.”

That statement is not what I wanted to hear: I very much prefer the simplicity of the interface from OneNote for Windows 10, but it appears that the revamped OneNote desktop client will instead move forward with the convoluted full ribbon UI from OneNote 2016. The low resolution mock-up image above confirms this, though the line in the quote above about “a new navigational UI layout option” leaves a bit of hope that the app will support a simpler UI option too.

And yes, Microsoft does promise that OneNote desktop will get features that are currently unique to OneNote for Windows 10, but it made that same promise almost two years ago, so that’s not new (or news). And it doesn’t provide even a short list of which OneNote for Windows 10 features might make it over to the desktop app.

As for moving forward, Microsoft says that there is nothing for us to do today: Users can continue to use whichever OneNote client they prefer while it “builds features that will help you move over to the OneNote [desktop] app more easily in the future.” Those who use OneNote for Windows 10 can keep using it, but those on the desktop client “are on the fastest path to new features” since new features, going forward, will only be added to that client and not to OneNote for Windows 10.

Then, sometime in the second half of 2022, Microsoft will begin alerting OneNote for Windows 10 users that it’s time to move over to the revamped desktop client. That suggests that it won’t complete this transition until late 2022 or early 2023, which is a surprisingly long time.

What a mess. Once again, I would like to see some clarity from Microsoft. OneNote is an app I use every day and rely on, and this kind of uncertainty is most unwelcome.

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Comments (45)

45 responses to “Microsoft to Revamp OneNote Desktop, Kill Windows 10 Client”

  1. pbeiler1

    Hoping Microsoft will change the look of browser-OneNote to match.

  2. mattbg

    I don't know what to think about this. I guess that is a reflection of Microsoft's own internal confusion :)


    Day-to-day, I got used to using the Windows 10 app on the desktop. It was simpler and easier to get in, do what I need, and get out.


    But at the same time, I remembered that the Windows 10 app didn't have all the features I wanted. But over time that mattered less - I stopped using those features and the simplicity won out.


    I guess applying the Windows 10 app's simplicity to the desktop version would be fine, but I'm skeptical that will happen.


    My current position: if they just give me a keyboard modifier to activate the panning hand at random without needing to activate a specific mode, I will be OK with anything else they want to do. It could even be the same one they use for Visio!

  3. John Craig

    Hear hear!!


    I absolutely agree that the W10 version is the better of the two, and have picked up a tonne of flak on another forum for suggesting this.


    Note taking apps are supposed to be clean and simple. It literally should just be an endless series of blank or lined pages that can be put into little bundles. That's it.


    I haven't used a paper based note pad for work since 2014, so to say I'm all in on one note is no exaggeration. I have thousands of business notes and loved the simplicity of the W10 app.


    The app bundled with office 365 is not good. Trying to change pen colours, open new pages, move notes around, create lines, etc everything requires this goddam ribbon to drop down (which sometimes happens on one touch, sometimes two) and then you have to search through a full toolbar to find a simple command.


    Last moan...this might just be me, but I'm not so sure...the Office 365 version doesn't seems to have worse touch sensitivity.


    Every time my watch makes contact with the screen while writing, it thinks I'm activating the keyboard.


    This happened in the W10 version up until about 3 years ago, then MS fixed it. Seems they left that little easter egg in 365.


    Oh well, I'm too invested in one note to just leave, so I'll just have to get used to using the 365 version, but it sucks

  4. wright_is

    The biggest problem with the Windows 10 version of OneNote is that it couldn’t open OneNote files. Without that, there was no way that it could ever take over from OneNote 2016.

    • Daekar

      This is the deal breaker on the Windows 10 version for me. At work, we have to host our notebooks explicitly on company servers, and I never figured out how to make that work with the simpler client.

  5. red.radar

    I grown to really like OneNote for Windows 10. It had a similar layout to the WebApp and the simplified interface was appreciated for quick jots. The few features it lacked from the Legacy OneNote for Desktop I was able to find alternate solutions for.


    Well, I guess thinks are changing again.

  6. red.radar

    Once the transition is complete. What about people who don't pay for Office 365? Do they loose access to OneNote as a desktop application? Will it be WebVersion only? Or will OneNote for Desktop be a free Windows Store download seperate from the Office image?



  7. kdjones74

    I'm thinking the "navigational" updates are moving sections/pages to the left, like the OneNote for Windows 10 version (and all the other OneNote versions).


    I used the old OneNote mostly from the beginning (2002), but I found the OneNote for Win10 version to be faster and quicker/more reliable syncing.

  8. kherm

    I would love to know what Laura Butler's thoughts are on this development, I know she worked on OneNote for Win 10 for a while.

  9. winner

    They could enlarge the ribbon to contain all of the bloated commands so that they're at your fingertips, and leave a 1 inch vertical by 10 inch horizonal slit for actual typing.

  10. LT1 Z51

    I've absolutely refused to use OneNote because of these issues of which client is the right one and how it stores files. The desktop client can store on your PC but the mobile and Windows 10 version use some weird web format that isn't compatible in terms of the file as in it's not rolled up in a nice easy to copy thing (both apps can open the web based files though).

  11. JE

    Ah boy, what a mess. I was happily using OneNote desktop until a few years ago when they said the new direction was the UWP version. I made the switch and have been enjoying the ‘new’ version ever since for its simplicity and speed. Now it’s cancelled and we’re having to transition back to the desktop version. I think I’ll wait until Windows 11 ISO is released then nuke my PCs and start fresh with EVERYTHING..

  12. crunchyfrog

    I go back and forth using OneNote. I like it because it works across my devices but I always have to fiddle with it to take a new note.


    I just want something simple like Samsung Notes that fires up quickly and starts a new note really easily. Problem is I can't use it across all of my devices.

  13. adamstaiwan

    I use the Desktop version for one main reason: It allows me to have semi-automatic work flows. I have a list of things to do that can not all be automated. However, in my list I may have some items that can be automated and provide a link to .bat file, application or folder. I can then click on it and complete that part automatically. I hope they keep this feature.

  14. ronh

    I had sync issues between 2019, Win 10 and Android version.

    I renamed all my notebooks to add -OLD at the end of the name.

    I created a new Notebooks in my Documents\Onenote Notebooks\ folder in OneDrive, an copied over what I needed to the new notebooks.

    I then synced up my 3 PCs and my Phone and made sure everything was working.


    I have had no issues since. I use both versions of the app on Win 10 and 11 and they sync fine on the same machine

  15. jdjan

    Ugh - this is such a mess. I loved OneNote Desktop. While I saw where they were going with the OneNote for Win10, they took away so many features that I never used it. Then they bailed on OneNote Desktop and I was done.


    I've since moved my business computing to Mac from Windows. I tried using the Mac OneNote client for a bit (similar to Windows 10 version but less featured) and gave up again.


    Honestly - at this point it feels like a Google product. I once trusted it, but will always have the feeling that they will kill it at some point and leave those that use it high and dry.

  16. ibarskiy

    Esoteric question - does that mean that the OneNote that continues will have extensibility through VS / library interfaces to VBA?

  17. bettyblue

    What an absolute joke. We spent a good part of a year helping users move over to Windows 10 OneNote as the Office version was going away. We got rid of it. They were on the Windows 10 version...and then a O365 update brought back the old 2016 version...with Dark Mode.


    Then we all set in limbo for over and year while the revived version go no more updates or news. Mean while all other versions, Mac, iOS, and Android look like the Windows 10 version.


    So now they take away the Windows 10 version in favor of the overloaded Windows version. I use the Web version now...only when I absolutely have too. I spent a full month moving all of my notes to Apple Notes, since I am on a Apple device 99% of the time. If I truly had to see a note and only had a Windows computer to hit up icloud and see my notes from there.


    This is the schizophrenic stuff Microsoft pulls with their horrible messaging communication. They never seem to understand that this turns people off. I love my Xbox Series X and game pass....short of that there nothing else these days that Microsoft makes that I "must have". My job keeps me in their world every day for the most part but when I leave work...no much and when I retire my Xbox will be my last hold out.

  18. sbron8

    Honestly the "revamp" doesn't even look that good. Also would love to see an option to turn on page margins so the page size is not unlimited. Then I would actually probably use it.

  19. southwark

    They need to bring some modern functionality into OneNote to compete with things like Notion and Obsidian. Would like to see support for dropping blocks of code (with per-language syntax highlighting) in there

  20. sherlockholmes

    Does anybody still belief a thing when MSFT announces something?

  21. spacein_vader

    I've still never managed to get my head around what one note is actually for.

    • codymesh

      it's a note-taking app, basically you set a virtual notebook and you can add infinite sections and pages to it

    • rickeveleigh

      I (largely) replaced my use of a paper notebook with it. Notes of customer environments; servernames, IP addresses etc. Notes of meetings. That's for work; for personal tabs for all sorts of things: how to pack the car with camping gear; a recipe for Yorkshire puddings; notes of the energy tariffs we're on; scratch pad each year for holiday info.

    • Jim Lewis

      It's a great digital memory with fantastic crosslinking abilities. The built-in hierarchy shows up in in-app search results so it's easy to find the notes that you want with a keyword (search term) used at the rough level of importance or emphasis that you're looking for. Can easily link to other OneNote notebooks, section groups, sections, pages, or to files on your disk or your cloud storage, or links to Internet pages. Links to YouTube videos can be stored with a thumbnail image from the video to help remind you about the video content and the video will play, if you want, right from the OneNote page. OneNote for Windows was useful for being light-weight on underpowered devices like smartphones or tablets but Hurray for concentrating on the desktop version, which is so much more powerful and useful than the "modern" version of the app ever was. The tasks/todo's within OneNote, the categories, etc., are not very well-developed and useful. IMHO, for all the love they're giving MS ToDo and My Day, they need to better integrate what's important now (what's in MS ToDo, etc.) with the long-term memory and organization of notes and background information that OneNote affords. I guess folks that just live in the minute and rely on whatever info they can keep in their head don't have much use for OneNote.... Otherwise, it's a marvelous app and accepts input of "stuff" in every way imaginable.

  22. codymesh

    I actually think OneNote is the one app that benefits from being touch/mobile-centric, just like the modern UWP Windows 10 app. Even the single-line ribbon works great.


    The desktop app (onenote 2016) is slow, and if I recall correctly, doesn't sync in the background either.

    • Paul Thurrott

      Exactly. I very much prefer the simplified ribbon in OneNote for Windows 10.

    • SvenJ

      The desktop version does sync in the background. We started using it extensively while we were all WFH. We were at home on laptops tied to the network on VPNs, We used one note to keep track of schedules, policy changes, a repository for instructions for various resources we used, all manner of things. The OneNote files were on the network server, and up to 20 of us had it linked at the same time, making updates and changes. We had some glitches, but they were more related to our VPN than OneNote specifically. Our biggest headache was the variability in people's home networks, from Gigabit XFinity, to DSL, to SATCOM.

      Personally, I use both the Win 10 and the desktop version. Win 10 more at home, but open via desktop periodically. At work it's desktop all the way. Won't find any Windows store apps on the network. I have a gut feeling the desktop version still has more features than the Win 10, because I was around as MS had a multi-year plan to establish feature parity, bringing Win 10 up to desktop. That was never finished, and I am hard pressed to think of any feature Win 10 has that wasn't available on the desktop. I agree the Win 10 is moderately better for a touch interface, such as use on a Surface Go lends itself to, but MS has never been really serious about touch in the first place. Marketing, yes, lip service, yes, but real effort, nah.

  23. thejoefin

    Just FYI I did confirm from the OneNote PM that the Single line (Simplified) Ribbon will be coming to the unified OneNote. So there's that at least.

    • Paul Thurrott

      Ah good.


      This is, um, something they should have communicated officially.

      • davehelps

        You could have a t-shirt made with that comment, Paul! :)

      • jimchamplin

        If they’d stop using abbreviated blog posts to announce things and actually take time to describe what’s happening, they might have a chance to say things like that.


        The semi-cutesy wink-wink stuff gets old. The product teams already know what their plans are. I guess it’s the marketing team that says, “Don’t tell them. Gussy up the most basic and obvious information and make them WONDER about how this will disrupt their workflow!”

  24. navarac

    "What a mess."


    Just about sums up MSFT these days, I'm sorry to say. Too many versions of one thing (app), trying to be the jack-of-all-Trades in all circumstances. It's generally a recipe for disaster.


  25. Matthew Santacroce (InnoTechLLC)

    I would be happy if they finally added double click and drag to select text by words and triple clicking to select a paragraph (you know like Outlook and Word function!)

  26. waethorn

    Maybe they can finally get that Surface Neo out and finally make that OG Surface design concept with real software now.

  27. rm

    Maybe combine the resulting OneNote App with the Whiteboard app.

  28. north of 49th

    What I don't understand is why Microsoft doesn't allow multiple views - for example: Business (for syncing between Outlook maybe with a ribbon interface), Simplified (for quick note taking), Touch, etc. They do this effectively with the Microsoft Calculator where you can switch between a basic, scientific, graphing and programmer UI views. I get wanting one app to take care of, but you should be able to set a UI style to manage the UI complexity for different people's needs.

  29. huddie

    This is all a great shame. I'm an extremely heavy OneNote user and it's a great app on Windows and Android. However, development and new features have stagnated. Add to this that it has fallen victim to Microsoft's failed UWP strategy and Microsoft have been supporting two OneNote apps for Windows (I currently use OneNote for Windows 10 / UWP). Now they're killing off the one they wanted to keep and keeping the one I assume they wanted to kill - the one with the Office bloat and inferior design. A load of wasted effort and work.


    Also, did anyone notice that Microsoft issued a OneNote client or backend update and then realised that it led to deletion of existing notes for a specific period of about a week in May, for many users? The incident was recorded on the Office 365 service status site. They had to run automatic restores on all the affected notebooks. I now have a duplicate of my Quick Notes section from May called Quick [email protected] Another untested update reaping havoc.


    Microsoft are busy screwing up one of their best apps.

    • JE

      Ah yes, I seem to have that.. Good to know it was their doing and not a fault in the way I was using & keeping things synced. Thanks

  30. stephencwll

    "We'll get right on to sorting this mess out."


    Plans to sort it out within next 2 years.



  31. RossNWirth

    Late to the party, but surprised no one has mentiojed my killer use case - meeting notes and send email to OneNote from Outlook - this was never fully supported on OneNote for Windows 10. You could insert meeting info within OneNote for Windows 10 from the calendar on the Microsoft Account your OneNote app.was logged into... But it never worked for those of us who stored OneNotes in one account, and had calendar (and/or email) on another account. This was a minor inconvience at my prior employerer where at least we were an M365 shop, but now at a GSuite shop - yikes - must use OneNote 2019 to have integration to Outlook where I've forced my GSuite email and calendar.


    Also - remember the radial menu, and the decision to kill that for the UWP UX... #RIP


    #StruggleIsReal



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