A Personal History of Microsoft OneNote

Posted on November 29, 2016 by Paul Thurrott in OneDrive, Office 365, Windows Phones, iOS, Android, Office with 31 Comments

A Personal History of Microsoft OneNote

OneNote “12” (2007) Beta 1

Codenamed “Scribbler,” Microsoft OneNote was announced at COMDEX Fall 2002 and would ship as part of Office 2003. I’ve been using it ever since.

Here’s what I remember from those early days.

The original OneNote version would be made available as part of the Office 2013 family of products, but it wasn’t—for whatever reason—bundled with any suites; it was a $200 standalone purchase instead. It was also one of two major new Office applications that debuted in 2003, the other being XDocs, which was later renamed to InfoPath.

As I told OneNote lead designer Chris Pratley at COMDEX that year, it felt like Microsoft had made this new application just for me: Then, as now, I spent a lot of time meeting with people from Microsoft and other companies, recording their words in written form, and I would use those quotes for the basis of later articles. OneNote might have seemed superfluous to some, especially at that time, since one could simply use Word for that purpose. But I saw the genius and utility behind a tool that could be used purely for capturing and organizing the notes that would later be used—yes, in Word—to create formal articles. And I was eager to begin using it.

“Word isn’t a great note-taking application because Word creates documents, not notes, and these documents can be spread out wherever on your hard drive or network,” I wrote at the time. “Word was designed solely to capture typewritten text, and is unsuitable for adding handwritten drawings or other contextual notes.”

“You can take notes via typing, handwriting, drawing, or even audio,” Pratley told me at the time, “and OneNote links it all together.”

From the beginning, OneNote used a notebook metaphor for its user interface, with tabs representing sections full of note pages, all organized in virtual notebooks. But the big technical innovation of the day—interestingly, something we now take for granted in the mobile world—is that OneNote didn’t create individual document files and simply auto-saved as you went.

“It’s just like a notebook [and] it’s saved automatically,” Pratley said. “When you restart the application, you automatically go back to where you were, just as you would with a real notebook.”

Also innovative is that the OneNote writing surface was always arbitrary, unlike in Word and other word processors. That is, you could set the cursor down at any area on the writing surface, and start typing (or, with a pen, handwriting). You don’t have to start from the top left and work your way down as you do in Word.

OneNote has also always included audio recording capabilities, and here we see another key innovation: OneNote syncs the recording to your typed or handwritten notes. That means you could click a speaker smart tag next to any place in your notes and hear the audio recording that occurred at precisely that time. That’s an amazing bit of functionality, even today.

OneNote was also—sorry—notable for launching alongside the Tablet PC, and it supported that platform’s handwriting and drawing functionality from the beginning. Having already transitioned to typed note-taking, I never really took advantage of this functionality, of course.

Over time, OneNote improved further. The application gained the ribbon UI that debuted in Office 2007 one version later, in part because it wasn’t a core Office app at the time. The original scheme of saving a single My Notebook.one file on your PC’s hard drive which contained all your notes was eventually augmented by, and then abandoned for, OneDrive-based cloud storage. This change made your notes available everywhere, not just on your PCs, but on the other devices that OneNote came to support over time. Today, you can get OneNote on any client, and there’s a full-featured web app as well. OneNote is everywhere you are.

And because OneNote is literally free for everyone now, this incredibly useful tool has become a no-brainer. It’s something I use every day. And aside from a brief side-trip to Evernote a few years back, something I’ve been using non-stop since 2003.


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Comments (31)

31 responses to “A Personal History of Microsoft OneNote”

  1. 943

    Typo in the last paragraph. I think you meant the 3rd word to be OneNote, not Outlook...

  2. 465

    Is there any indication that Microsoft will merge the onenote 2016 and onenote UWP apps into a single solution?  Why continue developing both versions?  it just muddies the water.

  3. 442

    Your OneNote history sounds reminds me of my Microsoft Word history, I started using it around version 1.x when it was a DOS program.  Also used it on an Atari ST.  :)

    • 643

      In reply to Narg:

      First version of word I used was for Windows 3.1. Since I am an Amiga user, nothing like Pen Pal and Final Writer (which was ported to PC).  :-)

    • 974

      In reply to Narg:

      thumbs up for the Atari ST reference!  Careful though I hear there are Amiga folk around!!   I dont remember Microsoft porting word to the ST. I think that was before MS Word existed? 

    • 2

      In reply to Narg:

      I sort of miss DOS-based writing applications, whether they're developer editors or word processors. But I didn't really use Word regularly until Word/Office 6.0, which was just before Windows 95 if I remember correctly.

  4. 5496

    TThat UI in the picture, I think looks better then today's UI.

    • 5530

      In reply to lordbaal1:

      well that UI hasn't changed much from what I see. It's been cleaned up and if you were to look at the UWP version of OneNote, it's almost the best of both worlds - the simplicity of one toolbar and the needed productivity of the ribbon.

    • 3148

      In reply to lordbaal1:

      Ew no. It is confusing as heck. The complexity was the reason I never used OneNote back then. Heck I used Evernote because of its simplicity. I only started using OneNote a few years back for its pen support.

  5. 679

    Paul, I think you have a type-o here,

    "The original OneNote version would be made available as part of the Office 2013 family of products"

    Shouldn't that be 2003, not 2013?

  6. 1523

    I just wish they would update the OneNote Android APP and the camera functionality to match that of Evernote. 

  7. 3884

    I never quite understood OneNote fully for a long while.

    I started using it with my first Windows Phone (a Samsung Omnia 7 - still a great designed phone with a gorgeous OLED screen that really showed off the original Start Screen) but didn't really fully "get it" until I also got my first Windows tablet with pen (an ASUS EeeSlate 12).

    By this stage (2011) OneNote was syncing over OneDrive so I realised that all my notes from the phone were also on my tablet (which rapidly became my main PC) and vice versa. I'd always been running around with multiple paper notebooks the previous few years too so being able to transition to digital but also still handwrite everything (plus draw diagrams etc) smoothed the transition.

    I don't think I ever looked back at this point! I've evangelised OneNote to friends, family, colleagues, and random strangers at events and in the street to tell them how great it is and have converted a *lot* of them into avid users (Seriously, the amount of people I've moved to Windows Phones, Surfaces, OneNote etc. over the past 5-6 years I should be on commission!).

    Right now I'm also in the process of transitioning my school to OneNote Class Notebooks for all my Computer Science students - they love it and it makes my teaching life so much easier when marking and collecting in work. Looking forward to Microsoft Classroom coming to the UK so I can see the integration there too. Planning on moving the entire School over to OneNote Staff Notebooks over the next few years too - it sometimes feels like this program is limitless in it's uses!

    It's a real gem of the Office suite and I probably use it more than Word and Excel now. Microsoft need to keep pushing it and iterating it and matching competitor features and make it as visible as possible. Especially as it's free!


  8. 5314

    I'm a big fan as well.  I used it for my professional exams, printing out all the textbooks into a notebook,  making written notes next to them, all searchable, tagged and saved me carting masses of paper around! 

    Still room for improvement though, I'd like to see some Evernote like ability to sort things, allow some background syncing and the file printouts are relatively huge compared to their pdf counterparts. 

  9. 364

    I've been using it since 2003 as well, I started grad school in the autumn of that year and it did me well through the next 6 years of learning, and all the years since for work and personal note taking needs. I am very thankful for Microsoft creating this amazing piece of software.

  10. 6750

    I like desktop OneNote a lot. Find it extremely useful.

    But mobile OneNote not so much (iOS / Android). Syncing is slow and I often struggle to find notes via search - probably because not all my notes are synced locally. They need to better integrate off-device (OneDrive) search. On iOS and Android, Evernote is better.

  11. 3148

    In reply to harmjr:

    FYI, OneNote for desktop is free to download and use and does not require paying unless you want to save and open local notebooks.

  12. 1400

    Tell me more about this "SQL Server 2005"...that looks intriguing.

  13. 991

    I have been using OneNote since that 2003 version, and couldn't live without this program.

    I am, however, frustrated by the inconsistency in the feature set between the various platforms. For example, there is not picture cropping feature on the desktop or UWP versions of OneNote. However, you can crop using the online version of OneNote. But then, you can't rotate pictures on the online version, but you can in UWP and Desktop. I was working on a project where I kept needing to switch between the various platforms of OneNote just to find all the features.

    I can understand the online and UWP versions having a subset of features, but the desktop version lacks features found in UWP and the online version. This is so frustrating to a long time OneNote user!

    • 5314

      In reply to kcarson97404:

      It is weird, as a work around you can use the screen capture tool (win+shift+s) inside onenote itself to just cut the bit of the image you want, no need to jump between programs. 



  14. 2481

    I love OneNote (Desktop) It is by far the most used Office application that I have.  I gladly pay for this software.  To be honest the OneNote UWP does not come near the use of classic OneNote.  My biggest use is storage and filing. That notebook structure and the fact I can close it out is great. However I also think its great for researching or anointing a file from the web.  Without this program I do not think the business I used to work for could have gone paperless with out OneNote.  I really love setting up the multiple machines I use each having its on varied list of OneNote Notebooks depending on that machines/devices I use.  

  15. 5530

    I've been using OneNote since version 2007. Haven't looked anywhere else since. Hot competition like Evernote and Google Keep did tempt me from time to time, but each time I read up about them, it just sounded like another OneNote to me. Of course, back then OneNote wasn't free, so Evernote's free tier was actually what most people looked at for such a free service. But Microsoft upped the ante with OneNote and it's been godspeed since.

  16. 5501

    I was initially a graduate of the Mary Jo school of note-taking years ago, since all I used was Notepad.  I'm so glad we actually have dedicated note-taking applications like this now; it's all I use for that purpose.

  17. 670

    I can't recommend handwritten note taking enough. Using OneNote (desktop) you can search all your handwritten notes to find references to any person or topic among all your notes. For example, I have notebooks for clients with sub-pages for their companies or major matters. Wherever I note that I talked with "John Smith" it will find those references across the various pages and notebooks, already highlighted in line. Just brilliant

  18. 6958

    "And because Outlook is literally free for everyone now, this incredibly useful tool has become a no-brainer."

    Didn't you mean OneNote?


    I could not imagine life without OneNote I use it for hours every day in school everything I learned since I got a Surface Pro in 2013 is in OneNote. It took me 2 Years to find the perfect set up for Notebooks, but now its perfect. I can search everything have all my notes in one place and can accesses them from everywhere on any device.


  19. 1571

    I have handwritten notes taken and saved in One Note from 2004. One of the best things MSFT has ever done.