A Personal History of Microsoft OneNote

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