Microsoft OneNote 2003
James Fallows writes good articles on technology, usually at The Atlantic Monthly, and in the most recent issue he discusses an intriguing software program: Microsoft OneNote 2003. (OneNote 2007 is currently under development, but close enough to release that you can try it out—UPDATE: hmmm. It looks as though the beta you can download is for all of MS Office 2007. I say, “No, thanks.” But OneNote 2003 is really nice, and I look forward to being able to upgrade to OneNote 2007.)
Essentially, OneNote is a program to let you quickly capture thoughts (text (entered or copied), pictures, audio, video) in free-form pages stored within folders within notebooks. When you copy something from the Internet, the URL is automatically footnoted, which is very handy indeed. Re-organizing stuff is easy, as is carrying it into the various Microsoft Office programs (as a document or email or contact or whatever).
The Microsoft OneNote 2003 Web site has more info, and you can download a trial version that’s good for 60 days. You don’t want to buy OneNote directly from Microsoft, though: it’s $35 from the vendor linked to above, $100 from Microsoft.
Microsoft really hasn’t promoted this product, so far as I’ve noticed, and it’s probably because they don’t know how. It’s one of those “anything” programs, the specific configuration and use of which depend on the ingenuity and imagination of the user. Lotus similarly stumbled in trying to market their really great program Agenda (which I still use in a DOS window). But OneNote is seriously worth a try. As Fallows says:
The barrier OneNote aims to surmount is one created by Microsoft’s own success in establishing Word and Outlook, plus the overall Windows file system, as the dominant standards for writing, calendar keeping, and workplace communication.
By Microsoft logic, specific programs are “right” for specific purposes: Word if you are writing something down, Outlook’s Tasks list if you have a to-do item. Chris Pratley, OneNote’s chief designer, saw it differently. “The key insight I had,” he wrote in 2004 in his OneNote Blog, “ … was that [the program] had to let you capture the thought or piece of info as you had it, without forcing you to deal with any software goo up front.” It is a sign of the charming breeziness of his blog that he refers to his company’s mainstay offerings as “goo.” (Disclosure: I worked on the Word design team at Microsoft in 1999, and when I did, Pratley was a friend and supervisor.)
“Properly” capturing and recording in the Office system the information coming at you all day long, Pratley wrote, can be more trouble than it’s worth. For a new phone number, you have to switch to Outlook’s Contacts view and fill out a form. If you jot down something in Word, you have to create and name a new file to store it, eventually littering your hard drive with zillions of confusingly named files.
The response to this problem, via OneNote, is a kind of all-purpose magic clipboard, or “notebook.” It runs while you are doing other work, and whenever you want you can pull into it information from another program. It will store whole Web pages or selected passages; Web links; e-mail messages; text or graphic files, either embedded like attached files in an e-mail or with their contents shown; video or audio clips; handwritten entries or hand-marked documents from tablet computers; and other forms of data I’m forgetting now. You can sort or name this information as it comes in, if you want—with special notebooks for phone numbers, research about Ecuador, meeting notes, etc.—or you can just dump it all in one place and find it later on. You do this subsequent finding in a variety of ways: through labels, tags, or other identifying information you have supplied yourself; through notebooks or folders you have created for special topics; or through the new indexed search feature in OneNote 2007, which retrieves relevant entries almost as soon as you type what you’re looking for.
This new release is integrated with other Office programs in a way that actually helps the user, as opposed to just advancing the corporate brand. You can write down an errand to do or person to call—and, with a keystroke or two, convert it to an item on your calendar or to-do list. You don’t have to remember to save the file you’re working on—or worry about what name you gave it or what directory it’s stored in, since everything you add to OneNote is saved continuously and is retrievable through the very effective indexed search or through the labels you applied. You can easily delete clippings or notes you decide you don’t want anymore. I’ve started dumping all my interview transcripts into this program, rather than saving each one as a separate Word file. In OneNote, I can have a single page show my typed-up notes of an interview, plus Web links about the person I met, plus the audio file I made on a digital recorder during the meeting—which I can click on if I want to review some passage. A feature in OneNote’s new release addresses a woe of today’s mobile workforce, by automatically synchronizing the notes that are kept on your laptop and those on your desktop machine when they are networked to each other. This auto-sync feature reflects an assumption that users should not need to keep track of the program’s underlying file structure, which is different from the standard Windows structure.
There is a lot more to this program, which you can see demonstrated in a seventeen-minute blogcast by Darren Strange, the U.K. product manager, or read about, along with questions of software aesthetics, in Pratley’s blog.
The blog is, of course, kept in OneNote. The blogcast is REALLY informative—watch it if you have broadband and sound.