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Monday, 18 November 2002

Microsoft Office OneNote

So, we know that MS is ready to push smart objects (now known as SPOT--small personal object technology), but one of the other things the unveiled at Comdex this year was Microsoft Office OneNote, a new note-taking program for MS Office.

My first reaction, after having a look at the blurb and the use case scenarios is nothing more than a gadget-lusting "I want one". Then again, that's not to be surprised, really. I want most gadgets. There's something about One Note, though--or Tablet PCs--that's alluring and that a lot of geeks have dismissed.

One is that all this pen-input stuff is a complete waste of time: who writes nowadays? If you can type at 98wpm, much faster than you can write, then there doesn't really seem to be much point. If I'm honest, there are still occasions when I do have the strange archaic urge to splurge ink all over a page. Lately, they've become more or less concentrated when I'm sat in a lecture hall and I'm taking notes.

Hang on a second. I've got a laptop--and a nice one, too. I have word processors and outliners falling out of my ears. It's not as if I'm stuck for choices of note-taking. Or am I? It seems that I am. For a long time (granted, this was before I'd bought myself a laptop), I scorned people who took them into lecture halls. Mainly this was at Cambridge and during law lectures, and a few years ago you'd get the odd student lugging a ThinkPad in, waiting a few minutes for it to boot up, getting embarrassed when Windows went "TA-DAAAA" when she logged in and wondering why, exactly, Word had decided to crash when she most needed to get down a precedent. "See," said I "I wouldn't want to take notes on a laptop because I'd be scribbling things down in margins, I'd be wanting to draw loopy arrows all over the place, putting brackets in after the fact, crossing things out and so on. Typing in bulleted lists in Word or in free form is simply not the way to go", and I'd wander off in some sort of smug cloud whilst silently cursing that I didn't have a laptop to play with.

Well, I've got a laptop now and I still go to lectures. What's good? Well, it's good that I have all my notes in one place and I'm not likely to lose them. It's good that I can print out lots of copies. It's good that there's this wonderful thing called "search" that I can do on some flat text that doesn't involve a whole bunch of extraneous and terribly complicated sequence of saccades. All good things.

So what's bad? Why do I gaze at the student use scenario so forlornly? Because every so often, I need to draw Nassi-Shneiderman diagrams. Or I need to do a quick sketch of a binary tree. Or a parse-tree for some given BNF. Sure, I've got reasonably intelligent drawing software that has a bunch of predefined templates so I can draw UML and so on, and rumour has it that Word itself allows you to actually draw primitive shapes on the page nowadays, but what I'm really longing for is the ability to, say, just quickly sketch something and be able to keep it.

Keeping all this electronically requires discipline. There's a whole directory structure of courses, modules, notes, weeks, pdf lecture handouts, Word lecture notes, PowerPoint presentations, java sourcecode all intriciately laid out so I know where I can find it. Then Microsoft comes along with this One Note business and says that I don't have to bother with that anymore. And rightly so. I'm dying out for a filesystem with metadata (cue salivating at BeOS's filesystem) where instead of worrying about where I put something so I can find it, all I have to do is worry about what it is that I'm looking for. I'd love to tag a bunch of files as lectures notes and just view an abstract collection of files that happen to be lecture notes--virtual folders! One Note is moving slowly away from Office's traditional single-document model. Fine, Office has its Binders, but not many people I know use those, and they're rather unwieldy--too little is bad, not good--but look at this:

* Create as many notebooks, folders, and pages as you need; customize them for how you work; and keep them all in one convenient place. * Search your notes quickly and find what you need without having to know in which notebook, folder, or file you saved that information. * Create and search Note Flags to highlight urgent action items. Your important tasks and reminders will always be easy to find. * Combine, format, and rearrange notes by using a drag-and-drop operation to organize your notes in a way that makes sense to you.

Oh. My. God. I'll wait for metadata enabled filesystems. I'll wait and see how MS does with its SQL-backed filesystem. But this, right now, is close to a killer app. Make a notebook for a project. Organise it with separate folders. Don't worry about what's inside those folders, move the pages inside the folders about, customise them and--joy--search them. Draw in them! Put free-form text in! Drag and drop! It's like some kind of note-taking heaven.

That's why I want this. I don't care whether my handwriting is terrible or not, or whether it's slow. When I need to input large amounts of text, I can type. When I need to quickly annotate or sketch, I can draw. When I need to organise a whole bunch of documents together, I can, and I think that's going to be the killer feature. I don't like having a hierarchical structure that I must obey to store things efficiently. I don't work that way. Humans don't work that way. I want an amorphous blob of things that are like other things, and I want it all in one place. One other thing--you'd think that someone somewhere would suggest that this software be tied to Tablet PC, that only those shelling out huge amounts of cash for these new computers would be able to reap the benefits of actually being able to organise documents. Well, you thought wrong. One Note will work with any Windows PC, pen-enabled or not. Dear God I want this.

Update: Steven Johnson talks about OneNote and likes it for pretty much the same reasons.

2 comments and trackbacks

ext|circ Feb 20, 2003 8:33 PM
Microsoft's inadvertent release of an Office 2003 beta has enabled a select few (well, MSDN subscribers) to take a look
Read more in OneNote to rule them all »

One hopes that MS will simultaneously release the Apple version at the same time. Apple has had "InkWell" built in to OS 10.2 (Jaguar), which is derived from the long tested Newton OS. All we need then is Apple to release the next PowerBook with either a BlueTooth enabled detachable screen or a fold-back hinge to make it into a portrait oriented notepad.

Posted by: Drew Williams on April 25, 2003 02:21 AM

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