Notes to Self: Microsoft Makes Note-Taking, Organizing a Snap

LAS VEGAS, Nov. 17, 2002 — For consumers and business people who appreciate both the flexibility of taking notes on paper and the power of personal computing, Microsoft has a new solution — a product the company expects to change the way people take notes.

During his keynote tonight at COMDEX Fall 2002, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates unveiled Microsoft OneNote, a new application for the Microsoft Office family that combines the flexibility of hand-written notes with the power of personal computing.

Designed for desktop and laptop PCs, this new software helps people to be better organized and productive by combining the flexibility of a paper notebook with digital efficiencies such as speed, massive storage capacity, and the ability to search for and share information broadly.

Expected to be commercially available next summer, OneNote is also built to take advantage of the hand-writing recognition and digital drawing features of the new Tablet PC.

PressPass recently spoke with Chris Pratley , group program manager of authoring services for Microsoft Office, to discuss the introduction of Microsoft OneNote and why he thinks it will revolutionize the way people take notes.

PressPass: What is Microsoft OneNote?

Pratley: Microsoft OneNote is an Office family application that allows you to capture, record, organize, search and reuse information you collect and keep it all in one place — that’s where the name comes from. This information may come from meetings where you’ve typed or hand-written notes, or even from audio recordings. It’s an Office application, so users will enjoy the same easy-to-use features and tools that they’re familiar with for text, and it acts like a very capable paper notebook that you might carry around with divider tabs in it for different subjects.

PressPass: Explain the user interface and how the application works.

Pratley: The OneNote interface is similar to a notebook with dividers. It allows you to type, hand write or draw notes, depending on whether you’re using a laptop, desktop PC or Tablet PC. The note-taking area is a two-dimensional surface resembling a piece of virtual paper. You can type or write notes anywhere on the page, just like you can with a real piece of paper, so you have a lot of flexibility. But unlike paper, your notes are all electronic so you can easily rearrange them, make revisions, reorder bullet points, search across notebooks, use them in other applications, or send them to your co-workers.

PressPass: So, once you’ve created all these notes, how does Microsoft OneNote allow you to organize them?

Pratley: OneNote allows you to set up multiple project folders within your notebook, and within each of those folders you can create tabs to separate pages of information into sections. For example, each page could represent a different meeting or topic or research project. Because you have different sections that gather together pages about a particular subject, you can keep related items together — much like using a file folder. The pages are easy to browse and it’s easy to change the relationships between them by reordering pages, like you might do with a project binder.

PressPass: Who is the target audience for Microsoft OneNote?

Pratley: It is geared to anyone looking for a better way to record and organize information. Business people can use it during meetings in person or on the phone. Someone doing research on the Web can quickly collect and collate information. Students can use it to compile research and write up lecture notes. OneNote is great way for writers or journalists to organize all the disparate notes they collect during a writing project. Maybe it’s in a consultant meeting with a client, or an architect visiting a customer who wants to draft and annotate some drawings for a new project during the meeting. It’s a pretty broad group of people.

PressPass: What was the genesis of Microsoft OneNote?

Pratley: The idea came from an e-mail discussion about the lack of software to track and deal with personal or “ephemeral information” intended primarily for yourself, as opposed to others. It is information that comes into your world from meetings, lectures, e-mail, phone calls, reading, browsing the Web and casual conversations. It typically never makes it into what most of us would call a “document.” It might be personal notes, a rough document outline, a diagram, or something you saw on the Web. Today, such information either disappears because it is not captured, or is locked into a static form such as paper, or quickly gets changed into something else, such as a formal report. The kind of information captured in OneNote is not necessarily meant to be turned into a final, published document, but is still valuable to people for their purposes in its rough original form

PressPass: Microsoft already makes several Office products for publishing and managing information. How does Microsoft OneNote differ from other Office applications?

Pratley: Office products today — applications like Microsoft Word and Microsoft PowerPoint — are mainly intended to create documents for other people to consume. They’re focused on formatting and making things look really good. But often, users just needs to record information for themselves, something quick that isn’t necessarily pretty, but captures an idea they want to remember later. The current electronic tools people try to use, such as word processors or e-mail, are too cumbersome and inflexible for the kind of ad-hoc, casual information people need to quickly capture, and they require too much attention during a meeting.

Some people try to record their thoughts or activities in a meeting using their laptop. Others scrawl notes on paper pads. Some do both because they need paper for the diagrams. This information is useful to them, but isn’t necessarily intended for others to see. From the research we’ve done, and, frankly, just from talking to people, it is clear that most people are looking for a more effective way to capture and use the kind of information they get in a meeting, teleconference or while reading the Internet. There’s a feeling that a lot of information is lost and has to be rediscovered or re-invented.

PressPass: How do people deal with this dilemma today?

Pratley: Today, the only real way to capture notes on paper and store them so that you can access it all again is to carefully file them, which can be time consuming and is not always done consistently. To find that information, you are limited to one type of retrieval — for example if you file chronologically, you need to remember when you took those notes — it doesn’t help you at all that you remember the names of the people involved. If you type — or retype — handwritten notes and store them electronically, you have a similar filing challenge in your PCs file system. Many people set up file folders and try to name files consistently to try to make it easy to retrieve them. But unlike paper, you have to open each file to see what is in it — this makes it hard to just “flip through” your notes. In other cases, people hand write their notes on paper, but also want to add Internet research they compiled. So what we find is that a lot of people print everything and put it all in one paper folder because it’s the only way they can get everything in one place. But then the information is “dead” and hard to re-use or search.

PressPass: What is the vision for Microsoft OneNote?

Pratley: Ultimately, the vision is to help people be more productive by giving them a single place to quickly and easily save, organize, access and re-use information. And it’s not just about capturing data. Much of the benefit that OneNote provides is the ability to quickly search data for nuggets of information, days or even months after you took the notes. So, instead of flipping through reams of paper to find information, you can just type in your search term and, boom, there’s a bunch of hyperlinks to the information you need in your notes right in front of you. You can still flip through your electronic notes visually in OneNote, or you can try new ways such as searching by time, location in your OneNote notebook, page title, and of course full-text search — whatever works for you at that moment.

Similarly, with the Quick Note feature of OneNote, even while using another application, you can, with a single click, bring up a small OneNote window and capture a thought or phone number which you can later retrieve by doing a search. Think about all the yellow sticky notes at your desk. Now they’re all at your fingertips, indexed for searching.

PressPass: What considerations were made when designing Microsoft OneNote?

Pratley: When we thought about the user interface, it seemed natural that you’d have a file folder or notebook with categories to put the information in. The key thing was to give people the total flexibility of paper, while ensuring you still get all the great benefits of an electronic interface. OneNote is a completely flexible surface. For example, some people like to keep a main section of notes in the main part of the page and in the upper right corner they keep a small list of tasks or follow-up questions. This is easy in OneNote — you just click where you want to, and type.

We collected notes from over 500 people from around the world in different professions, and plastered them up on the wall of our hallway. We used these notes to try and find patterns and techniques that were common for many users. What we found was that by and large everyone had their own system, so this is how we designed OneNote, with enough flexibility that everyone can do it “their way.” It doesn’t matter how they want to arrange things, and if they want to move them around, that’s OK too. It maintains the total flexibility of taking notes on paper while giving you the power of the computer.

PressPass: People today have different methods for taking notes and managing information. Is Microsoft OneNote flexible in this regard?

Pratley: The first thing to realize is that everyone has a different system for keeping track of all the information they have to deal with. Some people use paper; others use electronic tools such as Outlook or Word. Part of our challenge is to present a way of doing things that accommodates people’s different styles. We think OneNote will provide users with some new ways to organize themselves they haven’t had before. Personally, I’m too lazy to file my notes, so I usually lose them. To me, the ability to retain my notes and instantly retrieve relevant ones without having to have a filing system is one of my favorite aspects of OneNote. But still, we fully expect that some people already have a very solid system that they like and even our flexible system may not work for them. That’s fine, we’ll continue to work with our customers to better understand what their needs are, and continue to adapt to those needs in the future.

One new approach that PCs enable is our Audio Notes feature. OneNote allows you to record a meeting or conference call. As you type or write notes, each note gets a time stamp that indexes into the audio recording OneNote is making. Later, if your notes are unclear or incomplete, you can click on any part of your notes and hear the audio that was recorded at the time you made that note. This capability is available on all machines with a built-in or external microphone, and is great for journalists, students, and others who need to capture information completely yet also need to pay close attention to the speaker. An hour of recorded audio takes up about 8MB, so you can record over 2,000 hours of meetings and lectures on a typical laptop hard disk.

PressPass: How much time can people save using Microsoft OneNote?

Pratley: There are a lot of chunks of time that could be saved over the way people take notes today. Many people take time — maybe up to an hour — at the end of the day to retype hand written notes that they took all day. Or if you’re in a meeting and you’re writing down notes and then the boss or a colleague says, ‘Hey, can you send those notes around?’ now you’ve got to retype them all. With OneNote you can say ‘Sure,’ and just send them off via e-mail. Your hand-drawn diagrams can be sent as well in HTML mail.

If you record meetings on cassette today, you’ll find the indexed audio notes to be revolutionary — you no longer need to play back the whole tape, listening for the interesting parts and matching them up to your written notes. If you gave up on recording lectures or meetings because of the wasted time later on, you’ll want to try this again with audio notes. You really need to experience audio note taking to understand just how effective it can be.

Searching through notes to find important pieces of information on paper can waste time too. If the information is stored electronically, you are more likely to find what you are looking for, and you can do it so much more quickly.

PressPass: Are there other advantages to Microsoft OneNote, aside from the time savings?

Pratley: The other thing that’s harder to quantify is that today people take notes and never get any value from them because it’s too hard to access what’s in them. So the other side of the equation is not so much time saved, but value you didn’t get out of your notes. With our field trials many people were amazed by how much detail they had in their notes but had forgotten.

PressPass: How does Microsoft OneNote integrate with other Office applications such as Outlook?

Pratley: OneNote has links to some applications to allow you to reuse the information that you have. For example, let’s say you want to mail your notes to five other people. You can click the email icon in OneNote, type in their names and it is sent through Outlook. If you’ve marked items in your OneNote notes as action items, you can move those to Outlook as Tasks. OneNote also supports rich copy/paste to Office applications such as Word and PowerPoint, and links to SharePoint and Web services, such as the research service, planned for the next version of Office, codenamed “Office 11.”

PressPass: How dependent upon the Tablet PC is the success of Microsoft OneNote?

Pratley: Not very. We decided that we would build an application that is useful for all computer users. OneNote definitely takes advantage of the Tablet PC capabilities where it makes sense. A Tablet PC will allow you to hand write notes and hand draw pictures with a pen. That’s a wonderful thing to have, but OneNote isn’t just about hand-written digital notes. Many people prefer to type notes and may not want to write by hand because typing can be faster, or they expect to immediately use those notes in a document. We thought it would be a benefit to have all your information organized in one place that’s searchable, and that’s true on a laptop, desktop or Tablet PC. OneNote will be great on Tablet PCs, but has plenty of utility for everyone else too.

PressPass: How is Microsoft OneNote different from the Tablet PC?

Pratley: They are two very different things. The Tablet PC is a genre of devices that use the Microsoft Windows XP Tablet PC Edition operating system to accept hand-writing, known as digital ink. The Tablet PC is a great way to capture both words and pictures. OneNote is an Office family application that can be installed and used on a Tablet PC or a desktop or laptop. On a desktop or laptop, PC users can collect and organize different kinds of information: notes, information from Web pages and conference calls, or record audio notes and make annotations. And it’s all searchable. The added bonus with a Tablet PC is that in addition to text and audio notes, people may use a digital pen to draw pictures and diagrams, and store handwritten notes in OneNote. OneNote is agnostic about ink and text — all the features are available with either format.

PressPass: How is Microsoft OneNote different from the Windows Journal feature in Tablet PCs?

Pratley: The Windows Journal utility in Windows XP Tablet PC Edition is essentially electronic paper for ink, so you can write ink anywhere on that surface. In that sense, OneNote is intentionally very similar. However, OneNote provides a much more robust working environment for the user. Unlike Journal, it fully supports typed notes and audio notes, including mixing typed notes with handwritten diagrams, which is proving to be very popular in our field trials. Anyone who types their notes today can still do that, but can also add diagrams they may have drawn on a whiteboard during a meeting.

You also have much more powerful organizational and formatting tools to choose from, such as notebook sections and folders, searching all of your notebook, bulleting, numbered lists, and Note Flags. All these features work equally well with typed notes and handwritten notes. For example, in OneNote, if you write a bulleted list in ink, it actually understands it’s a bulleted list, including sub bullets and headings. You can then apply bulleted numbering or different types of bullets, and copy that information to an application like Word or PowerPoint and have a proper bulleted list. You can reorganize it. You can grab one element in the list and move it higher and everything is renumbered automatically. And like Journal, you can search the handwritten notes in these lists, without having to recognize the ink to text. OneNote really takes the organizing and manipulation of your information a step further.

PressPass: When will Microsoft OneNote be available?

Pratley: Microsoft OneNote should be available around the summer 2003 timeframe.

PressPass: How much will it cost and will it be included in the Office bundle?

Pratley: Stay tuned, pricing and packaging are still being determined and we will share this information in the coming months.

Related Posts