Office productivity software might have improved the way we communicate ideas, but it is woefully lacking when it comes to deriving meaning from information.
Microsoft OneNote is a $99 application, sold separately from Office, that makes a strong case for note-taking as a distinctly separate activity from writing. Its features are designed to facilitate effective note-taking, research and recall of information.
OneNote aims to get away from many of the computer metaphors that users have become accustomed to over the years, but in doing so, introduces its own approach that may take some getting used to. OneNote notebooks mimic the appearance of a conventional three-ring binder with tabbed sections that can be labeled by topic. Pages can be blank or contain rules or gridlines. Whereas a word processor imposes a linear structure on the information entered into it, OneNote benefits from a more free-form approach that is akin to capturing information on a cocktail napkin. You can type or scribble anywhere on the page, freely mix sketches with text and generally treat the software as if it was a pad of paper.
Information is automatically stored in what Microsoft calls “containers.” Containers can be made invisible so they don’t interfere with the flow of your ideas and they can be rearranged as needed. You can also drag and drop text or images from Web pages or other programs into OneNote. For Web pages, the software adds a link to the page, making it easy to recall later. Notes are saved automatically as they are entered and again when you close a notebook.
The software also supports audio notes on computers with either built-in or attached microphones, taking advantage of the high-quality Windows Media Player 9 Series codecs. Audio notes can be synchronized with the text, a huge advantage for journalists, students or anyone else who must regularly record and transcribe interviews and lectures.
TabletPC users can employ their stylus to enter handwritten notes, which, as with Microsoft’s Journal program, can be kept as searchable digital ink or transformed into text. It has much of the functionality of Journal, making it a reasonable upgrade option for existing Tablet PC users. Like Journal, OneNote is a good bet for people who spend their whole day in meetings. The ability to store all of your notes on your hard drive where they can be searched or e-mailed is invaluable.
In fact, OneNote may be the killer application that transforms the Tablet PC from a curiosity to a mainstream tool for mobile professionals. Its ability to adapt to individual users’ work styles is unprecedented in a Microsoft product and will be welcome by anyone with the need to turn information into knowledge. •
Lee Sherman is a veteran technology journalist based in the Bay Area.