Category Archives: Software

OneNote Lives!

In a move that left bits of skull and gray matter littering offices around the world, Microsoft has finally—unexpectedly—released a native OneNote for Mac OS X. More surprisingly still, it’s completely usable for the princely sum of $0. Microsoft has been making some weird plays lately, but let’s not question their generosity. OneNote has been a fantastic tool on Windows (and a slightly-less-fantastic tool on iOS) for years now. Mac OS X is finally joining the party and I think OneNote will find a place in many Mac users’ toolboxes for years to come.

Microsoft OneNote for Mac OS X

In a glorious development, the UI sports a less garish version of Office 2011’s Ribbon interface.

Download it, give it a whirl, and see if it’s something that can’t find a place in your daily life.

Isn’t this just Microsoft Evernote?

One common response to the release has been “too little, too late; I’ve already got Evernote.” Thing is, they’re not really the same tool at all. While you can use either one as a really poor simulacra of the other, they have very different approaches to managing your information.

It helps to remember that OneNote came about as a tablet seller: It was a freeform note-taking app with some Newton-esque data intelligence features. You could—and still can—insert content anywhere, on a discontinuous basis. This is distinct from Evernote’s “word processor in the cloud” approach. If you work in mind maps or another spatially-oriented method, OneNote can do that. Evernote can’t.

OneNote also has much, much more robust organization features. True, a Book roughly corresponds with Evernote’s Notebooks. Things get crazy from there, though. OneNote has Sections, which can then be organized into Section Groups. Each Section can have a Page, and each Page can itself have a Subpage. You can take or leave any of these; you must have a top-level Book, but beyond that you can organize however your own twisted brain happens to function.

Even Roses Have Thorns

While I’ve been positive to this point, ultimately this is still a post-MacBU product. It’s great that the UI is more attractive. It’s fantastic that 10.8/10.9 full-screen is properly supported. There are still a bunch of rough edges.

You cannot, for example, drag pictures into OneNote—even though it accepts the drag-and-drop. The dragged content simply disappears into the ether as if you never dropped it. Pictures must be added from the ribbon or menu bar, and the experience from that point is extremely rough.

OneNote has also adopted the “utility application” paradigm despite otherwise behaving like a document-based application. If you hit Command-W, it’s gone. No “open notebook” dialog, no confirmation; OneNote just packs it in and takes off. This is especially jarring if you use other Office applications, none of which behave this way.

There was a time I would have been optimistic and said the variety of flaws will be gradually refined away, but, like many, I had the same optimism when the redesigned RDC appeared. Wow, there are a lot of things wrong here, we thought, but clearly Microsoft is committed to making a better RDC! I’m sure they’ll be fixed in no time. Not so much. It’s possible OneNote will fare better because Microsoft aims to make it a halo product, but I’m a little more cautious about throwing around the benefit of the doubt at this point.

It’s an Ecosystem

Alongside the Mac OS X release, Microsoft is also putting out a (much-needed) iOS update. The overall strategy is one OneNote to rule them all, though Microsoft platforms get some preferential features. Your notebooks live in The Cloud and you can get at them whether you’re on a Mac, a Windows desktop or notebook, a Windows Phone device, an iOS device, an Android device, or—should would be unicorn hunting—a Microsoft Surface tablet. For extra-exotic platforms or systems without OneNote installed, there’s also web access.

Microsoft is also expanding OneNote to third parties through an API, allowing it to do more than ever before (and more than many vaguely-similar applications).

If they can zero in on the quality refinements, OneNote will likely end up nearly untouchable for the demanding note-taker. As it stands, it’s a good solution with some really annoying missteps.