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More than just a whimsical tool for note-taking on tablet PCs, Microsoft OneNote can be used for storing and organizing information on any computer, lets users collaborate on projects and eases the load on Exchange servers.
Let’s face it — most of us hoard information. Many system administrators have encountered employees who don’t want to delete e-mail, even spam, because it might be important in the future. Electronic mail is effective for sharing short memos, but soon becomes a burden when lengthy conversations are bounced between several recipients or files are sent when they could have been easily shared on a file server or SharePoint site. Personal Information Managers, such as Microsoft Outlook, were not designed to archive large amounts of information indefinitely or for collaborating with colleagues on projects.
But OneNote is. First released in 2003, OneNote is designed for note-taking and for organizing and storing information for research and collaboration on projects. While originally conceived as a single-user application, OneNote now lets groups of users work together using structured notebooks, including the ability to embed documents and work offline.
OneNote’s user interface is based on the common notebook, but it isn’t as straightforward as its paper counterpart. OneNote’s Notebooks are divided into Sections, which can be collected as Section Groups. Sections contain Pages, and can also be grouped together if required, creating new Pages and Subpages. Multiple Notebooks can be open at the same time. Figure 1 shows how these different elements are displayed in the interface.
Ideally suited to a widescreen monitor, toolbars such as the Navigation Bar can be expanded or collapsed to suit your preference. All Notebooks, which is found at the bottom of the Navigation Bar (Figure 1), offers a quick overview of open Notebooks and a way to move quickly between Sections.
OneNote provides a rich drawing surface. You can enter notes by using a pen if you have a tablet PC, or by typing directly onto a Page, after which a Notes Container is created. Audio and video can be recorded directly in OneNote, and simple tools let you draw freehand or insert pre-defined shapes. Much of Word’s formatting functionality is also available, including the ability to add tables and lists.
OneNote’s note-taking capabilities may not seem particularly novel, but its capacity to manage information is where it really scores. Not only can you use Notebooks, Sections and Pages to structure information, but you can also make hyperlinks between these elements, creating a flexible system for organizing information. Hyperlinks are automatically updated to reflect any changes if an item is moved. At the file level, data is saved by Section, precluding the monolithic files often encountered when using Outlook Personal Folders. This adds to OneNote’s portability and facilitates easier backups.
Because it is integrated with other Microsoft Office suite applications and Internet Explorer, there are several ways to transfer information into OneNote, including drag-and-drop. E-mail can be sent to OneNote by selecting mail in Outlook and pressing the Send to OneNote button in Outlook’s toolbar. Entire Outlook folders can be sent to OneNote by selecting multiple mail items. Each mail message is represented in OneNote as a Page, retaining important information such as the Subject, To, From and Sent fields.
Notes can be turned into Outlook Tasks by placing the cursor next to the relevant text and clicking the Task button in OneNote’s toolbar. The Task button’s menu allows you to specify the due date. Figure 2 shows an e-mail message that was sent from Outlook to OneNote, and a task that was added by the user (indicated by the red flag icon), which OneNote then automatically created in Outlook.
Web pages or selected areas on a page can be sent to OneNote from Internet Explorer. Files can be embedded into OneNote Pages, or a link to a file inserted. One nice feature is the ability to insert searchable printouts of files, which are essentially graphical representations of documents created by the OneNote printer. Screen clippings made of text documents are also searchable. Like other Office applications, OneNote is fully integrated with Windows Desktop Search, and images containing text (printed or handwritten), audio and video can be indexed.
Information can be tagged to make searching more efficient. OneNote contains a built-in list of pre-defined tags which can be added to or modified (Figure 3). You can search by tag to narrow down your results. If you want to make an audio or video recording of a meeting, any notes you type while the recording is being made will be marked with a Play icon, so that once the meeting is over, you can easily find the place in the recording that’s relevant to the written note.
Notebooks can be hosted on a file server or SharePoint site. OneNote has its own built-in synchronization engine that automatically saves Pages locally for offline editing. The key difference between OneNote and other Office applications, when sharing Notebooks, is that when a user opens a Section, the file is not locked for editing. OneNote is not intended for correcting or refining documents, but for adding information, so was designed to allow multiple users to edit a Page concurrently, whether online or offline.
OneNote’s synchronization engine periodically uploads changes to a server if the user is working online, or when a user reconnects to the network. If conflicts are found, modifications take preference over deletions. If two modifications occur, the first client to synchronize changes to the server wins, but rejected modifications are shown in ghosted versions of the Page. The tab of the ghosted Page shows the date the modification was made and the letter U represents its unmerged status (Figure 4). Where possible, only changes are uploaded to the server, rather than entire Pages or Sections.
Also included is a feature called Live Sharing, which uses DirectPlay technology to provide real-time collaboration. When users meet in the same room or via a conference call and want to update a Notebook together in real-time, Live Sharing provides an ad-hoc connection without the need for an intermediary server. Live Sharing lets you share one Section at a time (Figure 5) and provides an IP address and port on which other users can connect to the session. Live Sharing can be used over the Internet, although this may be problematic behind a corporate firewall.
OneNote is difficult to classify; it simply doesn’t do it justice to call it merely a note-taking application. Falling somewhere between a shared whiteboard and a wiki, with integrated search, flexible organization of information, real-time collaboration and the ability to take everything offline, OneNote is in most cases a better solution for information management than applications such as Outlook.
OneNote’s nonlocking principle for shared Notebooks means users don’t have to wait for other people to make their contributions to a project. This speeds up the process, and lets everyone see what’s happening simultaneously. To avoid unwelcome surprises, it’s important to understand how OneNote synchronizes and merges information when Notebooks are shared, and that Word still has its place in the Office suite.
OneNote could be especially useful in smaller organizations where the luxuries of collaboration technologies, like enterprise instant messaging or SharePoint, are not available because of budget constraints. You may not find OneNote to be intuitive immediately, but once you discover how to utilize it effectively, you’ll wonder how you ever managed without it.
Russell Smith is an independent consultant based in the United Kingdom who specializes in Microsoft systems management.