Friday, March 25, 2005

Notes and Notetaking

An adventure into collaborating with oneself--starting with Microsoft OneNote.

In my business, I do a lot of notetaking: briefings, snippets of ideas, etc. My modus operandi, of late, has been mostly just to fire up the old word processor and drop it in in 'My Documents' or some appropriate subdirectory. Through some some combination of appropriate file nameing, sorting by date, or--as a last resort--Google Desktop Search, I can usually more or less find what i'm looking for. (Hold the thought about search, by the way, more on this later.) Yet, I couldn't escape the feeling that there had to be a better way to do this.

The logical jumping off point for a possible better answer was Microsoft OneNote. It turned out to be a good starting point--not because I ultimately added it to my toolkit, but because it got me thinking about what I really needed and why.

OneNote really isn't a bad program, but it didn't meet my needs at the end of the day. Yes, it keeps a bunch of notes in one place using a sort of notebook+sections hierarchy. That's the good news, but as I used it over the course of several weeks, I became more and more dissatisfied.
  • It may be a minor aesthetic point, but the program is UGLY. Steve Jobs would have the designer flogged and put in stocks in front of Apple headquarters. Add in all the cutesy icons for ToDo, the garish colors, the note backgrounds and the like and it really is an assault on the senses.
  • The organization is aggressively hierarchical. No keywords, no date-order sorting outside of the hierarchy.
  • External capture from web sites is weak. Yes, you can easily capture a screen clip, but capture of complete web pages, much less multiple pages, isn't directly supported. Microsoft provides "PowerTools" that help out a bit--but only for Internet Explorer. OneNoteImageWrite lets you "virtually" print a web page from FireFox into OneNote--but it's a non-searchable image. Overall, I didn't find OneNote a great tool for capturing information from the web although others disagree.
  • The notes pages have some non-word processor features that let you put notes on the margins and the like--but my impression is that this sort of feature is far more useful for Tablet PC users than the rest of us.
  • Sharing and collaboration features--don't really care.
  • At $100, it's not ridiculously pricey but hardly inexpensive.
  • Finally, something that started to really bother me as I loaded in more and more information, it uses a propritary format with no easy way to mass export to a more standardized format. Although it's easy to jump on Microsoft for this, this is a common failing of many such programs. I don't want to be stuck with using a particular program forever just because it's the format my data's stored in.

OneNote's not terrible. But it is flawed, especially for non-Tablet PC users and for those who are looking for a real research tool as well as a note taking one. However, it did get me thinking about what I needed and what I didn't.

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