First look: Microsoft OneNote 2003

Microsoft's new OneNote 2003 program is a terrific tool for capturing, organizing and sharing ideas, knowledge and information. Read this article to learn why this is one of the most exciting new productivity tools of 2003!

Faced with information overload? You’re not alone; it’s a problem that many knowledge workers face today. Effectively managing a raging river of incoming e-mails, reports, meeting notes, discussions with coworkers and more is can be very challenging.

What’s needed is a unified approach to managing all of this information and knowledge. That’s the thinking behind Microsoft’s new personal information management program, OneNote 2003.

OneNote functions like a digital notebook, enabling you to capture, store, manipulate and manage a surprising array of content and knowledge with great ease. Based on my experience of using a beta version of OneNote during the last two weeks, I think that Microsoft has really done its homework in designing this program. The power and flexibility it gives you to gather and arrange information is very impressive.

In this “first look” product review, my goal is to give you an overview of some of the most notable features and functionality of this powerful new program, which is is expected to ship around October 21, 2003.

Free-form page surface

One of the most notable features of OneNote 2003 is a new paradigm for entering text called the “free-form page surface.” When you open a new page in OneNote, you can click your mouse anywhere within the page and begin typing. OneNote will automatically create a rectangular text area called a “container,” which expands as you type into it.

You can also drag and drop text or images from other programs into OneNote, including the contents of Web pages and word processing documents. When you do this with content from a Web page, OneNote automatically adds a link below the text or image, so you can easily return to the Web page later — very useful when doing research where you must cite your sources. OneNote’s integration with Internet Explorer enables you to use it as a personal knowledge base — a place to capture the bits and pieces of information and knowledge that may be useful to you at some time in the future.

In addition, you can draw on the page surface, either with the mouse or a stylus (if you’re using the Tablet PC edition of OneNote). This enables you to create the high-tech equivalent of the traditional new product concept scribbled on a cocktail napkin!

At the top of each page is a pastel-colored horizontal area where you can type the page’s title; this title area remains visible no matter how far you scroll down a page. This title is also displayed in a page tab on the right side of the OneNote screen, and provides you with a visible index of the content you’re working on, as well as any related pages.

When creating notes, you can enter them into one long scrolling page or you can create additional sub-pages, which remain grouped together, “attached” to their master page.

Text containers can be easily dragged around OneNote’s page surface or resized as needed. The effect is something like laying out blocks of text in a desktop publishing program. This means, for example, that you could use the right margin of a page to add a narrow column of text containing action items, summaries and other information that is related to your notes — mimicking the way that many people work with their handwritten notes.

OneNote also has some powerful note editing features that represent improvements in usability. For example, if you want to move a paragraph of text, simply hover your mouse in the margin to the left of a paragraph. A small blue box pops up, with a four headed arrow inside of it. If you click and drag on this icon, you can move the attached paragraph to a new location within the OneNote work space. If you drag a paragraph to a blank area of the page, OneNote will automatically place it in a new text container. This functionality gives you great flexibility in manipulating and organizing your notes and ideas.

OneNote as a ‘Pre-writing’ tool

Microsoft considers OneNote as a “pre-content” creation tool, where the user can organize and annotate ideas or information. Once organized into a cohesive outline, these ideas can be easily passed on to Word, PowerPoint or another application to add structure and polish to your ideas.

Managing your notes

OneNote 2003 gives you a number of options for managing your notes. You can create multiple file folders, representing your home and work notes, for example. Within a folder, you can create an unlimited number of sections, highly useful for organizing your notes around projects, functional responsibilities or other methods of organization that make the most sense to you. Each file or section is displayed in a series of tabs just below the OneNote toolbar, making it easy to move between different notes, sections and files.

According to Microsoft, sections are much like tabs of hanging file folders or sections within a three-ring binder. This organizational metaphor is very intuitive, making it possible to begin organizing your notes almost immediately, with little or no training.

You can create as many sections as you need, and customize them by naming them after different projects, types of meetings or anything you want.

The right side of the OneNote screen contains a separate set of tabs representing the individual pages contained within that section. Clicking a tab takes you to the corresponding page. Hovering over a tab causes OneNote to display a tool tip that displays the full page title and other page properties.

You can also highlight key ideas, reminders, or follow-up tasks in OneNote with Note Flags, which help you to identify action items, customers you need to call and other types of follow-ups or add them to your task list in Outlook 2003. I wasn’t able to test this feature with Outlook 2002, but this level of integration should be quite valuable.

Audio integration

In addition to allowing you to enter notes via keyboard, stylus and dragging and dropping content from other applications, OneNote 2003 also enables you to capture speeches, meetings and telephone calls via audio. What’s especially cool is that you can easily add time stamps to an audio file as its being recorded, so you can find and review a specific segment later. This is definitely one of those “Why didn’t anyone think of this before?” productivity features.

Powerful search feature

The ability to capture large quantities of unstructured information is only valuable if you can easily search it to find the nugget of information you’re looking for. OneNote 2003 includes an intuitive search tool that located at the top of the work space; you can use it quickly, without having to click on a toolbar icon to access it. The program displays search results either in a compact view (the number of results, along with right and left arrow icons to help you navigate the notes that contain your search results) or in a list view (which is displayed in a vertical panel next to the program’s work space).

Who will benefit most from OneNote 2003?

OneNote 2003 appears to have the greatest benefit for these types of users and applications:

  • Executives who have many different responsibilities or must juggle information about numerous projects or research efforts
  • Researchers, who must gather a large quantity of varied information, distill, interpret and share it with other people in their company.
  • Consultants, who gather, assess and organize large quantities of data into reports for their clients
  • Students, who can use OneNote as a tool to capture knowledge in class, as well as to review it, annotate it and extract insights from it

OneNote’s power and flexibility make it easy for a wide variety of users to adapt it to their work styles.

A few minor complaints

Like any 1.0 software version, the beta version of OneNote 2003 I evaluated has a few rough edges:

Inconsistent handling of HTML content: If you select several paragraphs of text from a Web page and drag them and drop them into OneNote, all the HTML formatting (paragraph breaks and text decorations) are preserved. But the same thing doesn’t happen if you attempt to move several paragraphs of text from an HTML e-mail into OneNote. I tried this, and ended up with one long block of unformatted text, without any space between the paragraphs. I was able to add these spaces manually, but it was a pain. Hopefully, future versions of OneNote will handle this type of content more intelligently.

Limited formatting for text containers: In this first version of OneNote, you cannot change the background color of text containers, nor can you add borders to them. This is especially important if you’re trying to add comments to the margins of your notes. Without a background color or a border, these small blocks of text are hard to differentiate from your notes.

No auto-pagination when typing: Clearly, Microsoft’s developers intended that OneNote would be used to store shorter notes, not lengthy documents. Where Microsoft Word automatically paginates your text (dividing it into separate pages as you type), you can only fit a finite amount of text into a OneNote page. To continue typing, you must use the mouse or a keyboard shortcut to create a new sub-page. Having to create a new page to continue entering your ideas just isn’t very intuitive!

Funky bullet formatting: I noticed one instance where text formatting seemed to be kind of funky: after typing some introductory text, I tried to create a bulleted list. However, for some reason, the bullet ended up hanging out in the left margin of the page, while the text for that bullet was left aligned with the text above it. This may be an issue in the beta version I’m using that will be fixed by the time the commercial version is released.


As Microsoft’s first foray into this type of software program, OneNote 2003 is impressive. Compared to other personal knowledge base products like AskSam and InfoSelect, OneNote enables you to intelligently capture and manipulate more types of information. It also gives you great flexibility to organize your notes and other content in ways that make most sense to you — a big plus!