Changes Afoot for Microsoft OneNote

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One of my friends once covered himself in Post-It Notes and walked into his local Microsoft office. He was hoping to become the product manager for Microsoft OneNote – hence the attention-grabbing way of presenting himself – but his approach was stymied because the receptionist didn’t even know what OneNote was.

That lack of knowledge still seems to be a challenge for Microsoft – people are either ardent fans or barely know the product exists. Although OneNote has been offered as part of Office since Office 2003 and is now included as part of Windows 10, it remains under-used for what it has to offer. Perhaps Microsoft’s work with tuning it for the education market with OneNote for Classrooms will seed the market with a whole new love for the program in about a decade’s time, but that’s a long-term play we will need to watch.

OneNote on Windows comes in two editions: a full-client edition in Office 2016, and the Windows 10 app edition installed as part of Windows 10 and updated from the Microsoft Store. The Office edition of OneNote has always been more fully-featured than the app edition, and while a OneNote notebook can be opened in both, having two editions has been confusing. And unnecessary. But that confusion is about to disappear.

Microsoft recently showed its hand on the future of OneNote for Windows users: the full-client version is going away, and the app version will become the primary offering (see The best version of OneNote on Windows). Frequent users of OneNote will have noticed that while the app edition has been updated relentlessly over the past couple of years, the OneNote 2016 edition has barely been touched. Past momentum has now been formalised into a statement of direction and future intent, even though the app edition does not yet support all the capabilities of the full-client edition.

The OneNote app edition does offer several features not available in the full-client edition, and more feature goodness is on its way. Current differences include ink effects, better ink-to-text support, a faster and more reliable sync engine, Researcher (for finding source materials and content to cite on your topic; requires an Office 365 subscription), and a list of recently changed notes (all notes across notebooks that you have recently changed). New forthcoming features include tags and tag search (with tags that roam across devices), and live previews of Office documents within a OneNote page.

One capability that will not be included in the OneNote app edition, however, is support for offline-only notebooks. In the app edition, all notebooks are created in OneDrive (or a SharePoint team site) and then synchronised to a local device. In the OneNote full-client edition, on the other hand, it is possible to create an offline-only notebook. For people who don’t want to have their information in cloud storage at all – or are prohibited from doing so due to strict privacy laws – this gives the full-client edition a major edge over the app edition. Going forward, at this time, Microsoft’s statement is “if you don’t like it, find another product.” Fans of the full-client edition will be able to keep using OneNote 2016 when Office 2019 hits the market, but no new Office 2019 edition of OneNote is planned. On current intent, it is unlikely that Microsoft is going to add many capabilities to OneNote 2016 going forward, so it is essentially being run off the road.

Overall, there are many people very upset with this statement of direction from Microsoft – the UserVoice forum for OneNote includes angry and passionate words from many users to retain the OneNote desktop edition in Office 2019. It will be interesting to see if Microsoft makes a new decision based on this outpouring of support from its ardent fans.

At Silverside, we advocate the use of OneNote both personally for personal information management and as part of team and group work. A OneNote notebook can be added to a Microsoft Teams workspace, and used and shared across the team for capturing ideas, for example in a meeting. Please check out our Smarter Meetings Principles document, and the associated Workbook on Smarter Meetings with Microsoft Teams.

In summary, what should you do now:

• If you haven’t used OneNote yet and are considering doing so, start with the app edition. At this point, it’s the right direction for new users of an amazing product.
• If you rely on OneNote 2016 and the app edition will not meet your requirements, upvote the capabilities you need in the OneNote Uservoice forum. And consider adding your support to the call for a re-consideration of the strategic direction.
• At some point, if Microsoft continues down this pathway and the app edition doesn’t become sufficient for you (for example, with no support for offline-only notebooks), you will need to find an alternative offering.