Microsoft OneNote Goes Mobile

OneNote iPhone app[This is a guest post by David Whidden, a doctoral candidate in systematic theology at Southern Methodist University. -- @jbj]

Regular readers of Profhacker know that one of the blog’s favorite note taking and organizing applications is Evernote, which has the advantage of being free, cloud based, and available on multiple mobile platforms.  (See Shawn Miller’s in-depth writeup, and Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s follow-up.) Microsoft recently announced that they have made an iPhone app for their note taking software, Onenote, and for the moment they are offering it for free.  In light of this announcement, I thought I’d do two things in this post — show how I use Onenote for my research and briefly review the new iPhone app.

Onenote has been around for eight years now, is widely disseminated through Microsoft Office, and is a robust note taking application.  If your campus uses Microsoft products, as mine does, and if you have a PC, chances are you have it on your office computer.  Students can buy the entire Office suite for just $80, which is an incredible deal, especially since most of them will end up in Microsoft environments after graduation and they will benefit from being familiar with its software.

Personally, I have been using Onenote since I began my doctoral work five years ago, to keep organized all of my class notes, lectures, and research.  The recent release of Onenote in Office 2010 maintains continuity with past versions, while adding one major benefit of cloud computing through Microsoft’s Windows Live Skydrive, which means I can keep copies of all my research backed up and that I can make changes on any computer, regardless of whether it has Onenote loaded on it.

Let’s look at how I use it to organize my dissertation research, which is on the 13th century theologian, Thomas Aquinas, and the role that illumination plays in his theology.  Aquinas left us over 8 million words and 7,000+ references to light and illumination, which left me with the challenge of how to track all of that information without getting overwhelmed and without letting important references slip through the cracks, especially when a reference could be used in more than one place.

Across the top you can see that the first two sections I’ve created are one for Aquinas’s primary texts and one for secondary texts by other authors.  The section on Aquinas’ primary texts are further broken down (on the right hand side), by particular works or sections of his larger works.  Each reference gets entered with a location and (most importantly) a tag.  The tags, represented by the blue 1 and the yellow 2 on location ST I.1.1 ad 2 (ST = Summa Theologiae), represent chapters where the reference might be useful, but the references themselves are entered in the order in which they appear, which allows me to review the overall scope of the argument.

OneNote screenshot

Click for larger size

These tags come in handy when you run a tag summary report, which takes all of your tags and collates them. In this next screenshot you can see that the reference ST I.1.1 ad 2 appears next to one from ST I.105.3 ad 2. All of my references for this particular chapter now appear in the same place, so I can cut and paste them into an outline, look for common themes and threads, and make sure that I haven’t neglected something important. That same reference to ST I.1.1 ad 2 will also appear with references for chapter 1. The ability to put a reference in multiple places really helps me keep a lot of information–my notes run some 90 pages–organized, searchable, and available.

OneNote screenshot

Click for larger image

The release of the iPhone app two weeks ago brings OneNote closer to Evernote in its availability on mobile platforms. Right now it is only available for the iPhone, but I would not be surprised if they come out with an Android app soon. As you can see from this screenshot, the iPhone app presents the same folders as I have on my home computer. One can create a new note, add a picture, or edit a current note which will then sync with your home computer.

OneNote for iPhone screenshot

Here’s a screenshot of one of my secondary texts:

OneNote for iPhone

Since this is the first version of the iPhone app, there are some things that it does not yet do, but that I expect Microsoft will address in future versions. Right now, there is no support for tables, so if you work in a field that uses lots of tables, what you do on your computer will not show up on your phone. Custom tags also do not show up on the iPhone app, though any tag summary reports do appear. There is also no support yet for audio files or for custom drawings.

Nevertheless, by releasing this app, Microsoft has begun to close the gap on some of Evernote’s advantages. In this initial version, Microsoft has given those of us who regularly use OneNote a highly functional notetaking app that I expect will improve as they develop it.

Are you a OneNote user? What do you like about it? How might an iPhone app help you use OneNote more productively?

Lead image is a Microsoft-provided screenshot from iTunes. All other images are screenshots by David Whidden.

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