OneNote: Microsoft Office’s First Appearance on the iPhone

Poor Microsoft. After Apple jumpstarted the PDA craze with the Newton, Microsoft’s Windows Mobile became one of the most used mobile operating systems on PDAs and then smartphones for the first part of the 21st century. Fast forward to 2007, though, and Apple once again got the upper hand with iPhone. Today, iOS is much more popular than Windows Mobile, and even the new Windows Phone 7 has struggled to gain marketshare.

Since Microsoft is primarily a software company (they even makes software for Mac OS X), it’s almost surprising that they’ve never made a mobile version of their popular Microsoft Office suite for competing mobile operating systems. That has now changed, as Microsoft has finally brought OneNote to the iPhone. OneNote is Microsoft’s often-overlooked notetaking app that’s included with Office 2010 for Windows, and now with OneNote for iPhone you can take your notes on the go just like you could with a Windows Phone 7 device. We’re going to take a tour of OneNote’s features and see if it’s time to switch notetaking apps.

Getting Started

OneNote for iPhone, for better or for worse, is fully tied in with Microsoft’s OneNote web app. Before you can start using it for your notes, you’ll need to login with a Windows Live ID (Hotmail, Office Live, XBOX Live, or Zune account). If you don’t have one, you can create a new one right from the app, though unfortunately this requires you to create a new Live or Hotmail email account as well. When the app was first released, many people had trouble logging in, but this problem seems to be resolved now.

Sign in with a Windows Live ID, or create a new one

Once you’re signed in, OneNote will automatically sync any OneNote notebooks you’ve synced from your PC to Office Live. If you’ve never used OneNote or haven’t synced your notebooks online, the OneNote app will automatically create a new notebook for your mobile notes. If you’ve saved a lot of notes online it may take a while for everything to get synced, but you can go ahead and start exploring while the notes are still downloading.

You'll get a new, blank notebook by default if you've never used the OneNote Web App

Finding Your Way Around

OneNote lets you organize your notes into notebooks. Each notebook can have one or more sections, which each have notes organized under them. From your iOS device, you’ll only be able to add new notes, but you can view and edit notes in any synced notebook or section. To get back to your main list of notebooks, tap the back button at the top to go through the notes, sections, and finally notebooks list. On a desktop computer, this is a fairly good way to keep your notes organized by topic or project, but it make it more cumbersome to use on a mobile device.

Each notebook is organized into sections and pages

Viewing and Editing Notes

You’ll be able to view all of your synced notes from your iPhone or iPod Touch. Even if you’re offline, you can still see your synced notes. All text is displayed as plain text and images, and lists and to-dos are shown inline as normal. Tap an image to see it larger, or tap anywhere in the text to start editing it.

While you can include videos, sound recording, and files in OneNote notes on your PC, the iPhone app can’t currently display these. Instead, you’ll see a bracket with the content type that’s not being displayed.

Viewing notes works great except when it doesn't...

Editing notes or adding new ones works great. You can enter a title on the top, then add plain text notes, to-dos, bulleted lists, or images from your camera or photo library. You’ll see the date the note was created on the top right corner, and once you minimize the keyboard you can go back and browse your other notes. It’s quick and easy to use, but doesn’t include tons of features.

OneNote works great with plain text notes, to-do lists, and images

Find Your Notes

Unfortunately, OneNote for iPhone doesn’t make it terribly easy to find your notes. There’s no built-in search function, so unlike in OneNote for Windows, you cannot search for OCR-recognized text in images or even for the last thing you typed. The only way to find what you’re looking for is to browse through your notebooks, sections, and pages. Since you can’t move notes around or create new notebooks or sections in iOS, that makes it much harder to use OneNote productively if you don’t already use the PC or webapp version.

OneNote does, however, include two useful features that make it a little easier to find your notes. First, the bottom toolbar includes a Recent button. Tap this to see a list of your most recently viewed or edited notes, then select the note you want. Alternately, from the OneNote main screen you can view all of your Quick Notes that you created on your device. Hopefully Microsoft will add search and an easier navigation system eventually, but for now, this at least makes it a bit easier to use.

Find your recently viewed notes and Quick Notes quickly

Conclusion

OneNote is one of of the lesser known apps in Microsoft Office for Windows, but it is a first-class note app. Add cloud sync and the iPhone app, and it can compete quite well with Evernote, Springpad, and all of the other popular note apps today.

OneNote for iOS is, for the most part, a polished app that simple and easy to use. It’s not perfect, but as the first Microsoft Office app on iOS, it shows that Microsoft is pretty good at making software for iOS too. We hope to see an iPad version of OneNote soon, and perhaps more Office apps for all iOS devices. For now, though, if you’re a PC user and want to take your OneNote notes on the go, or simply want a free way to save notes on the go, give OneNote a try!


Summary

The first official Microsoft Office app on iOS, OneNote brings Microsoft's often overlooked notetaking app to iPhone and iPod Touch. You can access and edit your notes anywhere from the Office Web Apps at http://office.live.com/.

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