With the release of Microsoft Office 2003 in October 2003, Microsoft has, for the first time in years, added new products to the Microsoft Office System: Microsoft Office InfoPath 2003, a form-based XML data-entry application, and Microsoft Office OneNote 2003, a note-taking application. OneNote lets you choose from a variety of input methods to take notes that you can later consolidate into finished documents. Here's what you need to know about OneNote.

It's All About Taking Notes
Today, many people use Microsoft Word to take notes during meetings, classes, phone conferences, and other events. But Word can't replicate paper-based note-taking, which lets you enter text at any place on the page at any time and draw charts, maps, and other pictures. Furthermore, Word doesn't include audio-recording capabilities, so using your PC to simultaneously record and take notes during a meeting is difficult.

OneNote addresses these limitations. OneNote is a visual note-taking application that uses a tab-based UI, similar to a real notebook, to help you capture and organize notes. When you take notes on paper, you're free to doodle anywhere on a page, move back through text to highlight or add text, and perform other flexible tasks. But paper-based notes are hard to reuse, and many people find themselves typing handwritten notes into a Word document after a meeting so that they can share their notes with others. OneNote combines the text-handling capabilities of Word with the ability to place text anywhere on the virtual page and share perfect digital copies. You can also move blocks of text, opening up new areas of white space when needed.

One curious OneNote affectation is that no documents exist. You simply open the application and begin typing. You're free to organize your notes however you'd like —for example, you can start new pages or workbooks for specific tasks. When you're finished taking notes, you close the application without saving, just as you would with a paper notebook. Behind the scenes, OneNote is saving your notes, but you don't need to name, file, or otherwise manually deal with your notes. Instead, OneNote works like a paper-based notebook, ready and waiting at the place you left off the next time you need to use it. For control freaks, this behavior might be a bit off-putting and will require some acclimation, but OneNote stores its notebooks as separate notebook files in My Documents, letting you easily move them from machine to machine.

Alternative Input Methods
OneNote supports many input methods, and you can mix and match these methods on any OneNote virtual page. Tablet PC users, for example, can take handwritten notes and doodle drawings with digital ink. OneNote intelligently treats handwritten notes as text and doodles as drawn objects. You can search both handwritten and typewritten notes for specific text. You can also move drawings and text segments around the page as discrete objects.

The product's audio-recording capabilities are another exciting feature. Using the high-quality Windows Media Audio (WMA) 9 Voice codec, OneNote can record a meeting or lecture while you take notes. Later, while you listen to the audio recording, you can automatically jump to the notes you took at any particular time in the recording. Likewise, you can also select a portion of your handwritten or typewritten notes and hear the audio that OneNote recorded at that specific time.

Not Part of Any Office 2003 Product Suite
Unfortunately, OneNote isn't available as part of any of the Office 2003 product suites, so interested users will need to purchase the application separately. (OneNote doesn't require Office 2003; users of earlier Office versions can still use this application individually.) OneNote is also expensive: $200 at retail, although Microsoft is offering a limited-time price of $99, and students and educators can pick up the product for just $49.

Recommendations
If you spend any amount of your day taking notes, consider using OneNote. The product will be particularly valuable to students, corporate note-takers, journalists, and anyone else who spends time taking notes. Because it's an Office application, OneNote works like other Office applications, offering similar tools and providing excellent integration with final document–creation tools such as Word. For a version-one product, OneNote is surprisingly full-featured, and I highly recommend it.