OneNote makes tablet sing

Microsoft’s audio and digital note-taking tool is useful even to sloppy scribblers

Perhaps the greatest challenge for any knowledge worker, however broadly defined, is capturing the scribbles that one makes in the course of a day. These often start on sticky notes, scratch pads, cocktail napkins, and similarly awkward -- and easy to misplace -- media. Enterprises face an even greater hurdle when trying to corral the notes of hundreds or thousands of knowledge workers. Often, valuable information must be laboriously retyped, but this is impeded by both sloppy handwriting and an incomplete understanding of the context.

Enter another opportunity for Microsoft. The software behemoth has tried repeatedly to wrap its arms around the nascent world of pen-driven computing, with limited success. Though a number of hardware vendors have embraced the Tablet PC concept that turns a laptop running Windows XP into a device responsive to the pushing of a “pen” and able to manipulate “digital ink,” tight IT budgets have resulted in a muted reception from the corporate world. But the introduction of Microsoft Office OneNote 2003 may well be the killer app that justifies an investment in pen computing.

My experiences with both the beta and final release of OneNote are proof that successful handwriting recognition requires a patient user. Granted, my scrawl is abominable -- sometimes even I can’t figure out what I meant, especially weeks or months later. Asking a computer to decipher my handwriting is almost an act of cruelty. So it’s no surprise that when OneNote tried to render my scribbling into text, the output was more amusing than accurate.

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But the results were better than I expected, coming very close on many phrases, especially if I paid attention to what I was doing. (Since handwriting recognition is a function of the Tablet PC’s Windows XP operating system, it’s unfair to rate OneNote on that aspect.) OneNote documents are stored in “notebooks” that contain one or more pages that can be manipulated as easily as those in a binder. Notebooks can hold the transcribed text or the original “ink” -- the latter may be the most useful format for copperplate-challenged users such as me. OneNote also supports audio input; this is helpful for those already accustomed to dictating, but is perhaps less so for most end-users. As with handwriting, voice recognition is handled by the OS.

OneNote is like the proverbial tap-dancing elephant; I’m more impressed by its existence than its ability. OneNote failed to decipher my scrawling perfectly but it tried valiantly. It takes the novelty that is the Tablet PC and turns it into an indispensable tool. Even if some people’s handwriting isn’t easily recognized, OneNote still improves upon cocktail napkins. The “cool” factor doesn’t hurt, either.

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