OneNote Service Pack 1

OneNote Service Pack 1.

Service Pack 1 (SP1) of OneNote is available in preview form starting today. This is not your typical service pack, as you have no doubt read already. I've already blogged a bunch about what making a version 1 product is like. We're pretty happy that our first release was received so well (and the awards were nice too, thanks!). But we got a lot of feedback on the first release, usually of the form “I love it but there's this one thing…”

Well, you add up all those “one things”, and you get an interesting list. Mostly what people asked for were usability tweaks. Things like being able to have labels on sub page tabs, resizable page tabs, more note flag types and icons, a hotkey to insert date and time on a page, or simply an easy way to change the creation date and time for the page. We tallied all the feedback, made a list (in OneNote of course, projected on a screen for the whole team to see), and rearranged the list several times by frequency of request, difficulty for us to do it (dev cost, test cost), likelihood that the request would really solve a problem, etc. We netted out a list of what we could do to optimize the customer happiness with our small budget for doing stuff in the service pack. We couldn’t do everything of course, since relative to others that would provide more benefit, some things were just too expensive for us (“Alas, poor Drag and Drop of Sections, I knew him well”).

We also added several features to OneNote in SP1. Normally, adding features to an SP is a no-no, since large corporate customers do not want to have to deal with extra features in what is supposed to be a bug-fix release. Fortunately, we're so new we hardly have any corp customers who have deployed code broadly yet (we're in evaluation at lots of firms), so there was a small window where we could create a new “baseline” – essentially, SP1 will become the new OneNote from now on – as if we had released it this way in the first place. For the few corps that have deployed us broadly, we are also offering the option to disable all the new features and just take the bug fixes, but we don't expect that to be used much if at all.

So what are these new features? Well, you can read about them here. There's also an interview with me here. But I'll tell you a bit more about them right now.

My favorite new feature is real-time shared note-taking. You simply use File/Share with others, then in the task pane that appears, choose to take notes with other people by Starting a Session. This set sup a real-time session using the DirectPlay protocol (same as used for net gaming). Now you can invite others via email (they just click an attachment to join), or just tell them the name of your machine, or IP address (there's a button for that). Now you’re all set. You can invite 20+ people to a “netOneNote” session. Everyone can edit at the same time or only the “owner” – you control how you want it to work. We use this already at our OneNote team meetings. Someone pulls up the stationery we made for team meetings that has status report areas for each function (dev, test, PM, loc, etc). We start the meeting by having that person invite everyone else to a shared session. We then all type our status into the shared page, and in about 2 min the meeting minutes are done, and people can just read them and ask questions. This shortens status meetings to about 20 min instead of an hour. And, people can attend remotely. They could always call in before, but now they can also join via OneNote, see what is being written, add their thoughts, communicate using diagrams, etc. If there's a question that can't be squeaked in due to a lot of talk, you can just type it on the shared page and someone will answer, without even interrupting the meeting. You can see how this can be useful as an addition to any teleconference. It is peer-to-peer, so no charge, no sign up.

Another one we got asked for a lot was PocketPC and SmartPhone integration. We had plans for this for the first release but the feature didn't make it in. We wanted to get this right, so having the chance to get feedback on the shipping product was very useful. It turned out that about 75-80% of users simply wanted to scribble or speak notes on their device and have them appear on their desktop later. We had been worried that they might want to see their desktop notes on the device, or worse, edit them there, but this was only requested by about 20% of the users. Since writing code for the device was far more work than we could manage in the short time we had, we lucked out in that most people wanted the cheaper thing.

We got quite a few requests from our users with tablet PCs to do more there, so we did. We couldn't do the full overhaul of ink that we want to do, but we did a lot of the top things: new erasers to act more like pencils, customizable pens (colors, nib size), drawings can be edited by selecting parts of them, support for double-spaced notes and lots of bug and performance fixes.

A big thing that tablet users wanted and others too was a way to “print” documents into your notebook. Using the new “Insert/Document a Pictures” feature you get a picture of each page that you can write on or type next to, plus a link to the original. For file types we couldn't support directly like PDF or web pages, you can print the file to the Microsoft Office Document Image Writer (MODI). Set the output to be TIFF in the Properties/Advanced tab. Insert the resulting file using the “Insert/Document as pictures” command.

Stationery got a lot of attention too. We added a whole stationery pane, and made a lot of things easier, such as managing your own custom stationery, and making a certain stationery the default for a section. You can also get stationery from our Office online site for OneNote.

Quite a few users asked us for a way to secure their data, beyond what the OS does. In some cases they simply didn't know you could password protect your screen saver, or encrypt your file system. But many people made a case that they needed more specific protection of their notes, so we added per-section password protection.

With audio notes a big hit in the original release, it was a no-brainer to follow-up with video notes. Plug in a webcam or digital camcorder that supports streaming, and you're good to go. At about 60MB/hr for basic video (around 100MB/hr for near-VHS quality), you can record video all day, synced with whatever comments you type (or write). Reviewing the video later is no problem of course – just click on the film icon next to what you wrote, and the video jumps to the right spot. Great for interviews, rehearsals, house hunting, etc.

Another nice tidbit is that you can now capture screenshots directly into OneNote – just Insert/Screen Clipping, drag out a rectangle, and get that screenshot in your notebook.

We perked up performance in general and file handling all over the place. Working with SharePoint or keeping some note sections on the web is now much more pleasant. It's funny how it sounds so unsexy, but performance can make the biggest difference in your experience – it is really the difference between loving and hating a software product. If something takes half a second, it is cool, if it takes 10 seconds, it is lame. Doesn't matter much what it is, 10 seconds is about 9 seconds more than most people have patience for.

One thing I've noticed is that the blog audience is heavily weighted toward developers compared to the normal population of users. So you'll be glad to hear that we added the very beginning of a hint of extensibility to OneNote for this Sp1. The intent was to enable integration with OneNote by providing a way to push data into OneNote. So through a combination of command-line switches and this little API, you can do some interesting things. Look for some good powertoys built by our user group in the near future (add-ins for IE and Outlook to push web pages and email to OneNote, and even an RSS reader plug-in!). Documentation on the API is coming shortly – it is amazing how hard it is to just stick something out on the web (lawyers, you know). Now, before y'all get your knickers in a twist, I'll tell you flat out that this is the poor man's API. It does not represent our intent for the future, and it certainly doesn’t enable all the things we want to enable (it doesn't even do the “O” in I/O). What it does is allow a few partners to work better with OneNote.

I'll leave you with this thought: we're not done yet with SP1, but we felt we should get the code out to our users for feedback now so we can incorporate your experiences. Please install it, run it, and give us feedback. We're not really adding features at this point to Sp1, but that sort of feedback is always welcome since we’re working on “version 2” right now. And please report any crashes or hangs you experience via the “Watson” dialogs we hope you never see. We watch the crash data closely and hope to fix any nasties that may have slipped by us (we already fixed the top 25 crashes in the original release and several more as well – we're hoping to get a few more before we ship Sp1). With a small user base like this beta running for a short time, we need you to report every crash – they all count!  [Chris_Pratley's WebLog]

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