Out and About with OneNote Mobile

As part of our ongoing mission to capture all the information you need to keep, it makes a heck of a lot of sense to let you capture information while you're on the go away from your desk - even without your laptop. As you may know, the current version of OneNote 2003 can sync with the notes on your Smartphone or PocketPC - ink, text, or voice. But this is a limited sync - it is only one way: from device to the PC. So you can’t really take your notes with you except the ones you created on the device. And the note-taking applet in these devices is not the strongest.

Enter OneNote Mobile. OneNote Mobile is your portable extension to OneNote that you get when you purchase OneNote. You install it on your Windows Mobile SmartPhone (this is semi-automatic so it is low hassle) and you’re good to go. [addendum: OneNote Mobile will run on WM 2003, 2003 2nd Edition, or WM5 (SmartPhone Edition). We've had a lot of feedback about supporting OneNote Mobile on PocketPC phones - rest assured we hear that!]

A few weeks ago, David Siedzik, the program manager for OneNote Mobile showed it to the mobile devices MVPs who were on campus and actually got a standing ovation! Read on to find out why.

When we shipped the syncing feature for mobile devices in OneNote 2003SP1, we had a few constraints that limited us to simply one-way sync (device to PC). A big one was that the built-in note applet was not designed with OneNote in mind, so it couldn't handle our data unless it were "dumbed down" to plain text more or less. We didn't have dev resources then to build our own SmartPhone client so that limitation wasn't going away. We also found that most people were interested in the "upload" scenario, although plenty were also interested in bringing their data with them. So we did the relatively cheap thing which let you take notes on your device and see them in OneNote.

OneNote Mobile goes way beyond that. It is a real note taking app for your mobile device. You can take text notes, voice record, or snap them with a camera. It has a cool picture viewer for navigating the image in detail.

Two-way Sync
When you first use OneNote Mobile, a special notebook (called "OneNote Mobile") is created in your PC version of OneNote. One section is created in that notebook and specified to sync with OneNote Mobile. Anything you put in that section makes its way onto your SmartPhone, and likewise anything you put on the phone goes up to the PC. Whenever you sync, only new items are transferred. Basically this section is a view onto your OneNote Mobile notes.

This is great for example to make lists of things to buy or do and taking them with you, then adding or subtracting items from them while on the phone. You can also put things like subway maps, directions, etc on your phone and have them with you to access at any time.

There are some tricks we did to account for the fact that OneNote mobile work on a very small screen, so the large pages in OneNote which can accommodate 2D layout have to behave differently in OneNote Mobile. When you sync a page in OneNote that has several note containers, each note container becomes a "page" in OneNote Mobile. If you edit these, they will still go back onto the same page in the right places. If you create a page in OneNote Mobile, then it becomes its own separate page in OneNote on the PC.

OneNote Features
OneNote Mobile has some helpful editing and formatting features such a bullets and numbered lists. Also, bold, italic, underline, strikethrough. One thing that is neat about OneNote Mobile is that since it can sync notes from OneNote onto the device, it can show much of the formatting of OneNote even though it can’t create that. If you edit the notes from OneNote, the formatting is retained. For example, you can view tables even though OneNote Mobile doesn’t let you create tables. You can also add items to a list numbered with e.g. Roman numerals and the numbering works, even though you can't assign roman numerals in OneNote Mobile.

One of the cooler features is the ability to pan and zoom on pictures and photos. You use the keypad to move around the image and then zoom in on any part of it. For example, pressing 9 progressively will zoom in on the lower right corner of an image. Pretty slick.

[correction: earlier I had a comment here about note flag support - I was wrong. My bad. Sorry.]

Prepare to blow your mind
The *killer* scenario for OneNote Mobile in my mind is "photo note taking". As you may know if you have a camera phone or digital camera, snapping photos is easy and they capture a lot of information instantly. These days when I travel, I take a photo of those plaques that are next to historical sites so I can have that info for later. It makes a nice interlude in the slide show too. With a camera phone, since you have it with you all the time you get even more aggressive. Here's a blog that lists some crazy stuff you can do with a camera phone. It's great to capture all sorts of stuff for later viewing in full res on your PC in OneNote, where you can organize that stuff as needed.

But where OneNote Mobile really shines is when you combine it with our efforts to merge the Analog and Digital worlds. Now you can take pictures of business cards, printed PowerPoint handouts, whiteboards, receipts, name tags, product spec sheets, etc. and all these photos flow into OneNote on your PC, where any text content gets OCR'd so that you can search for these pictures by the text that appears in them. Imagine snapping a photo of every business card you get handed and then tossing the card. All the images flow into your OneNote notebook and you can pull them up just by searching for a person's name or town or business name! Here's an example of a business card photo taken by OneNote Mobile and sync'd up to OneNote showing up in a search for the word "David". (David said it was OK to use his card but no crank calls or spam please!) You can see the target word is highlighted in the image:

Ok, is your mind blown or what?

Of course, image resolution plays a factor here. Those 640x480 (0.3MPx) cameras are not quite there. You need at least 1MPx and ideally 2MPx to get good OCR results. There is a lot to be careful about too - good focus is quite important although we have technology to try to deal with fuzziness, and text size has to be large if you have a low-res camera.

Keep in mind that quick *audio* notes you take on your phone and sync up to OneNote can ALSO be searched. As long as you don't have too much background noise when you speak the notes, all those Agent Cooper "notes to self" can now be archived and retrieved…


BTW, for those of you with Beta 1, you can find OneNote Mobile in the "1033" folder under the Office install directory. Send OneNoteMobile.cab to your device. i.e. open Explorer, copy the CAB to the Start Menu, and launch it. The version in Beta 1 does not have syncing with OneNote enabled - that is coming in the next Beta in the Spring.

Update (May 2006): With beta 2, installation is automatic and syncing with OneNote on the PC is supported. You need Active Sync 4.1 or later. Also, the OneNote Mobile team has added support for running on the PPC, but only on Windows Mobile 5. Windows Mobile 2003 and 2003 SE are NOT supported. Another new feature is that when you install the app to the storage card, attachments to notes such as images and recordings are stored on the card and not the device storage, which helps reduce the hit on device storage significantly.