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The future of OneNote

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Posted by nathanb
Nov 6, 2019 at 04:45 PM


I’m not sure how to feel about this as I’ve been forcing myself to use the UWP version for about a year knowing that the old desktop one was being mothballed.  It is tempting to switch back as there are some UI things I miss, though the UWP one is pretty good these days. The problem is that they forked the platform a while ago and have been steadily adding features to UWP that now has a few tricks that 2016 doesn’t have and will probably not get.  It’s true that there are some tricks that 2016 still does better and always will.  Here are some key considerations:

Tagging:  It took forever, but they added custom tagging to UWP not long ago.  Though the custom tag list doesn’t sync to mobile which is annoying because I thought the whole point of migrating to a ‘universal’ platform was to match the same features across web, desktop, and mobile screens.  However, that custom tag list does sync to….hold on, just checked, and it doesn’t sync to the web interface from desktop either…. what the holy heck?  The issue with the desktop tagging was it stored the customized tags in local files for every installation.  So the only method to ‘sync’ those were to literally copy a configuration file to the other desktop….or constantly re-build your tag list, I used to have a specific page for that routine.  I was going to make the point that surely the tagging platform for 2016 and UWP are surely completely different animals so would probably conflict with each other. Now I have no idea.  It’s….possible that Microsoft took like 6 years to….just kludge in the desktop’s tagging that doesn’t sync anywhere? 

Backup:  This may be the biggest one.  The desktop version was old-school installed Office software and the notebooks were local file based.  It synced by syncing those files, you could even do it with dropbox if you wanted.  That also gave you complete control over archiving and backups, 2016 even has a backup-to-a-specific-directory feature.  UWP of course is cloud-first, you can’t navigate separately to the data files locally.  It just stores and syncs stuff magically in the background.  That means the only incremental backup option you have is a manual export/import via the web interface…which is a manual process for each notebook.  So I might just switch back to 2016 for a couple years just because it’s backup friendly.

Drawing: UWP does some drawing tricks that 2016 doesn’t, like automatically recognizing shapes. Not important to me.

Attachments: This one could be interesting.  UWP recently gained the ability to attach from OneDrive as link, which really opens up some nice methods of embedding working files within a unified cloud ecosystem. 

Tasks:  This is probably huge for some people.  2016 can link to outlook tasks, so you can have an ‘inline’ task in your notes and pop open the outlook version with full metadata and check it off from either side. Same with calendar events. But…that 2-way link only worked within the one desktop installation.  The relationship wouldn’t sync. There’s no such insert Outlook/ToDo task in UWP.  It’s just a dumb checkbox.  If Microsoft ever does get around to being able to embed ‘MS ToDo’ tasks in OneNote, I doubt 2016 would match that. That could create a funny situation where, since ToDo nicely syncs tasks with desktop Outlook, we’d have a loop of conflicting task syncing between Outlook, ToDo, UWP OneNote, and OneNote 2016. I think we’d at peak Microsoft at that point.

The upside is that all these different versions seem to do a complete sync, meaning you can pick and choose which one to create with and know the content won’t be erased when syncing to a version that doesn’t have that feature.  But I’ll be really surprised if the two versions don’t keep diverging in capability.