Giving up on OneNote

The Cloud, Subscription Software and Trust

After a brief flirtation with OneNote I have decided it is not for me.  Actually it is a great product and it works very well, even on the very mixed environment I choose to work in, i.e.Windows (mostly 8.1 and RT), Mac, Android and Ubuntu.  There are clients for most of the operating systems I use and there is always the web client which also works very well.

So if it works so well with everything, why not commit to OneNote. I must confess that after searching for a solution that would work on all my devices AND offer offline editing and sync I had thought that OneNote would be the one.  However what has put me off boils down to an issue of trust.

The seeds of Doubt

After updating the OneNote client on my Macbook I have not been able to access the OneNote notebooks on the university’s Office365 OneDrive for Business.  I can still access them perfectly well on my Windows machines (both personal and at work) and on the web, but when I try to access them on the Mac client I am asked to activate with my Office365 subscription.  As far as I am aware I have a perfectly good subscription that works on these other devices, but for some reason I cannot access these notebooks on my Mac through the desktop client. I have commented on this in the Apple App Store and on the Microsoft Community site and the lack of response probably indicates that this is an issue that other people are not facing. [updated 9/12/02014]  actually indicates that the behaviour I am seeing is what is supposed to be happening and this is what Microsoft want. Sadly the only place I found this information was on OneNote-blog.de.  This being a deliberate change and not an error might mean that some of the text below is inaccurate, but I believe that this being a deliberate change/clarification by MS actually strengthens the substantive argument.

So what is the big deal? I can still access these notebooks via the web interface and my notebooks on the free OneDrive personal are still accessible so why give up on all that OneNote has to offer? As I said above, it all boils down to trust.

As far as I can tell the problem with the Mac client is that it is not finding the Office365 subscription properly.  In other words, a glitch in Microsoft’s authentication has locked me out of my content on this client.  I can still get in to it in other ways, but what if the glitch prevented that.  If I am going to start to put a lot of content in OneNote, and important content, I don’t want to be at the mercy of some company’s subscription processing system.  Fundamentally I want to own my content.

The trend seems to be towards subscription access to pretty much everything online. I am pretty content with the idea of paying for access to media, as this is quite similar to paying to listen to a personalised radio station–but I want to keep the stuff I really like so I know I can access it even if I don’t have a live subscription.

The idea of renting software is rather different.  When I do work round the house I will occasionally rent a specialist tool to perform a specialised task.  The regular day to day stuff, on the other hand, gets fixed with tools I own.  They may not be the best tools (and sometimes not even the appropriate tools) but they are my tools in my toolbox.

Leaving aside the drift towards making the bread and butter office productivity apps a subscription product that could stop working when the real owner determines the subscription has lapsed, my experience with OneNote on the Mac has brought home to me that

  1. Microsoft is storing my content in the cloud and is allowing my to update it and synch it to various devices
  2. Microsoft owns the tools that allow me to access my content and, in the case of the Mac, can choose to prevent me from accessing my content

The fact that Microsoft is storing my content is not too much of an issue by itself.  I use a number of different cloud storage services of different types. Where there is an issue is that my content in OneNote form can only really sit on Microsoft’s cloud services, whereas most of the other content I have can be swapped around on any of the cloud storage platforms. Well I suppose technically speaking I could move the OneDrive Personal files around using another cloud service as long as they appeared to the client to be a local file. Or at least that is the way client works at the moment.

And there’s the real problem. All my content is locked away in a proprietary format in a way that, certainly in the case of OneDrive for Business, I don’t really understand. To a degree this is true of the other files I have, .docx .png .odt .html, they all to a greater or lesser extent need a program to make them usable, but the point is there is some choice. And that choice includes options that I can keep rather than rent.

So if not OneNote then what?

Keep it all in a bunch of word processor files

The beauty of OneNote, from my point of view, was that it provided a single place for a lot of structured notes about a lot of things. In most cases I could have written up the notes in a word processor, but the concept of separate but related pages is much nicer than either a section in a document or a completely separate file. I have worked with complex Word documents which included child documents, but that does not really match the sematic structure here and is more for managing the creation and maintenance of big documents rather than note taking.

I hear Evernote is really good

And I am sure it is, but I have never tried it. However in the context of this particular epiphany I am afraid that another subscription service is not that attractive.

What about Google Keep or Simplenote? These are both services I use for ephemeral notes that I don’t mind loosing.  The structure is also very simple so they are easily exportable. But this simplicity means they are not really suitable for the more complex structure notes that OneNote can deliver.

What I really need is …

Reflecting on my dissatisfaction with OneNote I have begun to formulate a wish list for an approach to deliver what I had hoped OneNote would provide:

  • the data must be in a format that does not tie me in to one piece of software
  • I must be able to store the data wherever I need, in the cloud (and any cloud at that) or on my own storage (the storage I have bought and own not just rent)
  • all these storage options must be able to synchronise, and synchronise without relying on a particular provider
  • the content must be available, and updateable, on all the devices I use, OSX, Windows, and Android
  • and, as I live in an area of the UK which is not blessed by consistent 3G coverage let alone 4G, the content must be available offline on all the devices and especially an Android smartphone

I am not entirely sure what the solution is, but the plan is to follow up with posts that explore how close I get to achieving this.