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  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.

Synchronising through the cloud, part 2

In 2010 I reflected on the trials of synchronising across four platforms; Ubuntu Linux, MS Windows 7, Android and Symbian S60v3.  At that time, it was Symbian that was causing me problems, but this is no longer the case.

I now have a Nokia N8 Symbian ^3 Anna phone as my main phone, and I find I am using it more than my HTC Android phone, or rather it is my first point of call for anything media related. Not only is the camera fantastic, I find the slightly smaller screen better than the Desire and the audio is better.  For podcasts Nokia Podcatcher is better than the Listen app and for just listening to music I find the old fashioned LCG Jukebox very comfortable (even though the interface is not great with touch). And of course the sound quality, both speaker and headphones, is better on the Nokia.

With the Swype keyboard and QuickOffice it is also better for serious work on documents and spreadsheets.  Interestingly I also use Swype as my main keyboard on the Android phone and I also have the full version of QuickOffice and experience is not as good.  Although to be honest the Swype keyboard is great on both devices; it is the QuickOffice implementation that I just cannot get the hang of on the Desire.

The original post concentrated on synchronising content between all four platforms, or rather making the same files available.  In this domain, the main change is the emergence of Dropbox as the service of choice.

In the previous post it was Symbian S60V3 that was the problem, however I later discovered that with DropDav I could create a webdav connection in the default File Manager that allowed simple copying of files to and from my Dropbox account.  This is still available in the Nokia N8 and it is something that I still use. But, thanks to the All About Symbian podcast I have discovered CuteBox (currently free from the Ovi/Nokia Store) which matches or exceeds any Android app for convenience in accessing and updating Dropbox files.  In fact, because I so rarely use the HTC Desire to work with files any more this is now my main way of accessing Dropbox on the move.

There are plenty of other contenders in the cloud storage space, and I have accounts with, sugarSync and UbuntuOne, but is Dropbox that currently provides me with a solution for every environment I use.

Synchronising through the cloud

[Now that I am using a Nokia N8 running Symbian ^3 Anna, I have updated these reflections in a new post]

I work in a pretty mixed economy when it comes to OSs and platforms

  • Windows 7 at work
  • Ubuntu Lucid (and above) at home and netbook
  • Android 2.2 work mobile
  • Symbian S60V3 personal mobile

I often have content that I want to synchronise across some or all of these platforms, and I want to do it without paying any money.


I am looking for

  • complete and live synchronisation between Windows and Ubuntu
  • selective synchronisation on the mobile devices i.e.
    • all the cloud hosted files are available on demand but not automatically synchronised
    • specified files/folders are synchronised when requested
    • new files/folders can be uploaded from the mobile device

Windows 7 <-> Ubuntu

The simplest solution I have found is dropbox as this has good synchronisation clients for both Windows 7 and Ubuntu.

Sugarsync does not have an Ubuntu/linux client

Windows 7 <-> Android

The Android phone is a new addition and I am still trying to find the best mix of apps.  For synchronisation the dropbox app was a real disappointment.

Sugarsync seems to offer a better solution.  You can selectively sync specified folders between Windows and Android, this allows me to limit the sync to just those folders/files that are really live at the moment.

Symbian <-> anything

Symbian is the poor relation here.  I have been using Nokia Synbian smartphones for several years and have always found a way to get them to do what I want.  For navigation I find them better than the Android (so far at least) and the camera is just better quality.  Perhaps I will move away from the platform with the next upgrade, but I will take some persuading.

There is an unofficial client for Dropbox that looks as if it will do the trick.  However it seems to be primarily a web interface which allows access rather than syncing.  Comments also raise some security concerns.

UPDATE: Sugarsync have released an official client for Symbian, it says it is available through Ovi but I could not find it. Unfortunately it is not compatible with s60v3.  Bit of a pain really.

UPDATE2: The solution was there all along! The Symbian file manager has support for webdav built in.  Combine this with the dropdav service and you have a solution for working with cloud hosted files from Symbian s60v3. See The easiest way to use Dropbox on Symbian smartphones from the Independent Symbian Blog

The alternative seems to be to use the web interface.

Windows Ubuntu Android Symbian Web mobile web
Dropbox Y Y ? y (webdav) ? d,u
SugarSync Y Y Y ? d
Y = official client that meets requirements
y = unofficial client
? = a client but does not really do what I need
d = download
u = upload

Blogging from eeePC


The software seems to work on the eeePC but it is a bit crude.

There is no support for downloading categories from the blog and no styled preview, but it is much more fundamental than that.

But the editor is plain text! With no built in support for bulleted lists, etc. You can insert links, images and tables, but who cares when you have such a limited editor. You cannot even get the windows to layout properly on the tiny eeePC screen.


The firefox plugin ScribeFire works much better and looks like the real solution. The only problem is working offline, but that is a small price to pay.

Spoke too soon. Scribefire also has problems with the small screen and insists on running the main editing box beyond the right edge of the screen. This may be a theme problem though……

I have now updated the eeePC Firefox with the Whitehart theme and Tiny Menu and this seems to have solved the problem.

Xubuntu 7.1 (Gutsy Gibbon) with vnc

Now I have set up vnc on Xubuntu before, so why should it be so difficult this time? As before my guide was the extensive ubuntu forums thread. The thread has grown since I last looked and few new gotchas have emerged–although to be honest they are more figments of my imagination rather than real issues. The following are observations on what I learned (and in some cases “mis-learned”) from the thread.

One of the things that threw me were the references to vnc4server not working properly on 7.1 AMD64. My experience is that, if you get everything else right, the default vnc4server packages work fine.

Another thing that held me back was not being able to test the vnc installation with the local viewer. This made me think that it was not working when (perhaps) it was.

Checking the actual location of the fonts directories is something that carries over from the last experience, although I don’t think the location has changed since the last version.

The issue that had me foxed for the longest was the server_args string in /etc/xinted.d/Xvnc. While I was experimenting with tightvncserver and launching vncserver from the command line the option “-query localhost” had got lost form the string. As a result the vncviewer showed the X-windows grey screen, but no login page. A number of people had observered this problem in the thread, but nobody had been stupid enough to cause it by messing up the command to launch the server.

Along with several people who have commented on the thread, there were a number of times I had to wonder why I was struggling so hard to set up what should be a pretty simple vnc server. Other options are discussed in the thread, and I also have another ubuntu workstation that uses NoMachine NX for remote administration. But the main thing with vnc is that you get the option to power off and restart the machine. As the server runs “headless,” i.e. no screen, this is vital. I could certainly administer it through a terminal interface using SSH, but if I am going to have graphical remote access it might as well let me do everything I need to do.

Xubuntu 7.1 (Gutsy Gibbon) with Software RAID

With an expanding music collection I wanted to avoid the chore of backing up to multiple DVDs by building a RAID server so that at least a hard drive failure would not compromise the collection. This has not been as simple as I had hoped.

Mistake 1: I bought a motherboard specifically because it supported RAID5, but then decided I could not afford 3 disks and ended up using RAID 1. And anyway Linux can use software RAID rather than the Windows driver-based version supported by the motherboard.

I tried a number of approaches before this particular combination worked for me. I am sure there are other more elegant ways of achieving the same end, but hopefully my experience will save somebody else some time.

Starting point

This is a completely new system which has never been formatted. The key components for the installation are

Installation Options

The main trick was to persuade the installer to give the options to set up the RAID array during installation. To get the options

  1. boot from the alternate installation disk
  2. at the main menu hold down F6 (options) until you get the choice of Normal and Expert mode
  3. choose Expert mode
    • it can be worth a “dry run” in normal mode to get used to the principal installation options, but I could not see how to install a RAID system that way
  4. start the installation
  5. the console-based system is pretty tedious and I accepted the defaults for every step except …
  6. when offered the choice to load additional modules choose the MD multi disk option
    • I am writing this from cryptic notes taken during the process so I am not sure of the exact names, but the key one is the multidisk option
    • The configuration I chose does not use LVM but I did selectLVM at this stage. I am not sure if it was ever used.
  7. when the partitioner starts choose manual
    1. My configuration was to create a single big partition on both disks, for the RAID and a small swap partition on both disks which are left “un-RAID-ed”. This is not completely fault tolerant, but should be pretty easy to recover
    2. select the disk to partition
    3. create the main partition and set the Use As option to “Physical Volume for RAID” and set to be bootable
    4. create the swap partition and set Use As option to “swap”
  8. (the following is what I noted down, but may be because I did not read the screen properly)
    1. after specifying the partitions on both disks choose the option to write the changes to disk
    2. a warning message was displayed that there was no active partition
    3. choose continue
    4. the partition manager page is displayed again but with a new option at the top to build the Software RAID
  9. Software RAID installation is done through the MD administration module you added to the installation earlier.  The options I chose were
    1. RAID 1
    2. as /dev/md0
    3. 2 drives
    4. no spares
    5. sda1 and sdb1
  10. When complete the MD administration returns you to the partitioner but there is now a new device to partition, a “RAID device.” Partition this as usual
    1. file system ext3
    2. mount at /
    3. (the bootable option is not available)
  11. Write the changes to disk in Partitioner and this time there is no warning
  12. The installation process continues as usual
  13. When the GRUB installation page came up I chose the default option, i.e. install in the master boot  file of hd0.
    • This means the the RAID array will probably not boot if /dev/sda fails
    • If /dev/sda does fail the plan is to rewire /dev/sdb as /dev/sda (i.e. switch the connectors) and make it bootable with a rescue disk.
    • The RAID array would have to be rebuilt manually after adding a replacement /dev/sdb
  14. The Xubuntu system now boots as normal with md0 as the active partition

The installation now appears to be operating properly and I have begun setting it up as a our local server.  Running cat /proc/mdstat suggests that RAID1 is working fine, and df shows a root partition on /dev/md0 which is the right size, but otherwise it is completely transparent.
Background Reading
As I have explained, the procedure above was the result of several abortive attempts to install a RAID filesystem and get it to boot.  During these experiments through to my eventual success I used the following pages and posts that provided help, reassurance and inspiration, even if I was not always able to follow their advice.  Thanks to all those who took the trouble to share what worked for them.

NoMachine NX 3 on Xubuntu 6

Previous posts documented the trials of setting up VNC on Xubuntu for the old machine that runs as our family server. Since the install I have been careful not to include vncserver in any updates as it has a habit of breaking the setup, but this is not really viable long term.

While reading another post I came across NoMachine NX 3.0 improves remote access to Linux boxes which reminded me that I have been planning to look into NX as an alternative to vnc that would not be broken by Xubuntu updates. The post was not too encouraging but I went ahead with the help of Install NX Server on Ubuntu Dapper Drake.

Prepare Xubuntu

Installing glib libraries brought back memories of the early days of using linux. I suppose it is an inevitable consequence of open development but a bit of pain and a real barrier for new users.

Using synaptic install libstdc++2.10-glibc2.2 (this advice came from the NX support site article for NX 1.5 so it may not really be necessary)

Download NX components

Downloading nxnode and nxclient DEB files from NoMachine Downloads was straightforward. Finding the free server was not entirely straighforward as there is now the desktop server. I chose to navigate from the homepage from the article on the free server.

Install from the command line

Again a bit of a throwback to earlier days, but just three commands executed from the directory where the installation DEB files were stored

dpkg -i nxclient-XXXXXXXi386.deb

dpkg -i nxnode-XXXXXXXi386.deb

dpkg -i nxserver-XXXXXXXi386.deb

I found I needed to install the nxclient before the nxnode because of dependencies.

Run the client

Everything had gone smoothly to this point, but it was here that I came across a problem that I only solved by trial and error.

The client install in Xubuntu and in Windows both created nice menu items making it easy to specify a connection. All would go well up to getting a remote desktop to come up in the nxclient window at which point the client reported that the it was unable to run the required file. The problem was that all the advice assumes a straightforward gnome-based Ubuntu installation and this is Xubuntu.

The configuration setting required for Xubuntu is

Desktop = Unix XDM

This gives you the Xubuntu login screen (just like vnc).

Still to do

At the moment this is running on the local network, but the intention is open things out. In which case I need/plan to change the port settings from 22 to something else as suggested in this blog post. I will also create a user specially for logging into the nxserver. NAT port forwarding also needs to be sorted out.

Controlling nxserver

This was not obvious from the scraps of documentation I used, probably because it is standard linux practice but as an aide memoire these are the commands to control the nxserver;

sudo /usr/NX/bin/nxserver –status/start/stop/restart

There are lots of other options, just run the command without the switches for a list

Freemind on Ubuntu

(More notes on making Ubuntu Edgy Eft do what I want it to do)

Freemind is my favourite open source mindmapping tool and it runs on java. The Freemind wiki has a section on adding it to Ubuntu and I used a bit of a mixture.

On a fresh installation of Ubuntu I started with confirmed more easy install within Kubuntu 6.10 which worked as described first installing then fixing the installation of freemind. So I had an icon on the Applications menu that did nothing when clicked. Launching freemind from a console showed that there were things missing.

Using synaptic I installed sun-java5-jre (1.5.0-08-0ubuntu1) along with all its dependencies. Freemind now launches a treat.

Ubuntu and Citrix WinFrame

The main purpose of getting the old PIII-based Ubuntu machine into a fit state was so that MySignificantOther could use it to access her work server using Citrix.

Her work has gone over totally to thinclient systems using Citrix to access word, excel, outlook and the customer account management system. The citrix plugin works nicely on a WinXP machine, but with everyone in the house using the internet as a principal source of entertainment as well as for work we needed a machine that could be “hers”.

As a thin client the old Ubuntu machine seemed like a good choice, and Citrix offer a free ICA client for unix. Installation has taken a few hours spread over the Christmas period, but we got there in the end.

The key advice came from /bin/false –help Install Guide for Citrix ICA Client on Ubuntu Breezy. Be sure to read the comments as there are updates and alternative suggestions for later versions (in my case Edgy), but it is all there!

Following this advice we were able to use the old machine to access MSO’s work, but it was a bit clunky. While everything worked fine I could not get the links on the Citrix desktop webpage in firefox 2 to launch. The work around was to save the .ica file on the desktop and then drag it onto the ICA client. (as a veteran of linux desktops I am amazed that this worked).

The trick to solving the problem is telling firefox which application to use to launch the .ica file. It is quite possible that this information is already in the /bin/false guide, but I did not see it. Instead the solution is to be found in the last step of the Citrix ICA Client How-To for Linux at Of the various executables in the ICAClient folder the one you need to point firefox at is: /usr/lib/ICAClient/wfica.

So MSO is all set. And I am sure that she will be a bit more comfortable with Ubuntu now that it acts more like it ought to.

[addendum: it would probably have been better to use the script at codetech than these other instructions, but sometimes you only find these things later]

Wrestling with Ubuntu (Edgy)

I have been playing with various Linux distributions over the last few years, primarily as a way of getting a bit more life out of old hardware. While I am no expert there are some things that I like in a set up, and one of those things is vnc.

On my little home network I use vnc to manage the Linux fileserver that holds all the email and music and to help on the other Windows machines when other household members get stuck (or find something interesting). I expect vnc to start up as soon as the machine boots and I expect to be to login in remotely; and so far I have been able to do this on Red Hat, Mandrake, Debian and Windows installation without too much trouble.

Impressed by the press on Ubuntu I have installed it on an old IBM PIII that must be getting on for 10 years old. I use this machine to run vmware virtual machines for development work. It is a source continuing amusement that I have an ancient machine running Linux that pretends to be Windows 2003 Server, and sometimes two at the same time. But I don’t really use it that often so it was a minor inconvenience that vnc (using vino Remote Desktop) would only start once logged in.

But we now need another workstation. It will just be used for surfing and as a dumb terminal for Citrix, so the Ubuntu should be fine. But before it moves into that role I want to get vnc working what I call properly.

After a few false starts I found the best instructions for vnc running in its own sessions at ubuntu forums. However this is a long thread and there are a few gotchas, the answers are in the thread but 11 pages is a lot to work through. Just in case any needs to repeat the process these are the ones that caught me

  • the path to fonts is different in Edgy Eft (why?) so the -fp statement should read /usr/share/fonts/X11/misc
    • get this wrong and vncserver will not run
  • you must set up remote login to behave the same as local log in
    • while logged into ubuntu go to System>Administration>Login Window>Remote and select Same as Local.
    • if you don’t do this vnc will run and you can connect but all you get is a grey X windows screen

So now vnc starts when the machine starts and I can log in remotely. I can also have different users running at the same time.