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Best Little-known Technology of the Decade

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I appreciate good technology, and when I come across it I make every attempt to incorporate it into my life. I am not lazy (although some might argue with that); I simply want to leverage technology to maximum effect every chance I get. Since that usually makes my life easier, so much the better. One such technology I have used for years and have come to take for granted, and something happened today that drove home just how important it can be. It made me realize that it is sad that this particular tech hasn’t become more widely recognized, as I believe it could be one of the most important developments of the past decade.

Until adopting the blogger lifestyle full time, I was a consultant. Specifically, I was a consulting geophysicist for years, working in a highly technical field that depended very heavily on sophisticated computing technology. I regularly used computing clusters with over 10,000 Intel (s intc) CPUs, so you get my drift.

This morning I received a call from a former client, who needed some specific technical information about a project I handled back in the day. I have been removed from this work for two years, so needless to say I had no idea how to answer his query. I told him I’d have to research it and get back to him. I suspect he figured it would be a good while, if ever, that he heard back from me with his needed information. He was stunned when I called him five minutes later.

When I was working as a consultant, one of my main tools was OneNote on a Microsoft Windows Tablet PC (s msft). I used this to handle all meetings I attended by jotting notes on the slate with the Tablet pen. I would immediately grab the Tablet when I made or received a phone call, as having good project notes was critical to my work. I worked this way for years, and accumulated thousands of pages of ink notes in OneNote. It was the only way I could keep on top of things back then.

After receiving the call this morning I fired up OneNote and entered a search term, “Jericho,” in the search box. This was the project codename my friend was asking me about. In less than 30 seconds, OneNote found exactly what I was looking for.

Notice how the handwritten word “Jericho” is highlighted yellow? That’s how OneNote indicated this matched my search term. Notice how bad that handwriting is? And yet it still knew what I had written. It had returned every single time I wrote the word Jericho in my notes, and this was high up the list as it was one of the first notes chronologically. That was important as my friend also needed to know if I could tell him when this initial project meeting took place. It was right there on the note page.

Think about that for a minute. As you can see, I was able to lay my hands on the actual meeting notes taken over three years ago. Can you go to the drawer or shelf where you keep all of your Moleskine journals or legal pads containing past notes and find anything from three years ago? Much less exactly what you’re looking for in just a minute?

This is empowering technology, and it’s a shame it is not more widely used. Most people I show this capability to are completely blown away that it exists, and yet they knew nothing about it. It is not hard to see how useful this capability can be, to almost everyone. The ability to search anyone’s handwriting, and figure out what they wrote is applicable in a bushel of situations.

My fellow Tablet PC enthusiast friends are smiling now, as they’ve been using this for years. But they are the only ones, and there’s not that many of them. That is simply a shame, given how good this technology is.

Related research on GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

Web Tablet Survey: Apple’s iPad Hits the Right Notes

30 Responses to “Best Little-known Technology of the Decade”

    • I’m hoping OneNote 2010 for Mobile will be ink-compatible, too. Not only do I take notes in OneNote, but I work in OneNote all day and send documents to Word (etc.) only for final formatting, saving, and printing.

      I also integrate it with Outlook for my GTD system.

      Absolutely the best program MS has ever released.

  1. I know it is not OneNote, but in the same vein of searchable handwritten notes I have to say I LOVE my Livescribe pen. I am a biochemistry PhD student and it is phenomenal to have a searchable lab book. I also don’t have to worry about having an expensive tablet PC in the lab. I would personally argue that the Livescribe pen is the best little-known technology of the decade! I know people’s eyes pop out of their heads when they see me search my lab book and pull up details on an obscure experiment from a year ago.

  2. OneNote on the Tablet is the only thing still keeping me in windows. It is a tribute to the usefulness of OneNote that even Vista could not get me to move completely to OS/X.

    If you are looking for a good tablet I really recommend Lenovo. The new x201T looks great, but if you are on a budget, look for sales on the older x200T in the near future. Also try the Lenovo outlet; you can find new computers which were ordered by companies and then canceled for a very good price.

  3. I was a math major in school and my netbook wasn’t a tablet, but I still used OneNote to organize everything. I organized my notebook for a given quarter as follows:

    1st Section: Calendar
    I made the table in Excel, then copied it over to OneNote once I got the numbers straight. Whenever I had homework, quizzes, tests, or tutoring appointments, I would just put it in the day (nothing groundbreaking there). Also at the top of that page was a list of To Do items. I know there are many alternatives to this (Outlook, Google Calendar, etc.), but the fact that it was always there assured that I actually USED it.

    Subsequent Sections were for individual classes, and had pages that had contact information for professors and TAs, and usually a printout of the syllabus (pdf printout).

    After introducing my girlfriend to OneNote, she quickly stopped using Word for note taking.

    Dropbox is awesome for keeping notebooks in sync across multiple computers.

  4. Two words: Proprietary format.

    I have been burned so many times by the changing fashions in application support that I have resolved never again to commit my works to a closed format. Especially a format owned by a company as capricious as Microsoft. As nice as OneNote is, I think freedom is more important.

    I think my views are minority. Most people don’t use OneNote just because they haven’t been told about it.

    • Just curious… if you have a Microsoft example. I’ve been in SBA relationships with Microsoft for 20+ years and used a wide variety of their platforms (not just the public commercial but also the mainline business platforms)… I’m hard pressed to think of any examples of Microsoft document formats that were rendered obsolete with no migration path to the new formats… this is not to say there are not examples just that Microsoft has been very good about handling this -IMHO

      • bluespapa

        Microsoft was slow to make Word capable of reading Works documents, and that, once it was available, you had to download a converter. It may have been that at the same time there was a “Save as rtf” option, but that didn’t help people who would not have been sophisticated about emailing Works documents in the first place, and then trying to open them with the Microsoft product that is the direct, more costly replacement. I know this doesn’t dirctly match your question, but does indicate the perils of relying on an obscure format and Microsoft’s slow response.

        Another is that when Micosoft puchased Onfolio. They stopped supporting a Firefox version for customers who had purchased the Firefox version. They continued updating a free version for Internet Exporer, albeit without any updates to its function. Again, not the exact correspondence of your question, but still pointing to the perils of a less popular format in the hands of Microsoft.

        They were quicker to have a one way conversion of documents from WordPerfect than from their own product, Works.

  5. Mark In Nebraska

    James, I have been struggling with my next computer purchase. I really do not want to keep paying for a Blackberry plan. Can you recommend a good tablet PC so I can truly take advantage of OneNote? I too am a pastor in need of some guidance. :)

      • Mark In Nebraska

        Thanks for your input James. I did some price checking on your recommendations and that may keep me from a tablet right now. Just not enough green growing on the tree in the back yard.

    • Mark… I’m using the HP Touchsmart Tx2z-1000 (… Had the previous model as well…) Good multimedia machine and Duel core (AMD) but the new HP TM2T in now based on Intel… about $800. Of course if you want Quad core i7 Tosiba M780 would be my dream machine! Of course its priced north of my old Fujitsu P1610 and 20!

      • Mark In Nebraska

        Thanks Andrew. Like I told James, I will need to save up for awhile if I want to get a good tablet. I am a better typer than writer so I have also looked at a netbook to keep by my side. I do like the flexibility of the tablet, but need to find a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow (hard to do with 4 feet of snow on the ground). :)

  6. bluespapa

    I’m in OneNote every single day, James.

    That’s why some of your choices for travel baffle me. I know you’ve been favoring your Lenovo lately, but you were hauling around a MacBook Pro (a nice computer, certainly) when heading to a meeting. Kevin left his Samsung Q1U at home.

    OneNote is on every computer in the community college where I teach, and there aren’t three of us that use it that I’m aware of. I made Sharon sbtablet give a talk on how to use it for a workshop (I was supposed to give the talk, but she was more articulate), and five people came.

    In addition to meetings, I copy or print web pages and mark them up, and people look at me like I’m weird because I don’t just bookmark them (some are gone, some are now behind pay walls).

  7. Grant Page

    I’d love to read a primer on tablet computing nad getting into handwriting recognition. HAHA, after looking at your handwriting Mr. Kendrick, there is hope for me…I had no idea handritten notes in my horrible handwriting would even be feasable. I’m hooked…

    As an engineer, I attend a lot of meetings and currently scribe stuff on yellow pads which I then three hole punch and file in project notebooks. I’m an evernote user via mobile phone (Palm Pre), but the little key pad is not enough for me to do data entry at meetings. I’m a slow typist, so even keyboarding on a full size KB is a challenge in order to record thoughts and keep involved in a meeting. Hunting and pecking on a KB during an involved meeting breaks everyones concentration, sometimes…

    Needless to say, having those notes searchable, anywhere with an internet connection would be handy, real handy.

    Would you recommend a good starter tablet machine?

  8. I’ve tried both OneNote and Evernote and I’ve been impressed by both’s handwriting recognition. Unfortunately though I use primarily Linux, which not only is not supported by either software but does not have good touchscreen drivers at all.

  9. My only gripe regarding this tremendous product (which I use daily, integrated as it is with Outlook) is actually regarding the OS itself: to this day my language is not yet supported by MS, hence I can only search on typewritten notes. I believe many JK readers around the world relate to this.

    I have used tablets extensively since early 2006 nonetheless.

    MS would obliterate the competition, if capable of really “localizing” their OS’s.

  10. I’m hoping with OneNote2010 included in all versions of Office2010 that just maybe some more people will discover how great it is, but I even doubt that.

    I myself hadn’t heard of it until about a year ago, assuming it was one of those things in Office that just is useless for my needs, like Access, Publisher, FrontPage, Groove, InfoPath, Communicator, and so on and so forth (and MS wonders how great apps get lost in the shuffle).

    But as soon as I started using it, it was just like, “Wow, this is pretty powerful stuff.”

  11. I’m a big fan of OneNote… being using it in Software R&D and in my new profession as a Presbyterian Pastor… Not only can I search handwritten notes but I can add diagrams. The fact that its pen-based means I can even use it for taking notes in Greek class without having to mess with an English character keyboard… One wish though is that they would add MindMapping functionality… then it would be perfect!

  12. GoodThings2Life

    I wholeheartedly agree with you on OneNote… hands down the best app of the decade for me, as I have used it in class and at work now for the past 5 years.

    If there’s an app that justifies the pen/ink requirement of a tablet or slate device, this is it. If the iPad and all its clones can’t reproduce this functionality (directly or indirectly), it’s worthless to me.

  13. Here! Here!

    OneNote is a great and useful product, I do use MindManager more often than OneNote. Your post is a reminder and wakeup call for me. Let’s push for a OneNote App on the iPad & iPhone too.

    I also don’t underestimate the value of Index Cards, Moleskine Notebooks or other manual capture system as long as you have a process to retrieve the information when you need it.

  14. ArchiMark

    As usual, James, you’ve hit the nail on the head…

    OneNote is the app that sets the bar…have not found another app that beats it…and no other app really like it for Mac or Linux either…some do similar things, but not all that OneNote does from what I can tell…one MS’s best efforts….

    Which relates to my recent question about whether or not most of the vendors have given up or not on TabletPC type devices that take advantage of HWR instead of the move I see to just using touchscreens to click on buttons….

    Wish that we’d see better promotion of and more interesting smaller TabletPC type devices being released at reasonable price point….but I know I’m dreaming…



      • Evernote 3.5 (total rewrite) seems disappointing. Using XP tablet, there’s a couple of text entry fields in Evernote that somehow won’t show the TIP, including the password field. If that’s true (and not my error), then it indicates a straying from Win Tablet focus. I’m still using the v2.2 PC-based (non-cloud) version, which is more like a OneNote competitor.