OneNote now free… or is it?

When I learned that Microsoft was going to be offering its note-keeping flagship application OneNote free, not only for Windows, but also for Mac and iPad, I was initially happy. I then started to have reservations that revolved around my concern that having such a behemoth free on all these platforms would suppress innovation by smaller developers, and that terrific apps like MagicalPad and Outline would wither on the vine. But, of course, I had to download the latest versions, not only because I am a CRIMPer and I can’t help myself, but because I am a fan of OneNote for Windows.

So I first loaded it on my MacBook Pro, and everything looked great. Sure, there are a lot of the Windows version features missing from the Mac version. Here are the ones I noticed right away:

  • No drawing features.
  • Export options limited to PDF.
  • No custom tags.
  • Can’t modify date format.

There are certainly many others — I haven’t checked, but I doubt the Mac version offers OCR of scanned text, for example.

But I could live with those limitations, because most of the key ones are there, including the same easy-to-build tables. But then I tried to install OneNote on my MacBook Air, and found I couldn’t, because OneNote requires OS 10.9 (also known as Mavericks). I have avoided upgrading the Air to Mavericks, because I regret having done so with the MB Pro, since that computer runs much slower since the upgrade, often grinding to a halt at times. So that was the first mark against a universal OneNote. Still, I could have lived with that, since I could use Outline to read my OneNote files and make edits to the text.

On my Windows PC at work, I’ve been using OneNote 2010, which I paid for. I was excited by the opportunity to upgrade for free to ON 2013, and did so. Everything looked peachy — the notebook I had created on my MacBook Pro synced beautifully with ON13 on my PC. I thought that I may have found an option that would allow me to drop Evernote completely, and even retire TheBrain (which I like, but which can be a little clunky and stodgy at times). But then I tried to add a new page to an existing notebook that is stored on my PC and not on SkyDrive, Microsoft’s version of Dropbox and iCloud. That’s when I got the following notice:

“Subscribe to Office to continue using this notebook.” Then, from the web page that opens from clicking the “Learn more” button:

Anyone can download and use the free version of OneNote. When you subscribe to Office 365 Home Premium for just $9.99 per month, you get the premium version of OneNote, which easily integrates with the other latest Office applications and comes with additional capabilities, including the ability to:

Create notebooks on your PC. Create notebooks saved to your hard drive (offline) in addition to being saved to your OneDrive. Being able to work with notebooks offline as well as online is great for anyone with a spotty network connection or those who are always on the go.

Support your business needs. Your notes are synced to your OneDrive for Business, so you and your teammates can collaborate easily. For added security, you can password-protect your notebooks. And with Office 365 you get the latest Office applications, which means you get a complete note-taking experience, with embedded Excel files and added Outlook tasks, meeting notes, and contacts.

Record your notes. Why just write or type your notes when you can video- or audio-record them at the same time? That way you’re sure not to miss any important information. Perfect for students and for those important meetings. (Emphasis added.)

Look, it’s not unreasonable that Microsoft wants to make money from their products, but this all feels a little like a bait and switch. There is no mention that there is a fee for full service from the download page. I’d be willing to pay a fee to get full service on all my devices, but I don’t want to be coerced into subscribing to Office when I have no use for any of the other apps.

I could, of course, go on using OneNote free and relying on SkyDrive for storing my information, but I’m uncomfortable with that option, since I live in a rural state and don’t always have wifi handy when I want to access that information. I also have a lot of information in notebooks on my PC that I have no need of storing in the cloud, but I would need to subscribe in order to keep using those notebooks with ON13. It looks like I CAN use ON10 on the PC and sync my notebooks as I did before, so there’s that. But it begins to feel like a real Frankenstein’s monster, with a system cobbled together from different editions of ON, as well as Outline.

I’m going to dabble with this OneNote cobble for a little while to see how it works, but I suspect that when it is all added up, I’ll probably end up dismissing it, not only because I am not comfortable with it, but because this discomfort makes it easier to continue to support smaller developers.

There is no free lunch.

14 thoughts on “OneNote now free… or is it?

  1. Thanks for posting this. The fact that Microsoft doesn’t make this clear up front is pretty appalling.

    I tried to live with OneNote for a long time, but I found its implementation of outlining–which for me is at the heart of personal information management–crude and cumbersome. I’ve subsequently switched to Circus Ponies Notebook, which, IMHO, is a far more useful product. (If all you care about is importing information and later searching for it, OneNote is probably fine. But when it comes to reorganizing and making sense out of it, I found OneNote worked pretty much like just another word processor.)

    1. I agree that the outlining function of OneNote feels a bit primitive, although I know that other people think it is great, so to each his own. Circus Ponies Notebook is a fine app, though I find the iPad implementation a bit awkward to use. Do you find ways of using Notebook information on other devices? Thanks for the comment and for reading my blog.

    2. Surprising how we could be different. I find Circus Ponies too rigid for me. I have both on my mac (I have used Onenote for over 2 years; and Ponies for a few months). Ponies has Table of Contents like structure; which is very linear and cumbersome to skip from one note to to the other. Onenote has a lot of tabs on top and on the right; that make it easy for me to jump from one note/topic to another.

      Anyways, we are just different people.

  2. >> Do you find ways of using Notebook information on other devices? <<
    The Mac/iPad combination meets my needs pretty well. As far as the iPad app goes, I find it useful for referencing information I've entered on the Mac app, and to a lesser degree for entering information when my Mac isn't available. It's pretty cumbersome for editing/reorganizing information I've already entered. But I think those comments really apply to almost any app on the iPad vs. to CP Notebook in particular.

    I think I found out about your blog back when you wrote a Post about GrandView, and I've enjoyed it ever since.

  3. The GrandView post was the first one I wrote about software. It sort of changed the whole direction of my blog from one ranting about politics, to software and other things, though few people ever show up to read my opinions about movies.

    I have yet to find an iPad note-keeping app that is as easy to use as its counterpart on the Mac. Thanks, again, for stopping by!

  4. Well said! I totally agree with your conclusion – Microsoft uses coercive tactics – I’ve noticed that since they lost IBM oversight – really it seems that way. In every way, every day, they decide and you surrender. Can’t remove I.E.? Oh too bad. Same thing once you install Outlook. This effort for an expert (me) literally took 5 hours and a call to an IBM engineer who is on the design team who had to walk me STEP BY STEP through reg keys, hidden directories maybe 75 different items – why? This was in the not too distant past and I would feel like a complete idiot – to ever install Outlook – or any Microsoft bloatware again. I’ve got office 2003 installed WITHOUT Outlook – and in balance don’t really miss it at all (at least Thunderbird doesn’t suck your face off.) Same thing with MS LIVE when I just wanted to edit my WordPress blog off-line. Didn’t work as advertized to deliver a good editor experience – had to install like 5 apps with the editor – and had to uninstall the whole thing to get rid of any one. Not to blather on, the alternative to the amazing love all of me and my dog attitude is the UNIX SMALL development strategy that simply is not very alive or well. Every developer of tool-ware jumps in from school and wants to start from scratch. They have no system plan, to design to work with any other developer. They each imagine they invented bread with cheese. People just don’t get along all that well because of idiosyncratic baseline attitude. This means major corporate / non-profit efforts are the only viable scale – and where this is attempted and being done well enough – surprise! There is a great deal more success to users in proportion. Thus, WordPress, Firefox, Freeplane, and a host of other UNIX-style modular platforms that at least make an effort to divide and specialize and work together.

    I am in pre-release of a book on Information Engineering and Quantum Magic as a high-ground career study.

  5. The sky drive requirement shouldn’t be a deal breaker. All that really means is that the notebook files on skydrive get synced to a local folder controlled by skydrive instead of a user specific folder on your hard drive. Do i truly care where its stored locally? Not really.

    Not having wi-fi means you’re not posting to this blog either. Which it seems you find access somewhere. 🙂

    1. I live in a rural state and frequently find myself working on my laptop in places without wi-fi access, like the library of the local college, for instance, where students have access to the internet, but visitors do not. At the time I wrote this article you had to subscribe to Office 365 to be able to save notebooks to your hard drive — at least that is what Microsoft said on their web site (reference my quote of their web site in the article). So either they were being deceitful or you have to pay for local access. Are you an Office 365 subscriber? If not, are you saying you CAN access your notebooks offline?

      1. I like the free OneNote and installed on all my windows PCs. OneDrive (skydrive) is not a problem at all, since you always have a local copy. You can read/modify it on your PCs even without network connection. Next time you have network, all changes you made will be automatically synced to OneDrive.

  6. I wish I had found this when I was Googling for Evernote alternatives and not after I started trying to find out why the free OneNote installation has been tying up my dial-up connection for a day and a half (and counting) even though over *900* MB have been downloaded — and how to get it stopped.

    I feel like an idiot for falling for the bait and switch, but thanks for the post.

  7. I think the free version at the time of writing this didn’t allow for a new notebook to be created locally o the PC without the Office subscripton. I’ve seen that those restrictions have been released (as of Feb 2015 I believe). Does anyone know if the current free version allows for new notebooks to be created while working on the PC? I too have spotty internet connections and don’t want to rely on being signed into my Microsoft Account. I’m currently using OneNote2010 which I paid for, but am considering upgrading if I can continue to use it the same way… Thanks!

    1. I’m not sure of the answer to your question. You should join the outlinersoftware forum. Those folks will answer your question in a jiffy, I believe. Plus, if you like discussing information management software, or just looking for some good advice, they can’t be beat. Go here:

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