6-17 2024

OneNote: The Beginning

Did you know that OneNote was about to get called “Scribbler” at first? An old blog article by Chris Pratley, the mind behind OneNote, tells the story of its beginning.

About three years after the first idea of a universal note-taking program struck him, Christ Pratley told the story in a blog article. After he gave me the friendly permission to translate and repost the article on the German version of this blog, I also include the original text in full here.


OneNote started as an email exchange between myself and Steven Sinofsky, the Senior VP for Office, Nov 27, 2000. We were talking about how there wasn’t much in the way of software to deal with information that was not yet a document. This coincided with the end of the OfficeXp development project. I had recently become the Group Program Manager for Word halfway through the project. The OfficeXp development cycle had bothered me as I felt we had not really moved the needle enough in terms of solving user problems in Word, at least partly because we were confining our thinking to simply how to make a word processor better. Steven described some thoughts he had about “ephemeral information”, and the idea of outlining. Outlining sort of turns me off, because it is one of those things most people can’t bring themselves to do, but the ones who do it rave about it. It’s a classic “niche”. But I liked Steven’s idea that we could build a new app if necessary, rather than be stuck grafting things onto our existing tools.

I thought more about how to dramatically make work easier or better for lazy unstructured people like me, as well as organized people like outliners and users of filing cabinets, and the idea came to me of a tool that would let me manage the tremendous amount of stuff that people tell me in meetings or on the phone, or that I read, or just think of on my own. Most of this ends up being junk anyway, but a lot of it is really valuable, and so much is lost since the only tools I have are my memory (failing) and paper, which I lose pretty quickly. (In fact, I recently cleaned out my office and found four separate paper notebooks with three pages of notes in each. That was all I had got to before losing each one.)

Over the 2000-2001 holidays I thought about this more (not that I thought hard – it was more of a percolation). In January I blasted out a draft “vision” document to describe a new tool that would be what I would want to make my daily work life more effective. Of course it wasn’t just for work – it would be useful for all sorts of things. In fact when you break down work into its component parts, your non-work life or student life starts to be pretty similar: things to do, important stuff to remember, things to review, and a bunch of stuff you think you might need some day but can’t be sure. Not to mention phone numbers, passwords, frequent flyer numbers, people’s names and addresses, links, blah blah blah. Things that defy categorization (or do they?). The key insight I had at this point was that whatever this tool was, it had to let you capture the thought or piece of info as you had it without forcing you to deal with any software goo up front. To take a note in Outlook you had to find the place where you were allowed to take notes. But if it was a phone number, you were supposed to use Contacts, but you had to create a contact and name it before you could save the phone number. Post-its beat that hands down. This new tool, which I called “Scribbler” would be as close to electronic paper as we could get to make capturing information easy, but then have much more power than paper to help you deal with the stuff you put into it.

About this time the TabletPC was getting going, and that seemed like an interesting effort. It is always good when there is “synergy’ happening. New hardware that was sort of in the same space as the software I wanted to make would help. But realistically, it would take years for TabletPCs to take over the installed base even if they were a runaway hit, so with Scribbler I decided we should target desktop and laptops PCs, but be sure to be great on the tablet, where you’d have all the power of a laptop but also ink and pen UI. So we had to build a great keyboard app first and foremost.


Chris Pratley ist still working for Microsoft. Currently he is responsive for the Photo app on Windows 10. In his blog archive there are more “historic” articles that may be if interest for yor, e.g. about the first OneNote field tests or about being a product manager at Microsoft..

Check Also

OneNote for Linux?

Many Linux users are craving for a port of OneNote. Microsoft kept quiet about this. …

Leave a comment