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Microsoft OneNote as a Distributed Information Item Database System

Despite our increasingly always-on work and personal lifestyles, there are still circumstances in which it’s important to be able to work locally and share globally, and even to work without an Internet connection and later synchronize your updates with others with whom you’re sharing resources. OneNote 2010 includes a powerful but unobtrusive distributed information item database system that seamlessly extends OneNote’s familiar note-taking capabilities into a robustly useful and shared information management system.
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Although people familiar with earlier releases of OneNote (i.e., OneNote 2003 and OneNote 2007) probably think of OneNote as a personal note-taking application, some subtle changes in OneNote 2010 have made it—in clever ways that are invisible to most users—a distributed information item database system. OneNote 2010 is still a market-leading note-taking application, but it also includes powerful database management services, when used in conjunction with Windows Live SkyDrive or Microsoft SharePoint.

This article provides an overview of OneNote’s database services and how they make it possible for OneNote users to work independently, optionally while network-disconnected, and to later synchronize their work. The next article in the series, “Compelling Collaboration Capabilities in Microsoft OneNote,” will explain how the database services support a broad range of useful collaboration scenarios.

OneNote Database Basics

A database is essentially an information repository into which you put stuff and subsequently get the stuff back out. Although OneNote is not similar to a traditional database management system (DBMS) such as Microsoft SQL Server or Oracle Database in many respects—as OneNote works with notebooks, sections, and pages rather than rows and columns—it is in many ways a database system.

There are several ways to create or collect information items in OneNote, as explained in “Information Item Management in Microsoft OneNote.” OneNote makes it easy to focus on your task at hand; you don’t need to know any database concepts, and you don’t even need to worry about the traditional file-save action (or committing transactions, in database-speak), as OneNote automatically saves all of your work.

In terms of subsequently getting stuff back out, OneNote makes it easy to navigate among linked collections of information items using Web-centric hypertext concepts. OneNote content is arranged in notebooks, sections, pages, and paragraphs, and it’s easy to create and use links between items, in order to purposefully organize and navigate through content.

OneNote also has multifaceted search capabilities, including options to search for specific terms, edits made during a certain time period, and edits made by specific people.

Figure 1 shows the search box that’s always available from the main OneNote window.

Figure 1 OneNote search box and options

When you enter search terms, OneNote presents results in the format shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2 OneNote search results

The list below “Finished: All Notebooks” is a categorized search result with all the names of pages containing the search terms. The page name list serves as a page navigator; as you select a page in the search result, OneNote displays the selected page, with search terms highlighted, in the main OneNote edit window.

Additional search options appear in Figure 3. You can search for content within a specified time frame (Recent Edits) or authored by a specific person (Find by Author), both options from OneNote’s Share ribbon tab.

Figure 3 Search options on OneNote’s Share tab

Figure 4 is an example search result based on a specified time frame. Pages with edits during the last seven days, in this case, are listed in the Search Results pane, from which you can navigate among search result pages and see highlighted paragraphs (if the page contained content created more than seven days ago, in this example, the older content would not be highlighted—i.e., OneNote’s recent-activity highlighting is at the paragraph level, not the entire page).

Figure 4 Recent Edits search results

As these examples suggest, OneNote’s search features go far beyond the conventional Ctrl-F model for searching (although that familiar approach also works; it’s a shortcut for finding content in the currently-open page, and presents results in the same model shown in Figure 2).

One noteworthy limitation about OneNote indexing involves files inserted into OneNote pages: The inserted-file content is not indexed by OneNote 2010, and thus will not appear in search results. I consider this a perplexing idiosyncrasy, as OneNote is robustly useful for finding other types of information, including sophisticated techniques such as using optical character recognition techniques to extract text in file print renderings sent to OneNote, as well as in images or digital ink input (e.g., created while using a Tablet PC and stylus). The inserted-file limitation means, for example, that text contained in a OneNote page-inserted Excel workbook is not indexed (nor is the workbook text indexed by the Windows indexer). I suspect this is an issue the OneNote team has high on its to-do list for a future release.

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