One of the original applications for computers was creating and manipulating documents, and once computers became portable, replacing the paper notebook seemed like an obvious application for technology. However, note taking on digital devices has remained a somewhat clunky affair, made difficult due to everything from a sub-optimal interface to difficulty sharing and organizing notes.

A decade ago, Microsoft attempted to solve this problem with OneNote, a note-taking application that let users capture free form and handwritten text and promised more natural use than a word processor for taking notes. For reasons I’ve never been able to uncover, OneNote became the poor stepchild of the Office suite. Despite a conceptually sound product and some novel and compelling features, the application was rarely promoted and updated by Microsoft and languished after its introduction. As tablet computing experienced a huge resurgence due to the iPad, Microsoft stubbornly limited OneNote to the Windows platform, which was missing a compelling tablet offering at the time.

Evernote enters the market

Into this gaping hole in the market came Evernote, designed from the ground up as a multiplatform, cloud-based note-taking application that quickly exploited the growing prevalence of mobile devices. Evernote soon supported most desktop and mobile operating systems and offered relatively seamless synchronization between all of them. Evernote was also licensed on a “freemium” basis, allowing users to start using the application for free and paying for a subscription to access premium features or additional storage.

After a long silence, Microsoft has fired back at Evernote, launching mobile clients on the iOS platform, and most recently releasing a full-featured Mac OS desktop client and now making the product free of charge. Microsoft has also integrated current versions of the software into its cloud storage, offering OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive).

I’d been a OneNote user since it was first released in 2010, using the application in conjunction with a tablet PC to take handwritten notes, share notes with colleagues, and quickly retrieve past notes. Despite the negatives cited above, the application largely lived up to my needs until the iPad arrived on the scene. The iPad revolutionized mobile computing, yet lacked a client for the iPad. A quick search for a OneNote-like application that worked on mobile devices pointed me toward Evernote, and since 2010 I’ve used the application almost exclusively in lieu of OneNote.

More recently, I began using a Windows 8 tablet for my note taking due to the availability of active pen input. I was pleasantly surprised to find Microsoft had updated the Windows version of the application, created a free version for the “modern” Windows 8 interface, and tied them all together with cloud-based sync. As icing on the cake, a free Mac version of OneNote arrived this month, removing the last missing element for returning to OneNote for my personal note taking. However, the past four years have seen me largely in Evernote; has Microsoft done enough to merit switching back?

The tale of the tape

Before delving into use of both applications in a business environment, let’s look at the features and specifications of each application:

I’ve never been a huge fan of feature charts, since they only tell part of the story. In this case, they show that these two contenders are relatively evenly matched. Evernote offers a wealth of third party integration and mature applications on every platform, while OneNote has a strong heritage of handwriting support. Clearly, spec charts won’t settle this contest, and in the next installment I’ll take OneNote and Evernote to work, using each to replace the trusty paper notebook in a work setting.