Microsoft's OneNote strategy: Battle Evernote, or something bigger?

Redmond launches note-taking software for OS X, gives away that and Windows desktop version

Microsoft today began offering Mac users its OneNote application free of charge, making rumors last week about a release a reality.

Microsoft today began offering Mac users its OneNote application free of charge, making rumors of last week a reality.

The OneNote app has been published to the Mac App Store, the OS X version of Apple's better-known App Store for the iPhone and iPad. Microsoft also scratched off the price tag from the Windows desktop version of OneNote, which had cost $70 as a standalone application.

"Microsoft releasing OneNote for the Mac is clear evidence of an ecosystem play [by the company] because it's important to have clients on major platforms as opposed to just ones that are growing rapidly," Ross Rubin, of Reticle Research, said in an email.

The free versions are limited to home and school use, and are not licensed for business purposes. Only those copies of OneNote that are part of a commercial-class version of Office 2013 or a business-grade Office 365 plan can be used for work at work.

Also today, Microsoft released a browser toolbar add-on for grabbing Web content and placing it in OneNote, and shipped Office Lens, a Windows Phone-only app that captures documents snapped with the smartphone's camera.

Microsoft couched the free OS X and Windows OneNote as part of its all-along plan to push the note-taking application to as many platforms as possible. "We've made it easier to use OneNote no matter what platform you're on, and easier than ever to send anything into OneNote," wrote David Rasmussen, a partner group program manager with the team, on a blog today.

That strategy mimics Evernote's, the company whose same-named flagship note-taking software is also on every meaningful platform, including Windows 8's "Metro" tile-based user interface (UI).

One analyst last week saw the then-rumored move as a defensive play by Microsoft to lock customers inside the Redmond gate. "Evernote's become a hugely successful product and Microsoft needs to keep as many people as possible from relying on applications that compete with its Office components," said Michael Silver of Gartner in a Thursday interview.

Evernote did not rely to a request for comment on Microsoft's OneNote moves of Monday.

Wes Miller, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, also connected Microsoft's more-OneNote strategy to Office. "Microsoft wants mindshare and market share and to do that it needs to establish a broader market [for OneNote]," Miller said last week. "If you have to buy all of Office to get [OneNote], you're losing any of those potential customers who will not buy all of Office."

He also speculated that Microsoft would use the free OneNote on the Mac as a carrot to tempt customers to try Office for OS X, a daunting task when new Mac owners now get Apple's iWork suite for free. "It could be a great lead-in to people who are not yet Evernote customers, or not frequent Office users," Miller said.

Today, he elaborated on Twitter. "[The non-commercial license for OneNote] makes me think we could see a business version of OneNote inside Office for Mac 2014 (or at least the Office 365 equiv[alent])," Miller tweeted.

Last week, Microsoft said it would launch the next version of Office for OS X in the second half of this year; by past practice, that would likely be labeled "Office for Mac 2015," as the company usually slaps the next year's date on an edition that launches in the last six months of a calendar year.

Rubin, however, didn't see this as a direct punch at Evernote, whose 75 million users -- the number the company's CEO cited last September -- are a drop in the bucket compared to the one-billion-plus customer pool of Office. Instead, he viewed the freeing of OneNote as part of a broader strategy.

"Much as with cloud storage, this is an ecosystem play," said Rubin. "The digital notes we take are an important component of the information we need around us, and can be a source of insight in helping to fuel more proactive services."

By "ecosystem" Rubin wasn't referring only to Office, or to a turf fight against encroachment, but to the full range of Microsoft's devices, software and services.

"If OneNote has good future integration with Cortana [for example], you may be more swayed to purchase a Windows Phone down the road," Rubin said, referring to the Siri- and Google Now-like personal assistant rumored to be coming next month as part of an update to Windows Phone 8.

OneNote for OS X can be downloaded from the Mac App Store -- the e-mart Apple operates for its own and third-party software -- while the free version of OneNote 2013 for Windows' desktop can be obtained from Microsoft's website.

To use OneNote, users must have a Microsoft Account. OneNote data is automatically saved to Microsoft's cloud-based storage service, OneDrive.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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This story, "Microsoft's OneNote strategy: Battle Evernote, or something bigger?" was originally published by Computerworld.

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