Friday, March 26, 2004

I have a real dilemma - the need for something now that doesn't quite exist. Nothing is more frustrating than being almost able to do what you need.

My company did an early adoption of OneNote and that vast majority of the Office System 2003 to include SharePoint, about which I have written here before. OneNote is a terrific, free-form note-taking program. Groundbreaking in terms of its combined application simplicity and ability to map to the complexity of an individual mind and organizational style. On top of that, it's designed in a way that lets people share their own individual notes and thoughts with others, and while everyone takes notes differently, it allows you to use the information others provide to you pretty easily and quickly.

Sidebar: I now take most all my notes electronically. I used to take 90% of my notes on paper, now its the other way around.

The headline mentions OneNote, SharePoint and Wikis. People who know all three pieces of software might be confused as to why I am thinking about them together. There's a reason for that. I have a request on my list (and have been looking into it for a few weeks now) to try to find a way to support what Wikis do so well on the SharePoint platform. I think we can get 90% of the way there, but that last 10% of missing functionality is a killer.

We run a software development company, and wikis are a great way to do free-form note-taking and documentation of necessary information: Where is the server farm on the network? Where is the build server? Who do I contact about the virtual machines? What are the latest notes from each of the ten developers on any given aspect of the current version? Wiki software solves this need, simply and gracefully. It allows you to collect information in a free-form mode like you might in OneNote, and to do so in a truly collaborative and shared way like you might do certain things on SharePoint. The only real “issue” (I hate that word) that I have with the Wiki is that its a separate tool, a completely separate system, and not integrated into the other technologies we're using at work today. That's not a completely bad thing, by the way, and use of our Wiki system is not something that we can or would even think about stopping, but when we have competing or overlapping technologies, I need to figure a way to try to make things work together, or to change what we have in order to provide  and maintain all the necessary functionality.

I can't quite do what we need today, but here are the basic options:

  1. Use OneNote as the information collection and storage mechanism and require everyone to run OneNote in order to have access to the information. Share OneNote notebook (.one) files on a SharePoint server and turn the file-locking time down to one minute and hope that works for people who need to enter information at the same time. Not a viable option right now. I need something browser-based that can be accessed from any computer on the network, and which is truly multi-concurrent-user.
  2. Use SharePoint lists to try to replicate what the Wiki software does. I could probably make this happen, but the usability aspect of things would become a problem. I can't ask people to take a leap back in terms of the ease of sharing information in free-form, cross-linked, and all the other stuff the Wiki provides. Tried it, and in some cases it's acceptable, but in most cases it's (again) about 90% there.
  3. Change nothing, and have disparate information system with redundant information, which makes it hard for people to use them effectively. Most people will choose to use one or the other, but not both, for any given purpose. All users will not choose the same way, and sharing of information breaks down again becasue Group-A users Tool-Number-One and Group-B uses Tool-Number-Two to perform the same tasks and record the same types of information. Information becomes less cohesive, more fragmented, less usable.

Not really the options I am looking for there, but that's about what the situation looks like today. Now, nothing is really broken right now - we have systems and software that does what we want it to do. But integrating some of the functionality and making things a little more tightly built would not hurt anyone's feelings.

So, what do I want? Well, in a dream world:

  1. Change OneNote to output/read/use/consume/generate a standards-based file format so that it that can be used as a front end to any one of a number of systems. Let me do my thinking, writing and organizing in OneNote (which it's great at), and then let me publish it to anywhere I like, as a standards-based file set (it's not so good at this yet). In other words, don't break what you have now, but give me the additional abilities to “talk” in a standard XML format to web services, in clean HTML markup to some other system. Expose the API, and let me publish from OneNote directly to my Blog, to a SharePoint site/list/library, to the Wiki, etc.
  2. Build true Wiki functionality on top of/into SharePoint 2003 (Note: this version, not the next one). Yes, I know we could probably do this on our own if we put enough time and effort into it, and if it comes down to it, I may take a look at that possibility, but given my staffing situation I'd rather see someone else do it and then have them provide me the ability to adapt it the way I see fit. I certainly didn't write OneNote, SharePoint or our Wiki software (although our developer would have loved to change things at times), and I am not looking to build something from the ground up - I just want to be able to customize whatever solution comes up in order to meet our needs.

Anyhow, that's my wish list for at least a couple pieces of software that we already use today - Software that already meets needs, but which could be even better if the integration points were tighter. Office System 2003 did a great job of pulling a whole slew of different applications and servers together into one cohesive working unit, and I think my ideas are just an extension of that same model of design. I also believe they are in no way original ideas - Only our application of them would/might be original.



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OneNote | SharePoint | Tech
Friday, March 26, 2004 8:38:48 AM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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