Outline: a better alternative to OneNote on the iPad

OneNote is arguably the best thing that the Office team makes today, especially when compared to the somewhat geriatric Word, Excel and PowerPoint, all of which are now entering their late twenties (which in the computer equivalent of dog years means they’re collecting their pensions and staggering around in a Zimmer frame).

Outline: a better alternative to OneNote on the iPad

OneNote’s time has come with the arrival of tablets. It’s type enabled, pen and ink enabled, can record audio and match pen/ink/type events to time points on the recorded timeline. There’s no file saving – that’s all done automatically. You can share OneNote books and work on them along with other users. By any standards, it’s a thoroughly modern, interesting and worthwhile product.

Microsoft has done an iOS port of OneNote, but to be honest it’s a howling dog, with much of the best functionality simply missing, and while it doesn’t actually destroy the OneNote file it’s working on, it’s somewhat galling to find key functions missing.

That’s why it’s so refreshing to find a third party that’s building an entirely new OneNote-alike application that works with your OneNote files unchanged, and offers far more functionality than Microsoft offers in its own Mac/iPad product.

It’s called Outline. There are two versions – Outline and Outline+ – and this is a fast-moving company, releasing updates and new functionality every month or so. Outline is limited to 30 pages, syncing over USB, and is free, while Outline+ has no page limit, syncs over USB, Wi-Fi or Dropbox, and costs £10.49.

There’s an Outline Enterprise version coming soon that will add native support for SharePoint syncing too, and that will be a “$$$” purchase instead of the “$” of Outline+.

I’ve enquired about support for synchronisation over SkyDrive, and have been told that it’s coming shortly, and I’ve asked for a “hot note” app for the iPhone too. The screen size isn’t big enough to handle the full user interface, but a cut-down version that specially marks stuff that is currently important is just what I need.

When you travel as much as I do, you constantly need access to plane reservation numbers, flight details, hotel and rental car reservations – store them in a special note in OneNote and my phone can immediately display this for me.

And what about a version for the Mac? That should be out by the time you read this for a mere $15 (I expect the UK price will be around £10).

The first version will be read-only, a sensible move to ensure that there are no major nasties in it – after all, the big problem with any syncing data model is that a bug in one place might propagate across all the clients in no time at all. But at the time of writing, this read/write version is scheduled to arrive within a few weeks.

I’ll confess that I love discovering small software companies such as this. They’re fast, responsive, open to ideas, and they deliver.

Bringing Outline to the iPad in direct competition to Microsoft might be seen as brave, but it isn’t – far from it. Microsoft has shown that it’s too old, too tired, too big and too slow, and it will be attacked more and more by these low-cost, fast and responsive software developers who can steal its lunch now that the file formats have been opened up.

Now who is going to take the LibreOffice codebase and port it to iOS? And to Android? Assuming it would be chargeable, there are tens of millions of potential customers at a tenner each – add that up, and it soon becomes real money. Let battle commence.

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