Evolution of note taking

I have horrible handwriting as anyone who has worked with or received a note from me can attest. When we are young we are taught how to write uniform characters at about 1″ heights. To this day, this is the only legible writing you’ll find from me. Cursive was worse because my mangled script could be slurred together into unintelligible scribbles with errant dots and crosses thrown in for good measure.

My dad worked for IBM, so all throughout my childhood we had access to a computer and a fancy typewriter. As much as I could, I typed everything.

Fast forward to high school. In-class essays quickly ensured lots of face-time with the teacher as I would be asked to read large portions of my writing. Teachers weren’t amused.

This little bit of background was hopefully a nice segue into what has become an odd circle of note taking.

Spiral NotebookK-11th grade: Ahh yes, the spiral notebook. These were always impossibly unreadable – including by me

Handspring Visor12th grade: My Handspring Visor! I had to really convince my parents that I could spend my money on this at the time. I scratched down notes, made TODO lists, even set due dates for my assignments in the calendar. In the end, all I really did is play Infrared chess and Pong with Kent Thompson.

Crosspad12th grade – Freshman: The IBM Crosspad was, I believe, meant for fancy pants businessmen and lawyers. Leave it to me to ask for it for Christmas. Handwriting? Really? But it gets better! This device captures the pages and will do magic writing-to-text conversion. The downside, of course, is that it failed on every conversion with my handwriting, even with the laborious 100 page training guide. I made pretty graphs and emailed physics notes to Brandon once. Not too useful. I took this with me to KU and attempted to use it freshman year during the rare moment that I was awake. I ended up setting the alarm off in the libraries more often than actually using it.

Visor with Stowaway keyboardCollege – Freshman and Sophomore years: And I wonder why I wasn’t big with the ladies freshman year! I grabbed my Visor and added the Stowaway keyboard (full size, take that, laptops!) and actually took really good, outline-format notes. This was very handy, required 2 AA batteries, lasted for months, and was 100% reliable. Why change it up, right?

Microsoft WordJunior Year: During the summer between sophomore and junior year, I picked up a Toshiba laptop. At the time it was awesome. I ended up using MS Word to do my note taking in class. This worked out fine as all I was doing is taking down outline format notes with the occasional figure that could be recreated on the fly using wonderful Word Art. I also had a few professors that had Powerpoint lectures, so I could save myself the trouble of printing crappy PPTs and use their outlines. This laptop died a horrible death (I hate you, Toshiba, your laptops to this day have the same crappy, heat-damaging designs), which leads to…

OmniOutlinerSenior Year: I had my internship summer of 2004 and stashed away enough cash to get myself a 12″ Powerbook. I was the only guy with a Mac in any of my CIS courses and was chided daily by several professors, but I didn’t care. I used OmniOutliner to take my notes. It was really intuitive, which is saying something since it is replacing functionality that I had done before in notebooks, PDAs, and the ubiquitous MS Word. It had custom flags you could put on items, categories, fast searching, and a pretty UI.

OnenoteToday: I eventually entered the working world and migrated my way to a decent job. The fun years of OS X were replaced by the same horrible Windows XP that I left behind in 2002, on an updated but equally troublesome business-grade Toshiba laptop. I had to adapt. That’s when I started using OneNote. I really like it and still use it today. It has it’s quirks and usability issues, but it’s stable enough to document out just about everything. I also put most of my sharable notes back into our team Wiki. Unfortunately, even in a company that is predominantly IT, there is a stigma against laptops in some meetings. I also find myself watching Explorer lock up through good portions of my day, so I need a backup datasource.

MoleskinEnter my Moleskin. I have the smallish gridpaper one. It has a band to keep it closed, quality paper, a bookmark, and a pocket in the back. I still can’t read my handwriting consistently, but I have an intricate system of checkboxes and symbols to at least have a gist of what I was talking about. I can also scan these notes directly into Onenote for consolidation.

So, I still can’t write, but I’ve gone full circle in my note taking habits.

What does this really mean? Why haven’t we got to the paperless world we have been promised? Even today pulling out a notebook is more reliable and faster than grabbing a laptop. With the new laptops having more instant-on functionality with more impressive battery life, we’re getting closer. The big device that I’m looking for is an ultraportable with a tablet’s screen. 5+ hours of battery and a full-size keyboard would be even better. I guess I can hope that the Air will get an upgrade to make the screen have pen-recognition, right?