November 18th, 2002 is a day I am not likely to forget. I was in Las Vegas for Comdex. We had been running silent on OneNote from the beginning, not mentioning it more than necessary internally, and certainly not to anyone outside of Microsoft except some handpicked individuals we could trust. Today was the big day - we were going to announce the existence of OneNote.
I should back up a bit. Up until two months before the announcement, we were still using the codename "Scribbler". The team had grown quite fond of it. But there was a problem - or rather several. Scribbler was already used by some other software. Not note-taking software, but as far as trademark law goes, stuff that was close enough to us in "thought-space" that we could be deemed by a court somewhere to infringe on the other Scribblers (there were actually several). And I don’t have to tell you that when Microsoft gets into any court proceeding against a small entity - defense or plaintiff - facts aside, the chance that we come out ahead is pretty small. Everybody loves the underdog, especially juries. Some of you reading this probably think that Microsoft wins all its court battles. See "The Myth" below for details on that concept. We're the biggest, fattest legal target out there. There are people who make a living trying to find some legal loophole where they can get us in court and then try to get us to settle for at least our future legal fees if the case were to go forward.
Anyway, there were other issues with "Scribbler". For one, it sounds like handwriting. And we were already suffering inside Microsoft from "The Myth" about being limited to use on TabletPC. Having a name that reminded people of handwriting would cement that. It also sounds like it isn't valuable (how much are scribbles worth?).
Around May of 2002 we put a poster on our hallway wall and started taking suggestions for the official product name. We got a lot of good ones, and some others that still crack me up. "Dude, where's my notes?" is a classic. One that we particularly liked was named after a celestial object which had just been discovered named Quaoar. We figured that since it had been discovered that week, there couldn’t possibly be a product named after it yet, so we had it all to ourselves. The fact that it was unpronounceable without hearing someone else say it first and even then it was a mouthful made it all the more attractive. We got ourselves into fits imagining BillG or someone in PR trying to introduce the product, stopping, squinting at the teleprompter, and gargling on "Qwa-o-wa-o-ar?". Still gets me.
Our product management (i.e. marketing) team retained a naming consultant. It turns out that just about every English word and even many non-words are already off-limits when you go to name a product in just about any industry. So there are people who make a living producing potential names for things. It is not just random letter generation - they try to develop names that promote the concept of the product and achieve other goals the marketing team has. They then rank the names, try out a short list of top candidates on real people to get their reactions, and finally do a legal search to make certain that the name is safe. All that without using any real words. Tough job.
The list of names we sent from our poster to the consultancy, real and humorous, were all rejected on various grounds and the consultancy came up with a set that might be OK. A more sorry set of names there never was. At the bottom of the naming barrel were such exhilarating concept names as "NoteFile", one which called out to me because it conjured up images of a poor high school intern stuck in the dusty back room of a law firm, filing away other people's notes for minimum wage. I can't remember the others, but they could just as well have been "WasteBasket", "PhoneBill", and "HairBall".
We requested another go-round, and in the next set there was our future name. At first it was a diamond in the rough, to put it nicely. "one-note" was (and still is) an expression for something that has only one capability, or limited talent. A web search turned up numerous unflattering references to people with one-note talent (Britney Spears as an actress), a one-note book review, or Johnny One-Note, a musician of limited technique. But the tests on the public didn’t have that problem – it was not widely known as an idiom. It had both high concept - "one" as in "one place for all your notes" - and "note", which was phonetically strong as a final syllable, as well as anchoring the purpose of the application into its name, which we were assured was important for recall later on. So, we were christened: OneNote to rule them all.