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Inside OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion GM: Mail 6.0 & Notes

Freestanding new Notes app

Apple first added Notes as a feature in OS X 10.5 Leopard's Mail 3.0. Notes were simply specialized emails without a recipient, intended to be treated as an internal draft. They were distinguished from other emails by being presented as if on a bright yellow notepad, and using a handwritten style font.

Back in 2007, it was noteworthy when Notes were revealed to eventually sync with the iPhone, albeit only if they were in plain text (below).

Leopard Note Sync

At the time, iPhone had debuted with its own "Notes" application, but it only allowed users to export its notes as emails and did not offer any form of text import or desktop sync. Fast forward to today, and iOS devices can now sync Notes between themselves via iCloud and the Notes feature (basically a special Mailbox) in OS X Lion's current Mail 5.0.

Still missing on iOS is the ability to handle rich HTML notes with graphics. While you can drag a graphic into a Note, iOS devices currently only see a paperclip icon as a placeholder for the attached images (something that should improve in iOS 6 later this year). Both OS X and iOS currently support hyperlinks in synced Notes.

In Mountain Lion, Notes moves from a feature of Mail to being is own iOS-like app. The Mountain Lion version of Notes has an appearance very similar to the iPad, with notes organized across the email accounts they are tied to and the folders the user has created for them (below).

Under Mail, Notes behaved more like email drafts, with a toolbar featuring buttons for file attachments and custom font selections. In Mountain Lion, Notes inches closer to being a simple word processor, but not quite assuming the role of TextEdit.

Notes provides basic search across all your accounts (but not Mail 6.0's inline search of terms within a particular note), and you can now add basic formatting with numbered lists, bullets and custom fonts. The system lets you set the default font to the handwritten Marker Felt, an alternative Noteworthy font with a hand printed appearance, or the standard Helvetica.

You can still format your note with other fonts, and add attachments. However, rather than attaching via file selection, you just drag and drop graphics into place. A Share Sheet button lets you export a note as an email or text message, and you can take the app Full Screen for a distraction free notepad experience (shown below).

Double click on a note in Notes, and you get what looks a bit like a Stickies window: a free standing note that doesn't disappear when you close the main Notes window (below).

Note that Stickies has stuck around in Mountain Lion, although it's not clear if anything significant has changed. Given the overlap between Stickies and Notes and TextEdit, it might seem like it would be nice to have it all converge in one unified app that covers all the bases. How many note taking apps does OS X need?

TextEdit vs Notes

Of course, TextEdit is document centric while Notes, on the other hand, is email based. You don't save Notes as documents; they just exist as email drafts until you either send them or delete them.

One could anticipate that the next version of OSX and iOS might deliver a Notes app that allows users to doodle, draw, and markup graphics using some of the features of Preview, storing these Notes as specialized email drafts that can be synced between mobile devices and the desktop. Apple could even overtly tie in its Inkwell technology to provide printed handwritten recognition (although Notes, like every other app, already supports Dictation on Mountain Lion and iOS, which is far handier for most users as an alternative to typing than trying to write with a stylus or their finger).

At the same time, as you try to fold into Notes the "almost a word processor" functionality of TextEdit, including support for tabs, tables and line breaks, you'd turn Notes from a simple way to take or Dictate notes into something that's now rivaling Pages. While there's plenty of overlap between the bare bones TextEdit and the simple Notes, it's also very easy for users to move ideas from one to another, depending on the task.

Too much convergence and you'd lose the simplicity of Notes that makes it easy to open up and immediately use, on the Mac, an iPad or even your iPhone. For now, it appears Notes is remaining a simple editor on purpose.