Opening up Outlook’s data format

In Q4 last year, Microsoft announced through its Interoperability @ Microsoft blog that it was planning to open up its proprietary PST email format used by Outlook.

The data in .pst files has been accessible through the Messaging API (MAPI) and Outlook Object Model (two things of which my understanding is minimal at best), but only if the user has Outlook installed:

In order to facilitate interoperability and enable customers and vendors to access the data in .pst files on a variety of platforms, we will be releasing documentation for the .pst file format. This will allow developers to read, create, and interoperate with the data in .pst files in server and client scenarios using the programming language and platform of their choice. The technical documentation will detail how the data is stored, along with guidance for accessing that data from other software applications. It also will highlight the structure of the .pst file, provide details like how to navigate the folder hierarchy, and explain how to access the individual data objects and properties.

The documentation will be released under Microsoft’s Open Specification Promise, which means that it is protected against patent claims. Other Microsoft Office formats, such as the XML-based .docx and .xlsx, and the older binary formats .doc and .xls, are covered under this promise.

This seems like a big win for users of Microsoft Outlook. Along with CodePlex, which hosts open source projects, it seems like Microsoft is slowly opening things up and making life easier for their customers. It certainly has the potential to make it easier for customers to leave the Outlook platform. From GigaOM:

In the past, if someone was moving from Outlook/Exchange to Gmail or any other platform, there was a pretty tedious process of exporting pieces of data from Outlook into various formats before moving over to the new platform. Basically, once you didn’t have Outlook, that .pst was a useless brick of data. Now in that case you’ll be able to take that .pst file with you and if other apps/platforms build readers, they will be able access that data. So migration to other platforms is a valid use case where there’s some benefit.

Some more ideas as to the reasons why Microsoft is making this change were floated on ZDnet a day after the announcement:

[Rob Helm, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft,] added that he believed Microsoft is trying to wean large customers from storing mail in .PST files or file systems “because doing that makes it hard for organizations to back up all their e-mail, enforce e-mail retention policies, and locate relevant e-mails during legal discovery.”

Not just retention, but perhaps helping organizations mine their email data for knowledge which can all too frequently be lost forever if an employee leaves the company? Here’s an idea: How about a tool that will gather information from emails dating back years and populate a wiki automatically for new employees?

[Rob Sanfilippo, another Directions on Microsoft analyst] added that .PSTs “are used most frequently for archiving purposes and Exchange Server 2010 includes a new server-based Personal Archive feature that gives users a separate mailbox to use for archiving on the server instead of using a PST.” He said this gives weight to the aforementioned idea that Microsoft is trying to help organizations get users off PSTs and onto server storage.”

Then, in February of this year, the promised documentation was released on the MSDN website. Finally, about a month ago, two open source tools that make use of the documentation were released on CodePlex:

  • The PST Data Structure View Tool is a graphical tool allowing the developers to browse the internal data structures of a PST file. The primary goal of this tool is to assist people who are learning .pst format and help them to better understand the documentation.
  • The PST File Format SDK is a cross platform C++ library for reading .pst files that can be incorporated into solutions that run on top of the .pst file format. The capability to write data to .pst files is part of the roadmap will be added to the SDK.

The project has seen some exciting progress, which is good news for organizations that use Outlook. And as you might know, data visualization used to enhance understanding is a favourite topic of mine!

What risk do these developments address within Outlook’d organizations? Knowledge/information management is critical to so many companies. The use, retention and (hopefully) reuse of knowledge developed by employees and stored in email conversations within Outlook will be enhanced through this openness.

Has your organization taken these developments into account in your audits of knowledge/information management and strategy?


Using wikis or blogs to manage knowledge in firms

A recent article on WebCPA confused and inspired me:

Accounting firms need to become more intelligent businesses by better leveraging the time and knowledge of their professional staff, according to a survey…


Firms with a formal knowledge management program benefited from its implementation.

Hmm… Intelligence, good. Leveraging knowledge, check. Formal knowledge management program, bingo! Wait a minute, “formal”? Why must it be formal? With all the tools kicking around these days like wikis and blogs, does knowledge management really need to be formal anymore? Was that ever the best way to manage knowledge?

I think it becomes formal, informally. Wikis are self-organizing, and great at managing knowledge bases. Look at Wikipedia — better at organizing the world’s information than Google.

Wikis aren’t great at building community or starting conversations, however. This is where blogs shine. As for knowledge management specifically, blog posts are tagged, categorized, and searchable.

By formal, what they must really mean is traditional, hierarchical, top-down, autocratic systems that mean well but end up stifling the creativity of those they were meant to help. We really don’t need any more of that in accounting firms!

So, firms: Set your knowledge (and knowledge workers) free. If it organizes itself automatically in wiki or blog form, it’s yours forever.


Economist claims accountant obsolescence

An esteemed Princeton economist has predicted that accountants, lawyers and other highly educated and highly paid workers in the developed world will be made obsolete in the near future by lower cost alternatives in the developing world.

From the best accountants and lawyers to the smartest derivatives traders to teachers and lecturers, many of today’s most prestigious jobs could, thanks to globalization and improved communications technology, just as easily be done more cheaply in places such as India and China.

I’m skeptical, and not just because I’m on his extinction list.

Some occupations are safe, of course. Investment bankers, who have to take out their clients and sweet-talk them are more likely to survive than derivatives traders, who could as easily be elsewhere. Clearly, for example, most of the health profession will still have to remain in situ.

There’s why. If you’re just sitting at a desk crunching numbers, you’re already replaceable. It’s the soft skills like being a good communicator that separates the accountants with job security from the ones who could be half way around the world. How is it that investment bankers are the only ones who are safe due to this reason? Why is the economist ignoring this aspect of professionals’ jobs? What about culture as well? Is being a good advisor really learnable?


Sell your services over the phone using Ether

A week ago I was trading blog posts with David Rachford about accountants marketing their professional services using MySpace. The discussion had resulted in both of us signing up with the mega-popular site in an effort to understand the potential opportunities.

Results are still out on that avenue, but out of the Web 2.0 ether, comes Ether. How it works, according to them, emphasis mine:

We all have something valuable to say. Whether you’re an accountant, a computer expert, a blogger, or a good gossiper, you can earn money selling what you say to others over the phone or through email.

Sounds like an interesting use for the new web. The step-by-step details:

  1. You sign up on the site and set up an Ether phone number.
  2. You set a price for your services, either per the hour or the minute.
  3. You decide when you want to take calls.
  4. Then you market your Ether phone number and people give you a call when they want to pay you for your knowledge.

Sounds pretty cool actually, and although I can’t see myself building a career out of something like this, I could see someone with some basic accounting knowledge (a bookkeeper, perhaps) selling it to those who need the information.

What do you think?