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?

Google Docs to surpass Office in a year

Now this is interesting. Comments from Google’s president of the enterprise division indicate he believes that Google Docs will “reach a ‘point of capability’ next year that it will serve the ‘vast majority’s needs.'”

He acknowledged that Docs is currently “much less mature” than Google Mail or Calendar. “We know it. We wouldn’t ask people to get rid of Microsoft Office and use Google Docs because it is not mature yet,” he said.

But this is expected to change in about a year, after the company’s introduces another “30 to 50” updates.

Less mature by a long shot in my experience. Every time I’ve tried to edit spreadsheets using the software I’ve thrown my hands up in frustration very early on in each attempt. Granted, I think I’m nearing the stage of “advanced” Excel user (I should hope I am by now anyway), but I find the assertion that Google Docs will be eclipsing Office in only a year’s time to be unbelievable.

We shall see once those 30-50 updates are released into the wild. For now, hang on to your desktop office suite if you’re producing professional documents.

Has anyone else attempted to use Google Docs (or Zoho) to replace Office for professional work? How did it turn out?

Preview Microsoft Office 2007 in the browser

As long as your browser is Internet Explorer 5.5 or higher, you can take the latest edition of Microsoft Office for a test drive without having to install a thing. Experience the bliss of the ribbon, the new UI metaphor that has already won my heart over. I loathe still having to do my work in Office 2003, which we still use at the firm. I can’t wait till we upgrade, but you don’t have to — test it now!

Accounting gets a shot of adrenaline

Bill Kennedy’s getting it done at Energized Accounting, a relatively new blog hosted by Google’s Blogger that so far has been host to some inspirational posts for me. The latest is all about a favourite topic of mine, data visualization:

If you want effective communications, you have to take responsibility for both the sending and the receiving of the message. You have to take into account how your stakeholders take in messages. Some people are just confused by spreadsheets.

Bill’s a CA and is from Toronto, making him a pretty cool guy right away. But his posts reveal his enthusiasm for helping his clients. He talks a lot about Microsoft Dynamics GP, which a lot of my clients use as well. I’m hoping to learn a thing or two that might help me help my clients!

From the sounds of things we’re on the same page in terms of providing clients with their financial information in innovative and illuminating ways.

On an interesting side note, Bill links to Francine’s blog and labels it satire! Oh, if only.

Microsoft plunges into social networks with accounting and finance site

This is probably the type of thing I should be blogging about. The phrase “right in my wheelhouse” comes to mind. The intersection of several of my favourite things: accounting, technology, and social networks.

Microsoft Dynamics logoMicrosoft has announced a new “community” around Dynamics Live specifically for accounting and finance professionals. The site isn’t named yet but if you join now you can participate in the poll to rename it and vote for any of three uninspiring names: Capital Chat, Finance Forum, or Net Knowledge.

I joined up, the better to assess its chances at gaining a foothold in a rapidly evolving sphere.

Networks are only as good as their users, and LinkedIn already has a bundle of them. I wonder whether another network focused on this demographic, even if its further specializes at first in accounting and finance, can really offer something new.

Microsoft is planning to advertise the community through their Dynamics product, but the community may be perceived to be advertising for their other products.

I’ve read that Dynamics has respectable market penetration, and personal experience bears that out as several clients I personally work with use it. If Microsoft can harness their current users into producing quality content for the community, they may hold the key to attracting new users.

What do you think?