Microsoft's Outlook Opens Up to an Uncertain Future

ZA102633891033.jpg.gif.jpegWhile most of us were too engrossed in the somewhat ephemeral news of Google’s new attempts at becoming social, something much more profound transpired — something that can have an impact on millions upon millions of people. Microsoft announced that it was opening up its Outlook format and giving external programs access to mail, calendar and contacts. I don’t know the reasons why Microsoft is taking this arguably high-stakes gamble.

Paul Lorimer, group manager of Microsoft Office Interoperability, wrote on the MSDN blog:

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.

Now you might be wondering what, exactly, is new. After all, developers can access data stored in the .pst file using Messaging API (MAPI) and the Outlook Object Model — two ways folks such as Plaxo and Clear Context access information on your Outlook client. The only problem is that those methods are arguably very slow.

ClearContext CEO Deva Hazarika in an email writes:

The announcement makes it sound like this opens up a wide range of ways to extend what people can do with Outlook data. However, if people are actually using Outlook, those files are locked by Outlook and can’t be accessed without using the Microsoft APIs. And even if they could be accessed, I’m not sure what the value prop is in trying to write a better set of access methods than the APIs already in place. So, I don’t think this means very much for “live” instances of Outlook usage.

So far most of the details from Microsoft are very sketchy and it isn’t clear when the company will reveal its complete plans. To me it seems like Redmond was reacting to pressure from the European Union, which wants to push Microsoft down the road to interoperability.

Or perhaps it was somewhat of a late realization by Microsoft that it could turn Outlook into a platform. Blogger and technologist Anil Dash has argued about the potential of Outlook as a platform for a very long time. While many plugins have come to the market, many have argued that Outlook is not an easy platform to work on. It takes a lot of effort — ask Xobni — to work with Outlook.

I sought the opinion of Gabor Cselle, one of our favorite technology people and founder of reMail. In his past life he worked at Google (on Gmail) and Xobni, so he knows a thing or two about email. “The ability to upload PSTs is one of reMail’s feature requests,” he said, pointing out that it won’t really change things very much because much of the access is available via MAPI and OOM. “If anything this will make it easier to switch away from Outlook; for example Google could just ask you to upload your PSTs to switch to Gmail + Gcal,” he said. “That would be my use case No. 1.”

Deva agrees and points out:

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.

However, I don’t see this really doing anything to bring new capabilities for Outlook users to interact with a new generation of cloud services integrating with their Outlook data. That kind of innovation is going to keep going through the existing APIs within Outlook. This mainly seems to me like a marketing move to counter criticisms/fears about the closed nature of Outlook/Exchange data, but doesn’t really provide a ton of benefit to most end-users.

What do you guys think?

This article also appeared on BusinessWeek.com.

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