Why is Microsoft opening up its Outlook file format now?

Why is Microsoft opening up its Outlook file format now?

Summary: On October 26, Microsoft officials announced they were planning to open up the Outlook Personal Folders .PST file format and making it freely (and safely) licensable.

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On October 26, Microsoft officials announced they were planning to open up the Outlook Personal Folders .PST file format and making it freely (and safely) licensable. What no one has said so far is why is Microsoft doing this now and who will likely benefit from the move.

The file formats are due to be published in the first half of 2010. According to Network World, the Redmondians are publishing only documentation for the .PST format for Outlook 2010, not previous versions of Outlook.

Microsoft officials are saying that the decision to post the documentation for the .PST file format came from customers and partners. When I asked today what led to the decision to open the file formats, I received back the following statement attributable to Paul Lorimer, Group Manager, Microsoft Office Interoperability:

"Data portability has become an increasing need for our customers and partners as more information is stored and shared in digital formats. Customers were specifically asking for solutions to further improve platform-independent access to email, calendar, contacts, and other data generated by Microsoft Outlook."

I asked my followers on Twitter this morning if anyone out there was interested in using the .PST documentation for their own purposes. Not that this was a definitive or scientific survey by any means, but I got no responses -- other than a few people speculating that Google or Facebook might want to take advantage of the new open format to make their wares more Outlook-compatible.

I asked a couple of analysts for their take on why Microsoft might be opening the .PST format. Rob Helm, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, sent me the following response via e-mail:

"I suspect this decision came out of the European Union interoperability investigation. That investigation was launched in Jan. 2008 and covers the Office file formats and more generally, how interoperability affects competition with high-volume Microsoft products like Office. Microsoft seems to be moving toward a settlement that would close the investigation. The competition commissioner has said she would like to wrap her investigations into Microsoft before she leaves her post, and Microsoft would be happy if she pulled it off."

Helm said he expected some of Microsoft's competitors might want to make use of the newly documented formats.

"The big winners (from Microsoft's move to open .PST), will be vendors who want to compete with Exchange or Outlook. A lot of Outlook e-mail is lying around in .PST files, and competitors will be able to pick off users more easily if they can bring that mail into their own systems. The winners might include IBM Lotus, Oracle, and Google, and Cisco (which bought PostPath, an Open Source Exchange competitor)."

Helm 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." He added that he doubted that this was the main reason Microsoft opened the format.

Rob Sanfilippo, another Directions on Microsoft analyst had some related observations. Sanfilippo noted that there are already a lot of third-party tools that access .PSTs and do things like repair and ennumeration through their contents, "so the format has been reverse-engineered long before being published by Microsoft."

Sanfilippo 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."

There's nothing shameful about Microsoft opening up its Outlook formats in the hopes of appeasing antitrust regulators (if this is, indeed, why the Softies are doing this). But if this is the reason, why not say so, instead of leaving us skeptics to piece together later the real reasons behind their open promises?

Update (October 29): It took a couple of days, but Microsoft officials are now saying that the company never discussed the opening of the PST format with the European regulators. When I asked two days ago whether there was an antitrust connection, a spokesperson said that Microsoft had no comment. But today, the spokesperson said it was nothing other than customer and partner requests that led to the decision and not anything or anyone connected with the EU antitrust case.

Microsoft customers, partners and competitors out there: Do you care about the opening up of the .PST format? Why or why not?

Topics: Collaboration, Enterprise Software, Microsoft, Software

About

Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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39 comments
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  • Customer says: nope

    n/t
    davebarnes
  • Partner: Can't hurt

    If I had to list out things I'd like to see from Microsoft, this would not be on the top of the list, but it's a great move I think.

    People looking to move away from other mail systems could see more tools available that make the process easier. The same could also apply to people wanting to leave Microsoft.

    I see this as a way for Microsoft to say "Look, we make great enterprise products and we're working to become more open."

    A key talking point from Open Source and now Government is the fact Microsoft wants to lock people in. The more formats that become open from Redmond the better. At some point the OS community will run out of talking points about why Microsoft is so evil and actually have to compete on features and USER friendlyness.

    As a small business/startup owner, it's relieving to see more Microsoft formats become open in the sense Microsoft will not enforce patents on them. Wether you like it or not, Microsoft controls the market on Operating Systems, and many other applications. These changes will only increase innovation around Microsoft products.
    TylerM89
    • Thanks!

      [i]I see this as a way for Microsoft to say "Look, we make great enterprise
      products and we're working to become more open."[/i]

      That caused me to spit out my lunch!

      Really, with humour like that you should go on stage!
      rahbm
  • Coupled with...

    ...removing Outlook Express and Windows Mail from Windows, one has to wonder. I suspect the anti-trust issue more of a factor than most seem to think.

    Carl Rapson
    rapson
    • Would you blame them?

      EU is extremely trigger happy, especially with MS.
      LiquidLearner
      • Not a bit

        MS tried to head off the EC action against Internet Explorer by removing IE from Windows in the EU, but since legal action was already underway the EC could step in and counter it. It looks to me like MS is simply trying to avoid that in this case. Again, I suspect that MS has gotten wind of something in the works against its Outlook/Mail products. If MS can get this done and established before any official action, then MS can only be called out for past behavior, not current behavior. Much smaller opening for the EC to step in and run Microsoft further.

        MS learned its lesson with IE.

        Carl Rapson
        rapson
  • Reverse Psychology

    Not that I am an expert on psychology but M$ is giving children what they want to make them happier? Perhaps M$'s customers have been threatening to leave the fold because other options do not lock in their data. If M$ makes the data portable there is less anxiety. Less anxiety and the cost of migrating will keep some in the fold longer. The ones who will rush to take advantage of this change were likely to have gone sooner or later.
    pogson
    • Since when did a PST "lock in your data"?

      I'm confused. There are numerous utilities and programs that have no issue extracting data from PSTs already. Maybe you missed that part of the blog too.
      LiquidLearner
      • If you watch closely...

        ...You'll find that, while numerous utilities can import your data from Outlook, outlook must be installed.

        Try migrating from Outlook to Thunderbird. You can't just point to a PST file - you must have outlook installed.

        That's because the utilities are using MAPI calls to read the data and not doing so directly.
        Spikey_Mike
  • Bad technology, developed in the dark times

    of the windows abusive monopoly.

    "Helm 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.?"

    Helm is right. A single database type file store is
    disastrous for the reasons mentioned. Long live maildir!
    Richard Flude
  • RE: Why is Microsoft opening up its Outlook file format now?

    Because they are making good on their word to be a more open and compatible Microsoft.
    Loverock Davidson
    • More like to maintain dominance

      :)

      It's that simple, oddly.
      HypnoToad72
      • Why?

        Microsoft locks format for dominance and now that they are opening up more it is also for dominance. Quit licking that Hypnotoad..its starting to rot your brain.
        bobiroc
    • compatible with what? (nt)

      pgit
  • something smell fishy here

    MS never do anything except for it own good ....
    why would they do that ...

    we have to wait and see for the side attack and stabbing... one hint always where you bulletproof vest
    ...
    Quebec-french
    • Yep that's it

      Just like I said to hypnotoad they are damned if they do and damned if they don't. I tend to think Microsoft does many good things for its customers and treats education very well. I mean if they have been backstabbing for 20+ years then why did customers continue to choose them over the alternatives.
      bobiroc
      • easy 90% of people are idiot with no ethic

        People dont care and dont wanna hear about MS all they want is there OS working that all ....

        MS could be selling gun and babys nobody would care .....

        Its how pathetic human being is
        Quebec-french
        • perhaps...

          But why would you say that... it's not like people are stupid enought to elec... oh I see your point, never mind then.
          Ceridan
        • Nice opinion of your fellows

          I feel sorry for you if that's how you really view 90% of your fellow human beings.

          Carl Rapson
          rapson
          • i really dont understand why you should feel sorry

            cat a cat a duck is a duck and a idiot is a
            idiot .... plain and simple .

            The constant lack of ethic and responsibility
            have been shown each day ... people dont care
            , they are self centered , unable to grasp the
            larger picture. Lack the minimum intelligence
            to think for the greater good ... always me myself and i .

            So yes i dont feel that way about human being
            luckily there still 10% and most of the time
            its ok
            Quebec-french