Microsoft does right by freeing Outlook archives

Sometimes Redmond does the right thing. One example is its active effort to give Outlook users control over their data.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
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Stephen Shankland
2 min read

Plenty of people like to demonize Microsoft, but the company is capable of doing the right thing, too, even if that might not help its bottom line. A case in point: giving away the keys that had locked up customers' own Outlook records.

Microsoft has been gradually opening up the PST file format that stores personal data such as e-mails, contacts, and calendar entries. The latest move, on Monday, was the release of two open-source tools to see the contents of PST files; Microsoft also has shared PST documentation and put the PST data under the Open Specification Promise, under which Microsoft won't sue a party using the information for patent infringement.

Sun Microsystems co-founder Scott McNealy was fond of harping on the "barriers to exit"--the difficulties a person or customer could have in extricating data or processes from a particular technology. He often raised the issue as a defense for why potential customers weren't flocking to Sun's products, but his idea has more than self-serving merit. Outlook is a great example.

Outlook can archive data in PST files automatically or export data on demand with the format, but until relatively recently, Outlook was the only tool that could read a PST file thus stored. That was a significant disincentive for the large number of people and corporations using Outlook and its associated Exchange Server software that might be considering moving their e-mail system elsewhere.

If there's any doubt what's at stake here for Microsoft abiding by its interoperability principles, here are two data points that arrived Wednesday.

First, Google announced a tool to let individuals move PST file contents to Gmail, though it's only available to those whose e-mail is run by Google Apps Premier or Education Edition. Previously, only administrators could initiate that PST data transfer.

Second, David Ascher, chief executive of Mozilla Messaging, showed his interest in "anyone experimenting with using this code in an add-on to make the process of importing all one's data from Outlook into Thunderbird."

So yes, Microsoft stands to lose if rivals can slurp up Outlook e-mail archives. So why give away the keys? Here's how Microsoft explained it in a statement:

"The industry as a whole benefits from tools and information that enhance interoperability with our most popular products. The .pst documentation makes it easier for products from other vendors to interoperate with Outlook data," said William Kennedy, corporate vice president, Office Communications and Forms, at Microsoft. "Customers are telling us they need greater interoperability, and we believe that welcoming competition and choice will create more opportunities for customers, partners and developers."

So apparently customers don't enjoy Microsoft keeping control over PST file data. That really good reason for Microsoft to open up the format.

Locking in customers is a recipe for ill will that has the potential to last for a long time. It's far healthier for a technology business to keep its customers with technology they want to use, rather than with technology it's artificially expensive to leave behind.