Opening Up Microsoft Outlook to an Open Source and Standards Based Ecosystem

By | December 23, 2009

Many of our partners, customers, administrators and end users have seen the Microsoft announcement regarding a roadmap to document the Outlook Personal Storage Table (.pst) file format, and have expressed their curiosity about it’s impact on Zimbra products. While it is still unknown if documentation will provide enough insight on how to really unlock the Outlook PST, we see it as the first step in providing new functionality in future versions of Zimbra Collaboration Suite and Zimbra Desktop that access the terabytes of data in PSTs.

For more than a decade, many attempts have been made to understand the Outlook file format, and products have struggled to provide PST support on platforms other than Windows. All efforts have come up short for one reason or another. As Paul Lorimer mentions in his blog post: MAPI and OOM libraries have been available to access PST content, but those libraries are available only to Microsoft programs where Outlook is installed. This dependency forces customers contemplating an OS or platform switch to include email data portability as factor in their decision.

Customers believe this is not a long-term acceptable scenario.  As a result, the software industry is in the midst of a gradual transition, moving from proprietary API and data models to open source and standards based options to prevent data lock-in and to encourage data sharing across applications.  But why haven’t companies spent more time or moved more quickly to open-up their platforms and data given the market’s trend line?

Companies have externally argued that the standards are not complete, or are in conflict with competing standards or they have just not seen the customer demand.  Internally they traditionally weigh existing revenue and investment in developing their proprietary APIs against creating & implementing open formats with greater potential reach and less well understood revenue impact. What has resulted is a string of complicated interoperability and conversion tools, with limited features and ambiguous product life cycles.

There is a lot of discussion out there about the meaning of openness, as noted in the recent Google blog, which has certainly garnered it’s share of comments (see John Grubber’s response or Matt Asay’s response). Regardless of the larger ongoing debate, historically, Microsoft has used data formats, like PST, to create application lock-in and as a wedge to drive commercial business. This only works for so long. Customer benefit has little to do with the underlying data store and more about user features.

Zimbra was built on the belief that a winning recipe is balancing an open system and support for standards with the commercial aspects of the business. Zimbra has always provided access to our core application source code and has been a huge proponent of open formats, throwing strong support behind standards like CalDAV. This platform and technology openness, as Matt Asay points out, allows vendors to focus on solving customer problems, not on the nuances and licensing (i.e. control) of underlying data.

We applaud the effort by Microsoft to help free their user’s data and feel this announcement is another piece of evidence that the need for “openness” has surpassed critical mass. We eagerly await release of the final PST documentation.


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