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Improving the Outlook for Entourage

by Dale Dougherty
06/21/2002

Apple has changed its advertising strategy to feature users who have moved from a PC to Mac OS X. One person who ought to be featured prominently in the new ads is Paul Berkowitz, a classical pianist. However, it's not his musical abilities that should garner him more attention. In his spare time, Paul is an AppleScript developer trying to eliminate one of the major obstacles for PC users considering a move to Mac OS X: moving personal data from Windows Outlook to Entourage X.

I just made the move myself and while the adjustment to Mac OS X was minor for the most part, I had the expectation that moving from Outlook to Entourage would be easy, if for no other reason than that both popular programs are developed by Microsoft. I expected to find an import function in Entourage that would read Outlook's PST files directly. But I was surprised to learn that Entourage imports contacts from Outlook Express 5, Eudora, Netscape, Now Up-To-Date, Claris, and Palm, but not Outlook 2000. It does not import calendar data or notes from any of these programs. This certainly isn't going to help the average PC user who decides to switch to Mac OS X. (Over half the people in my group at O'Reilly have recently moved to Mac OS X from Windows machines--with the exception of one Linux user who made the move. Even more impressive, the new Mac OS X users bought the machines themselves.)

There is a workaround for the lack of Outlook-specific conversion utilities, exporting data from Outlook as tab-delimited fields in a text file. Then using Entourage's generic import tool, I created a mapping of Outlook fields into Entourage's equivalents. There are many mismatches: middle names are dropped, as are nicknames. If you ask Entourage to save everything it doesn't handle in the Notes field, you end up with garbage ("True" or "False", for instance). I tried this process twice with mixed results but I ended up having to live with this partial solution. Also, Entourage will only import contacts in this fashion.

It will not import calendar or task data. Importing email messages is less of a problem, if your email is on an Exchange server or you store your messages in an MBOX-format folder. Otherwise, the workaround for getting your old email messages out of Outlook is to copy your existing local email to a MAPI server and then download it to Entourage.

Paul Berkowitz's script package, Import-Export Entourage, can be downloaded from www.applescriptcentral.com. There is a $12.50 shareware fee. The scripts can be used to import and export 25 contacts only once each way for free as a demo.

One of the known problems with importing tab-delimited data is that some text strings are quoted during import. The workaround suggested by Microsoft's support site is to not use the export facility at all. Instead, it recommends that in Outlook you attach all of your contact information as Vcards (.vcf) and send them to your new account. Entourage, however, cannot import these Vcards as a batch. The user must open each card and click to add it to the Address Book. If your contacts number in the hundreds, this solution is obviously impractical.

I searched various newsgroups and Web sites through Google, after looking in vain on Mactopia. One name came up: Paul Berkowitz, who has developed a number of specialized AppleScripts for Entourage. I found a newsgroup posting that mentioned he was working on a set of export-import scripts for Entourage X based on work he had done for Entourage 2001. Just this week, Paul completed his work on V1.0 and released "Export-Import Entourage." It is an AppleScript package, available for download at www.applescriptcentral.com. I exchanged several email messages with Paul to learn more about his scripts. He told me:

"Basically, the scripts will export just about everything in Entourage to any other identity of Entourage (either version), to archive text files, and to Excel, and provide converters for exporting and importing a subset--Contacts, Calendar, Tasks, and Notes--to and from Outlook (all Windows versions and Outlook 2001 for Mac) and to other PIMs if they have Export/Import text file features."

He said that the scripts have taken him eight months to develop and "for the first and only time," he will make them available as shareware for $12.50. I asked him if he was surprised that Microsoft did not provide a conversion path for Outlook users. He defended the choices made by the Entourage team:

"The enormity of the operation made me realize that any sort of programming team--and the Microsoft Business Unit's Entourage sector at its Silicon Valley campus is really quite small, with just a few handfuls of programmers, program managers, and testers--would have to devote weeks or months to the effort, for something that people are most likely going to do only once. They do not have the luxury that the enormous Microsoft Outlook team has had to provide several kitchen sinks, so to speak.

Entourage X is still basically a v1.5 PIM outside its email functions, which are built on the already excellent Outlook Express Mac 5.0: Entourage is the best email program on any platform. The programming team had very short notice first to release Entourage 2001, then Entourage X, where they not only carbonized all code for Mac OS X but they also significantly improved the somewhat unfinished PIM features of 2001 in a very short space of time. I can well understand that it was much, much more important to devote the time to improving and fixing features people would be using every day than to a one-time transfer operation. Just look at the time it is taking them to produce the Palm conduits."

Dan Crevier of the Macintosh Business Unit (MBU) and Development Manager for Entourage said that they made a decision to choose the email clients and PIMs that were most important to their target users. "The set of clients we currently support were found to be the most common ones," he said, in email. "We did not find many users importing from Outlook to Entourage."

I find it hard to believe that there wasn't more interest in an easy Outlook-to-Entourage conversion path, given the dominance of Microsoft Office. It is certainly a path that most PC users will want to follow, and one can't help but feel that the MBU would be in conflict with Microsoft's greater mission to develop that path. Dan Gillmor encountered the problem and wrote about it earlier in the year. Most recently, Meg Hourihan faced the same frustrating problem as I did, and while she found her own imperfect solution, she commented "This took a very long time."

I don't fault Entourage as much as I do Outlook. Why is it so difficult to get my data out of Outlook so I can use it on another program? It's my data, and I need to transfer it and share it repeatedly. I want to share some of the data on the Web. I am able to move Word documents between my PC and my Mac OS X system. Why can't I transfer my personal data from one system to another? Don't lots of other people want to do this?

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I wish we had better standards in place (and companies willing to follow them) so that personal data was not locked inside the systems that manage it. As a user, open access to my data by multiple programs is far more important to me than access to the source of my programs. Microsoft benefits from locking me into Outlook, not me. Much of the magic of the Web is possible because HTML is an open format, however crusty, and other programs, not just browsers can access Web pages and add value (such as Google). Aside: Nike is running a series of bold, new commercials featuring Tiger Woods, who says his contract with Nike doesn't require him to use its equipment unless he finds it to be the best in the market. He says with amusement that it puts the pressure on Nike to be the best or else. If Microsoft is the best at what it does, then it shouldn't have to resort to this kind of lock-in of its contract with users. Let us choose the best.

I asked Paul if he had a sense that the underlying representation of the data in Entourage and Outlook was different and if that made the job of building this conversion package difficult. He said that the difference between the two data stores, which is at the heart of the problem, doesn't impact him because he's dealing with the text files created by Outlook's Export filter.

"It's not so much that they present the data in different ways, at least not in the user interface on the screen. In fact, Entourage must have borrowed Outlook's modes for calendar and tasks to quite an extent: users of one application will feel quite at home with the other. Basically, Entourage's presentation is more intuitive and attractive, while Outlook's is more complex and sophisticated. (I imagine that most Outlook users don't use one-twentieth of Outlook's power and probably would have to take a course in order to do so.) But the databases, which I have absolutely no direct access to, must be completely different and cannot speak to each other.

Historically, Microsoft's response to the debacle of Word 6 on the Mac, which was meant to be an exact version of Word 95 on Windows and was severely criticized by the Macintosh world for contravening Mac user guidelines, was to create the somewhat autonomous Macintosh Business Unit with the aim of giving Mac users a 'true Mac experience' in Microsoft products for the Mac. That decision was evidently carried out when developing Outlook Express Mac: although it looks like Outlook Express on Windows, it also owes some of its features to the earlier Mac-only application Claris Emailer.

Microsoft had the prescience to hire Jud Spencer, the progenitor of Emailer, after Apple discontinued it, and he and some of his team created OE Mac. Then Entourage was built on top of OE 5. So now that Entourage is coming to recreate many of Outlook's features on the Mac, it has done so by a completely different route. Certainly if Microsoft had instead just ported Outlook to the Mac, it would have been easier to transfer data from one to the other. But what we've got in Entourage is a beautiful, Mac-oriented application that could not have been arrived at by that route."

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