September 29, 2003

Moving Countries Is Easier Than Moving Email Clients

There are many things that are difficult about moving countries, and we had lists containing hundreds of items to remind us of that. The lists seemed to have a life of their own – 10 items would get crossed off, 12 items would get added – they were like a beast with an unquenchable appetite.

Just before we left my PC blew up, and so I took a deep breath and added “Buy a new computer” to the end of the list. This happened so close to our departure date that I only picked up the computer two days before we left. And because of that, I had no chance to check that my old system disk actually worked on it.

For the past several days I have been pulling my hair out trying to recover 450 names and addresses, along with some 5000 emails stored in Outlook on that old PC. I’d been thinking about writing something about it for this weblog even though it’s a little off-topic, but after reading Phil Greenspun’s article entitled Let’s Bash Microsoft Today I just couldn’t help myself. At the end of his article he asks people to add comments describing what they dislike about Microsoft. Adding my comments was the perfect antidote to the venom I’ve been feeling for the last couple of days.

The gory details of my trials are contained in the extended entry portion of this article rather than inline, both because it is quite long, and because it would probably bore most of you gentle readers to tears.

But whether or not you read the extended entry, never fear, there is a mildly Cornwall related moral to this story. Here in Cornwall there are hundreds of public footpaths that criss-cross the country-side, and there’s a long and deep history of certain things belonging to the public trust, and being done for the common good. What I learned from this hair-pulling email-conversion experience is that while I can’t change Microsoft’s lock-in policies, I can use the software equivalent of the public footpath – non-proprietary formats, and cross-platform tools – as often as possible.


Here’s my hair-pulling tale of dealing with Microsoft lock-in:

In answer to PhilG, what do I hate about Microsoft? I hate lock-in. But what I really hate is that it took 2 days to get MY addresses and emails out of MY outlook.pst files.

We’ve just moved to England from San Francisco, and my PC motherboard crapped out just before we left. It was a 5 year old PC, so I bought a new one, took the old disks out of my old system, including my old system disk, and brought them with me. This happened just before we left, and as I picked up the computer two days before departing I didn’t have enough time to test that the old system disk worked in the new PC before we left. When I got here I tried to boot the old system disk. No luck – blue screen on startup related to a bad disk driver. Luckily I had a USB disk enclosure that let me mount the old startup disk. And this is where my list of things I hate about Microsoft begins:

#1. I found a document on the M$ site that told me how to edit the registry to add support for all types of generic disk drivers. But I can’t do this because there’s no way to tell regedit to edit the registry on another disk. Lock-in.

#2. Thank gawd I think, I have my Server 2000 disk with me. So I boot up with the CD and do a repair. Still won’t boot.

#3. I spend a couple of hours surfing the web (on my iBook), and finally find a document on a non-MS site that explains that the first repair option is useless, you want to choose Install, and then choose the second Repair option. I do that, and reboot…and voila, it boots (though the video is stuck as VGA and the USB and Firewire don’t work). I launch Outlook. It won’t launch, because it’s lost all of my registry settings doing the “repair", and it wants me to reinstall Office, including Outlook. Why I wonder, if none of my other program’s registry settings were affected, why have I lost my Office registry settings? Could it be lock-in?

#4. So reinstall Outlook you’re probably saying. Unfortunately my Outlook disk is in the middle of the Atlantic, on a boat along with my bike and other possessions, and it won’t be here for another 3 weeks. Am I going to buy another copy of Outlook? Fat chance. So I decide to see if I can find a program that will import the outlook.pst file.

#5. I wonder if Outlook Express will import Outlook files. I reboot using the new system disk (by this time I have swapped system disks over 12 times, and it’ll be at least another 12 before I’m done here). I choose Import. It asks from where. I choose Outlook. It tells me I need to have Outlook installed. Huh? Where’s the Open File dialog letting me choose the outlook.pst file to import? Oh yeah, lock-in.

#6. I’ve about had it with Outlook right about now, and decide that I’m going to ditch Outlook and move my addresses to something else. I get back onto the web and see if I can find a program that will parse the outlook.pst file directly. Nothing. Everything seems to need Outlook installed and running. Except one entry on Slashdot which mentions a Linux conversion program whose programmer got a cease and desist letter from Microsoft. More lock-in.

#7. I download Mozilla, and use its Import facility. It too needs Outlook installed. I look at the Mozilla source and see what registry settings it’s using. I swap disks, get the registry settings off my old disk, swap disks again, add them to my new registry. Doesn’t work. More lock-in.

#8. Desperate times call for random motion. I reboot the old system disk and start Outlook Express. The first thing it does is ask if I want to import my files from Outlook. What? Wow! I guess there’s some remant of an Outlook registry setting left sitting around. So I say yes, and voila I’ve got all my addresses and emails in Outlook Express. Whew, 450 names and addresses safe. Or maybe I should just call them visible at this point.

#9. Great, let’s see if I can upgrade the drivers on this old system disk so it works with this new motherboard (which has Firewire, USB, etc.). I insert the Intel drivers CD, and the first thing it does is tell me I don’t have an Intel motherboard. Oh come on, it’s not really looking in the registry to decide what board I’ve got? Surely it’s smart enough to poke the motherboard directly? Nope, more lock-in.

#10. After almost 2 days I have come to realize I’m going to have to give up on using this old system disk, and ever again using the 100+ programs I’ve got installed. But how do I move my Outlook Express files to the new system disk? I try Export. I can export the addresses into a text file, but there’s no way to export the emails except into Outlook or Exchange formats. More lock-in.

#11. Maybe I can just move the Outlook Express files directly. No help on the Microsoft site. But after a little digging I see a bunch of .dbx files that Outlook Express is using. I copy them to the right directory on the new system disk. I swap disks again. Reboot. And…yes, I now have Outlook Express running on my new system disk and all my old addresses and emails.

Total running time: 2 days, plus at least 10 examples of lock-in.

The story doesn’t stop there, though this entry will, as I’ve decided to move the addresses and emails to my iBook. But that will have to be a story for another day.

Posted by: Frank @ 2:11 pm — Filed under:

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