Moving Data Out of Outlook

I’ve felt uneasy for a while that important data – for example, my Contacts – is sitting in Outlook, in an enormous and opaque database file (.pst). Okay, it’s backed up, but if it became ‘corrupted’ and wouldn’t open, then I have no way of recovering the data, that I know of. Why should I have to open Outlook, just to find someone’s website, or phone number? The whole idea of organizing your life within a single application seems terribly outmoded. I just want a mail client that handles message send and receipt; all the information I want to be in the ‘outside world’.

Retrieving data can be pretty painful too. I’ve just clicked on the ‘Activities’ tab of a contact, and it’s taken over 2 minutes to come back with about 20 items. While there is free-text search, there is no proper query access.

Outlook’s data model is baroquely large – a futile attempt to cover all possibilities. I’m looking at the class ContactItem, and it has nearly 150 attributes. I can have NickName, TelexNumber (telex?) and YomiFirstName (something Japanese); but I can only have three email addresses and one webiste URL.

So what’s the alternative? What I’d like is for each item (contact, whatever) to be a web page in a local (private) website. New pages could be created, edited and added as necessary. The information is all fully accessible using basic or more sophisticated editors. Website and mailto links work normally – the latter opening a mail client, as usual.

As it happens I’m using a document repository for XML documents, including those in XHTML. This runs on a Jetty server, at a localhost port. The repository can be browsed as a directory hierarchy, free-text searched, and queried (using XQuery). Because the repository is fully indexed, the search and query are very fast. I can create/edit documents in the repository directly, without the need to export/import, using a WebDAV-enabled editor.

So, to populate the repository initially, I would need to export my existing contacts from Outlook in some way. Exporting items as XML or HTML directly is beyond Outlook (up to and including v2007). So I’m thinking that I could write a custom export to XHTML – nothing complicated, just a simple page with tables. Elements, such as the table cells, would be given standard id attributes to indicate the content type – such as ‘company’, ‘address’; these can then be used in queries, analogously to column names in SQL.

In terms of the design, I’m wondering about a custom class, say ContactAdapter, which would wrap a ContactItem, and build the complete XHTML string, and write it to a file (using the Scripting library for the file access). I’ve not done anything like this before, so we’ll see. I suppose that I could export the data to Excel, and work on it there, but dealing with rows and columns is less direct than working with the actual ContactItem objects in Outlook.

More anon…

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