Microsoft Fills In Gaps in Mac OS X Support

Friday Mar 24th 2006 by John Welch

Datamation Columnist John Welch says the newest update to the MacBU makes Entourage play a whole lot nicer with the rest of the Mac OS X.

With the release of the 11.2.3 update, the Microsoft Macintosh Business Unit -- aka the MacBU -- has filled some rather important gaps in how well Entourage, the PIM/Email component of Office 2004, plays with the rest of Mac OS X.

By adding support for Mac OS X's Spotlight search and Sync Services, the MacBU has helped Entourage, and the data it keeps, become accessible to other applications.

The first new feature is Spotlight support, which has always been tricky.

This is due to the fact that Entourage keeps its data in a single database file. Now, I'm not going to get into the debate over if that's good or not, except to say that I've been using Entourage as long as anyone outside of Microsoft, and I've been pleased with it since day one.

However, while a database has advantages for many things, Spotlight isn't one of them. Spotlight is not able to really search through databases. So Microsoft borrowed a trick from Apple and set up the new Spotlight support so it makes a text copy of every email, task, contact and note in the Entourage database, and stores those text files in ~/Library/Metadata/Microsoft/Entourage/2004/.

Because we're talking about plain text files, the size of this information is much smaller than the database they come from. On my Powerbook, my database is 922.7MB in size. My Spotlight Cache is 112.9MB. So you're not losing a lot of space.

Note that Entourage is not the only application to do this. Apple's Address Book does the same thing, as it keeps its data in a database too. So, if nothing else, you get an extra backup of your Entourage data.

There are more benefits to this than just backups though. One of Entourage's weaknesses has been its ''quick search'' in the toolbar. If you have a lot of items to search through, it can take far too long to run a search, and it's rather limited. While Spotlight can have its issues, as a front-end search to Entourage, it's zippy as heck. In addition, you can save Spotlight searches in ''Smart Folders'' so if it's a search you run a lot, you can have it at your fingertips. The Entourage Metadata Importer file is well-built and complete, so you can search for any part of any data in Entourage. If you double-click on something that Spotlight found in Entourage, that item opens in Entourage. It's a nice touch.

The Sync Services support is the other half of the Entourage improvements, and for many, especially in the Enterprise, the more important half. First, though, a quick explanation of what Sync Services is and isn't. According to Apple's article Integrating Sync Services into Your Application:

''Sync Services provides a powerful and extensible mechanism that enables data to move seamlessly between multiple Macs, devices, such as mobile phones and PDAs, and network services.''

While previous versions of Mac OS X had some sync ability, via the iSync application, Sync Services is a much bigger idea. In Mac OS X 10.4, iSync is only used to talk to external devices, such as PDAs and phones. Sync Services allows applications to share data between themselves without needing user interaction. So, for example, if I add a contact in a Sync Services application, that data will be available to all Sync Services- enabled applications without needing user interaction. So, every application that supports contact data and Sync Services would automatically be kept up-to-date.

This is how it works with Entourage. You enable Sync Services in Entourage across three items: Contact information, Calendar/Task information, and Notes. For the first two, if you work in an Exchange environment, you can specify if you want to point your local Address Book/Calendar at Sync Services or the Exchange versions. Once you enable it, there's an initial sync, and then it's all automatic. I change a contact in Entourage, it filters out to Address Book.

If I use .Mac syncing, which I do, then all my information is stored there, too, and I don't have to differentiate between Entourage and anything else. It's all handled by Sync Services. If I need to sync a phone to my Mac, and it's supported by iSync, which doesn't directly support Entourage without third-party plugins, it's not a problem, because the data in Entourage also is in Address Book and iCal, which are directly supported by iSync. No extra plugins. It just works. If you use Plaxo, which has an Address Book plugin for Mac OS X, you can now have your Entourage data up on Plaxo without having to do separate imports. It just works.

In my experience, 'it just works' describes it well.

The changes propagate automatically, so I don't have to do anything, and it takes about 20 seconds for things to show up across Sync Services applications. The Plaxo plugin handles this with no problem, and now Plaxo is finally useful to me.

Since I use a Windows Mobile device, once Mark/Space comes out with the 2.0.3 update, which will support Sync Services, my syncing experience there will become much nicer. Mark/Space's Palm application already supports Sync Services, so now I no longer need a specific Entourage conduit. The .Mac integration works really well too, making .Mac much more useful to me. Since Entourage allows me to use Exchange data, if I want, I can have my Exchange data syncing with all of this. For those in an Exchange environment, this is pretty handy, especially if you use multiple Macs. Sync Services and Entourage also provide a good answer for why should anyone use .Mac?

Now, there are some caveats.

Since Address Book and Entourage have different ideas of what an IM client is, that data doesn't get propagated from Entourage, and it ignores it from Address Book. Neither iCal nor Address Book have any concept of categories, so Entourage categories only show up in Entourage. Since iCal supports multiple calendars and no categories, and Entourage supports limited calendars and lots of categories, when Entourage syncs with iCal, it creates a calendar named 'Entourage' and shoves all calendar, task, and note information into that one calendar. It's a little kludgy, but a functional solution to this problem. It also makes it very easy to see what information in iCal is synchronizing with Entourage.

I wrote an article about two years ago called Set iSync Free, and the premise of the piece was that contrary to popular thought, all applications did not need to use the same data store. What was needed was a transparent way to share data between applications and computers that happened automatically without the user having to set up applications and plugins.

With Sync Services, Apple did that, and now with the 11.2.3 update, Entourage is no longer a stand-alone data store. As more applications, like Entourage and Bare Bones' Yojimbo, plug into Sync Services, you're going to see a radical change in how people view things like synchronization in general, as it will go from this manual thing you have to do to a part of everyday use.

That will be a very good thing.

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