Weekend project complete – move from Office 365 to Outlook.com

As you may or may not be aware, my personal email (with “vanity” domain) is hosted on Office 365. Yes, that business service which charges $6/month for Exchange, SharePoint and Lync Online. I have had it since they launched the small business and professionals plan.

Since then, Hotmail has gone from being the dull and boring email service no one wants to be associated with, to a beautiful and modern Outlook.com. While Hotmail always provided the ability to use custom domains, I never thought of using that option because it was not a great email service. For example, there was no easy way to connect to it from a desktop email client unless you use Outlook Express or Windows Live Mail. Outlook added a Hotmail Connector but it always felt like a hack. And of course, there’s mobile.

With Outlook.com, what’s nice is that it supports Exchange Active Sync out of the box. No connectors needed. No jumping through hoops. 2-way sync, push support and all that jazz. For free. I have been tempted to move my domain email to this combination except that my mailbox is fairly huge (5GB) and I was not sure if I will be able to move the entire thing and I was not even sure how long it would take.

So I did some quick experiments with my existing Hotmail account and realized that via IMAP, I am able to move my emails fairly quickly over Comcast’s speedy internet connection (and maybe a much better back-end on Outlook.com?). So, I decided to take the plunge and make the move.

I disconnected my email account from my domain on Office 365, “removed” the domain from Office 365′s management, added the same to Live Domains and set up my account there. With some small glitches here and there (my email was an alias on my existing Hotmail account, so I wasn’t able to add it as a new domain email account until I removed the alias), I was up and running with my new setup.

I used Outlook 2013 to connect to my Office 365 account (via normal “Exchange” connectivity) and Outlook.com account (via IMAP). I started moving emails by folders and realized most of the messages were showing up on the web fairly quickly. Except for two very large folders, I was done in a couple of hours. The large folders took a bit longer but not terribly so. Overnight, I was actually surprised that I was done with the email part. What remained was calendar and contacts, both of which created much pain.

I took it for granted that calendar can be moved as easily as email but I was in for an unpleasant surprise when I realized I was connected to Outlook.com via IMAP. That means, no calendar support. I saved the Office 365 calendar as an ics file (was not under “export” but under “save as” in Outlook 2013 – go figure) and imported it from the web. That was easy, except that the “save as ics” step did not save every single event! There was no obvious pattern in what was saved and what was omitted.

Another idea struck me: why not connect to Outlook.com via EAS in Outlook 2013 and then copy all calendar events from one account to the other? Great idea, except there is a massive bug in Outlook 2013′s EAS implementation which does not sync events if you mass-copy them on a calendar. If I did all 350-odd events one-by-one, it would have worked. But I was not in a mood to do that. So the workaround was to simulate an edit across all the events and that is easily achieved with marking them all as a new category. That seemed to trigger a forced sync and I started seeing the events show up on the web. What seemed to be missing was events that I had marked as private, or at least some of those private events. Again, the EAS bug comes to bite me because even after marking them all as normal sensitivity, I could not simulate a sync. At this point I kinda gave up on the sync and re-saved the calendar as ics and imported it from the web. Then, a sync happened that showed up in Outlook 2013. For all the stuff that was not correctly sync-ed, including some recurring events that ended up showing as one-time, I manually went to the web and added/updated. :-(

As for contacts, I moved to Outlook.com as my “single source of truth” for contacts long time ago. I have been pretty happy with the arrangement especially because most of the contact manipulation (adding/updating/deleting) happens on mobile devices and with EAS, I am seconds away from always being up-to-date. Additionally, I have linked my Microsoft account to LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter and as a result, I have the “master” address book under People on my Outlook.com account. However, there is no way for me to link that account with the new account I created. No sharing, no linking, no sync-ing, and that’s a pity. I was hoping that just like I link a Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn account with Microsoft account, I could another Microsoft account too. Not to be. So I went for the next best option, which was to export and import. I could export my Outlook.com contacts as a csv but shockingly, when I tried to import, I got a generic error that seemed to indicate that there are some special characters in some phone or email fields somewhere in that csv file. No partial import, no specific error on specific records, nothing. An all or nothing which to me ended up with nothing. In the end, I had to go back to Outlook 2013 and with EAS, I was able to copy contacts from one account to the other.

Despite those multiple hiccups, I am glad to say I am done with the migration much sooner than I thought I would be and most importantly, there were no issues with the email migration. I was afraid of duplicates and missed emails neither of which happened.

I will monitor for a few days after which I am going to cancel my Office 365 paid account but a practical limitation I am facing now is that at work where I prefer to keep personal email limited to a tab in a browser, I won’t be able to see my current Hotmail account and the new custom domain account in a single browser window. With Office 365 account, I was able to because they don’t share the cookie, I suppose, but with both the accounts now running off Outlook.com back-end, I am unable to. It is a pain to have two browser windows open, one of which is an InPrivate window, but I am sure it is something I can get used to over time.

And to finish off, can I just say that Microsoft has made a big mistake calling their webmail service Outlook.com which is very close to their email client Outlook. Searching for solutions to the various problems I had almost invariably landed me on help pages for Outlook the program vs Outlook.com the service. It was quite frustrating. :-(

So You Want to Kick the Google Habit? [Editorial]

A list of popular Google products and alternatives to each one. Also, a list of Google products which do not have a good replacement today.

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Throw away email addresses with Office 365 #Office365 (cc @office365)

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This may be a well-known fact, but I just realized it, so I thought I’d write about it. I was used to a catch-all email address for my domain both from my domain registrar (when I was purely forwarding my domain email) and from Google Apps (when I started using them for managing my email directly).

 

So it was a bummer when I realized Office 365 actually discouraged the use of catch-all email address. My main purpose of using a catch-all email address was to allow for throwaway email addresses which hotmail (and maybe others) introduced in the past few months. I could sign up for some service with a random email address belonging to my domain and let all unsolicited email from those companies go to this catch-all email address.

 

So I happened to stumble upon my solution for Office 365. Each mailbox (“license”) allows you to specify additional email addresses for which you can receive email at that mailbox. So I could set up abc@mydomain.com, xyz@mydomain.com as additional addresses on my main email mailbox of romit@mydomain.com. That way I can receive emails to those addresses at my primary email address and yet, I don’t end up giving out my primary email address to the sites.

 

The way I did it was by going to Details under Mailbox when you go to “Manage My Organization”. Select the E-Mail Options section and enter as many (?) alternate email addresses as you want. That’s it!

 

What I don’t know yet: a) Can I reply from those email addresses? I cannot, but I understand there is a way but I don’t know it yet. b) Can I set up a rule so that I can automatically move emails addressed to those temporary email addresses to different folders?

 

Once these are resolved, I will be all set with (virtually?) unlimited throw away addresses on my domain account on Exchange!

 

 

What I like and dislike so far about #Office365

I have been using Office365 for about a month now. I migrated from Google Apps and here are my thoughts about it so far.

What I like:

  1. Outlook Web Access: Such a refreshing change from the dull gmail interface. It is not only better-looking but it performs way better than the sluggish gmail. Navigating around the interface is better (although for keyboard-navigation fanatics, gmail may seem better, I am not one of those) and Outlook Web Access seems way more like a desktop client that gmail does.
  2. Real exchange access via Outlook: No IMAP, no nonsense. Pure Exchange connectivity from Outlook. Makes backing up emails to local disk easy. No folders to set up, no headers vs entire emails to choose.
  3. SharePoint: Getting full SharePoint access included in the plan is simply awesome. I am not using Office365 for any kind of business, but I see myself using SharePoint for document management and for intranet-type features (private blogs, wiki-style journaling, etc.) and maybe even photo management?
  4. Lync: I have not used it extensively yet, but the idea of having not only IM and video chatting but also online meetings with anyone, included in the plan, is a huge plus in favor of Office 365.
  5. Mailbox size: With Office 365, I get 25GB mailbox compared to ~7.5GB with Google Apps gmail. I have a mailbox of about 5GB, so I am glad about this quadrupling of my mailbox capacity.
  6. Forums/Support: Forums were sparse and traffic was light earlier. But as more and more beta invites have gone out, I have seen participation increase and I like that a lot of Microsoft folks are active on the forums there and are helpful. This unlike anything Google can boast of.
  7. Works awesome with my Windows Phone 7 (and would be the same on iPhone or Android, or any mobile device that supports Exchange ActiveSync): I had a problem with gmail where if I deleted an email on my phone, it would only be archived on gmail and not deleted. Not so the case here.

Of course, not all is rosy. This is a beta, and there are many things that need to be fixed. Some of the things that I don’t like (or am extremely annoyed about):

  1. The biggest annoyance has been some issue with hosting engineering which disables my access to adminstration of the account as well as individual user. This has been going on for a week and I don’t have an ETA from Microsoft about when it will be fixed.
  2. The lack of organized FAQ’s, especially at the beginning of the process. I could not find the articles I had stumbled upon just before signup (and those were very useful and relevant to my situation). A lot of the help articles linked out to outlook.com instead of office365.com or microsoft.com which added to the confusion.
  3. Lack of step-by-step instructions for adding a domain and setting up accounts. I am not an Exchange administrator so after I signed up with the default user, I was expecting some step-by-step guide to tell me what I should do and in what order. There wasn’t. The help was all there, just not organized well. Update: Per Allen in the comments, Microsoft has made available a YouTube video for this exact issue. I thank them for this and I am sure it is going to help a lot of folks in my situation:
  4. Some efficiencies of gmail would be welcome here. For example, when I have to move some email to folder (applying a label in gmail), I can start typing the name of the label and it would pop up the names matching the letters. In Outlook Web App, I can only drag-and-drop or select from recently used folders.
  5. Forwarded emails seem to attach winmail.dat files when opened in gmail. I am not sure if this is an Outlook issue or an Exchange issue or both, but if I forward an email as an attachment (vs inline), the attachment is interpreted as a winmail.dat file by gmail.
  6. My email migration was not so successful. It completed very fast (about 10-12 hours for about 3.5GB) but a lot of older emails did not make it. Now, supposedly, there could be issues with those old emails because even in gmail, I had actually copied those emails via Outlook from the older email program. So I may have lost the message ID along the way and that would make it difficult/impossible to import. Also, related, Gmail has an All Mail folder which essentially duplicates all the emails in the various “folders” (labels). So after migration, there may be a lot of de-duping involved. I am not there yet. Calendar and Contacts had to be imported separately (not supported in IMAP migration method). Both went off smoothly and without any issues.

I have not talked about Office Web Apps (included for free) and of course, the possibility of going with a plan which offers Office 2010 a a subscription download (implying, you can free upgrades when the next version of Office is released). And, I have also not mentioned that this is a financially-backed 99.9% uptime guaranteed product!

I think Office365 is a fantastic bundle of software delivered as a service. Sign up at http://office365.com and try it yourself. If you signed up in the past, you should have already received email about the acceptance into the beta program. If you sign up now, there is a 2-4 week waiting period.

I was not sure about my transition from Google Apps to Exchange but that has been almost flawless. Add SharePoint and Lync and I think this is something huge from Microsoft and kudos to them for creating this bundle. I love it!