Spolsky, Lookout and when Better is actually Worse

Today, Joel on Software wrote about Outlook 2007’s recent search performance fixes, and mentioned Lookout.  I had a couple of thoughts about the article.

First – I’m so pleased to hear such nice things about Lookout when it hasn’t been updated for nearly 3 years :-)  Thanks! 

Second, Joel wrote that “Microsoft finally put Lookout up for download…”.  He makes it sound like it was down for a long time; I think the total down period was between 4-7 days.  I know people like to think Microsoft buys products to squash them, and it’s easy to cite this downtime as an example of it.  But I know for a fact that was not true in this case.   I hope people won’t conclude that.

Third, while lots of people really liked Lookout, it did lack some key features which were put into Windows Desktop Search.  Most notable is that WDS actually indexes new & changed email in real-time.  Google Desktop Search does this too, but Lookout never did. 

But it brings up an interesting point which requires some background. Building incremental indexing in Outlook is quite tricky.  The problem is that changes can happen in your exchange mailbox while Outlook is not running.  When you next start Outlook, you need to make sure these changes are reflected in the index.  Because Outlook/Exchange don’t have APIs to do this efficiently, the only real way to do it is to start combing through folders trying to find what changes exist.  There are a whole bunch of nuances (cached mode, exchange mode, internet mode, online/offline, etc) and many APIs available (OOM, MAPI, CDO, ECS, etc).  When you try to make it work across the 4 different Outlooks (OL2000, OL-XP, OL2003, OL2007), each one presents a new set of problems.

So, Lookout punted on real-time indexing, and elected a “wake up every hour when the user is idle and index then.”  While this approach isn’t perfect, it is much much simpler.  And, it turns out that users usually don’t need to search for things which were sent to you less than an hour ago (although some did complain).  But the biggest benefit is that because it’s not trying to be real-time, it is much less prone to bogging down your system doing indexing.   And “system hogging” is a problem which both WDS and GDS took a long time to get right.  Reading reviews of these products indicates that even today, they still are pretty resource intensive.

In my opinion, this is a classic example of “Better is the Enemy of Good”.  The indexer doesn’t really need to be real time, even though it is “better” to be real-time.  If you weren’t confined by the limits of Outlook & MAPI, my thoughts on this would probably be different.  The fact that people are still talking about Lookout after both Microsoft and Google have continued to work on real-time indexers for 3 years is proof to me that in this case, better is actually worse.

7 thoughts on “Spolsky, Lookout and when Better is actually Worse

  • May 21, 2007 at 12:48 pm
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    [quote]Second, Joel wrote that “Microsoft finally put Lookout up for download…”. He makes it sound like it was down for a long time; I think the total down period was between 4-7 days. [/quote]
    Could you provide the Microsoft download link for Lookout. I certainly can’t find it on their site!

    Reply
  • May 22, 2007 at 10:57 am
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    I don’t have a link anymore. Joel’s article was about what happened in 2004.

    Sometime after I left Microsoft, Lookout was removed from the site.

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  • June 3, 2007 at 5:15 pm
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    I have a copy of the Lookout v1.30 install file if anyone wants it. However…….

    Recently, I noticed that my Lookout toolbar was missing from Outlook 2003. I tried repair, uninstall and reinstall, and nothing worked. I became suspicious of Microsoft. Then I read this quote from Joel “When Outlook 2007 runs, it checks to see if Lookout was running and disabled it if it was.” I began to think Microsoft might have also decided to disable Lookout from Outlook 2003 in one of its recent “security updates.” Of course, I can’t prove it, and since I don’t know what they might have done, I don’t know how to undo it.

    If anyone has any ideas that might help, I’d appreciate hearing about it. Lookout was perfect for me; it did its job when required and did its work behind the scenes. I don’t need full-time, real-time, all-the-time search capabilities that slow my computer down to a crawl. I just want Lookout back!

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  • June 22, 2007 at 9:38 am
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    I installed outlook 2007 and what a pig it is! I have disabled a bunch of stuff and it is running faster, but. . . . I am lost without LOOKOUT! I don’t know what MS did to your fabulous search engine but I’d gladly pay to have it back. I did install the outlook patch mentioned above, but it did not make any difference. Is there a way to uninstall MS’s outlook search function and reattach yours? Thank you very much.

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  • June 27, 2007 at 1:36 pm
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    I’m pretty sure Lookout is still running fine in OL2003. Microsoft isn’t out to get you :-) As for OL2007, though, Microsoft wants everyone using a single indexer (so they can support you better), so they want you to use theirs. I don’t have a workaround other than to suggest using OL2003 instead. Sorry!

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  • November 6, 2007 at 10:53 pm
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    Can Microsoft Desktop Search index my pst if I’m not in Corporate/Workgroup mode? No? Then it sucks. Pure, plain and simple. Google Desktp Search can, Copernic can. Microsoft Desktop Search WON’T–not can’t. Spare us your anti-conspiracy theories. Microsoft won’t do anything that doesn’t fit with its corporate plan for world software domination. That’s a fact. Microsoft could be part of the solution. They could be part of pushing the technology forward. Instead, they watch their bottom line. That’s a fact that none of your apologist bullshit can deny. Microsoft watches out for Microsoft.

    By the way, I got a free copy of Office 2007 at a New Day event. I really tried to like it (I gave it three months). It sucks. I just plain totally sucks. I uninstalled it and reverted to Office 2000. Microsoft has lost its way.

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  • September 9, 2009 at 11:07 am
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    I loved Lookout too and it always worked fine, since I work with Outlook 2007, but I think the most of you already know that it isn´t possible to work with Lookout and Outlook 2007…WHY, WHY, WHY??? I was so desperate, because personally I like the new outlook 2007, but without Lookout…
    But… I think it is not so great for you to hear that, after trying several tools, I work with Lookeen now and I have to say it is really an equal alternative to Lookout! That´s not that I don´t like Lookout anymore, it is just a problem with the compability etc. so for example with the new file format docx, for and in which Lookout cannot search!

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