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The recent release of Zimbra Collaboration Suite 5.0 provides a look into the future of enterprise applications, as the Zimbra suite does an admirable job of combining the strengths of classic enterprise applications with the cutting-edge features that are now possible from Web 2.0 technologies.
But most importantly, Zimbra is an excellent choice as a corporate e-mail and collaboration system, and in many ways has become the most interesting and capable alternative to Microsoft’s Exchange. Of course, it is quite possible that Zimbra (which is owned by Yahoo) may become part of Microsoft, which does put the future of Zimbra in some doubt.
However, for now Microsoft does not own Zimbra, and based on eWEEK Labs’ tests the Zimbra Collaboration Suite 5.0 is a worthy choice for any business looking to deploy a powerful and cutting-edge mail and collaboration system.
One of the biggest new features in this suite is the Desktop application, which is still technically in beta. The Desktop makes it possible to access mail and other Zimbra resources from a standard desktop application, with all of the features one expects from such an application, including offline usage.
The Zimbra Desktop is one of the most polished and well-designed Rich Internet Applications that I’ve ever tested and it runs on multiple platforms (though on the Mac it only worked on Intel-based machines).
In my tests of the Desktop it worked very well as a way of providing access to e-mail, calendaring and other features of Zimbra. However, the Desktop does not exactly mirror the standard browser-based Zimbra client, for example lacking the tabs for the file management Briefcase and the new chat features. It was also possible to add and access non-Zimbra mail accounts to the Desktop, including Google’s Gmail.
But the biggest feature of the Desktop is easily the offline capability, and for the most part this worked well. Using this feature I was able to work on my Zimbra mail and calendar and could even read and respond to other mail (including my Gmail) while offline. Once reconnected, all messages would be sent and information synchronized.
There were a few hiccups with this feature. If I had Desktop running and then cut my Internet connection, it would sometimes fail to switch to offline, though a restart of Desktop would put it into the correct offline configuration.
There have been several other interesting new features added to the Zimbra Collaboration Suite in Version 5.0. Three key new features are Briefcase, Documents and Chat. Briefcase makes it possible to upload files directly to the mail client without having to send them as attachments, useful for saving needed personal files or sharing them with collaborators. Documents is a wiki-like shareable online document app with a rich editing interface that I found useful for quick document collaborations.
Chat is an integrated instant messaging client for the Zimbra suite. The initial reaction for many people would be that the last thing the world needs is another instant messaging platform, but one of the biggest weaknesses in Zimbra has been the lack of presence information that competing messaging systems can provide through their own integrated chat systems.
On the alternative device side, Zimbra now includes beta clients for the BlackBerry and for J2ME-enabled smart phones. On the management side, improvements are fairly minor, with improvements in backups and clustering. I did find the option to run Zimbra accounts as purely a calendaring solution (with no e-mail) somewhat interesting.