We Need Better Open-Source E-Mail, Now!

Opinion: If open source is to continue gaining ground with the corporate desktop, it must develop not just an outstanding e-mail client, but an all-out replacement for Outlook on Windows.

Outlook is a security-hole wolf dressed in an e-mail clients sheep clothing. But many companies still wont, or cant, move from it because Outlook is also their group calendaring and address book application. In short, its a core desktop application for them.

This point was driven home to me when I spoke recently at a meeting of CIOs, chief technology officers and e-mail administrators at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. These people run serious e-mail systems with hundreds of thousands of users.

All of them knew that Outlook has more than its fair share of security problems; most of them would at least consider an alternative. Indeed, some of them already use alternatives like Qualcomms Eudora, but the vast majority use Outlook. As one said to me, "What else is there?"

Good question.

While there are many good open-source e-mail clients, like the Mozilla Foundations Thunderbird, Isamets Mulberry and Hiroyuki Yamamotos Sylpheed, these clients are really replacements for Outlook Express, not Outlook.

Of the programs that do try to compete with Outlook, some, like the Open Source Applications Foundations Chandler, have been moving forward at a very slow rate. After more than two years, Chandler has only just reached version 0.5.

Mozilla itself offers some of the features an Outlook killer would need, but the Mozilla Foundation has decided to freeze its development.

/zimages/7/28571.gifRead more here about Mozillas decision to cease developing its namesake suite.

Other such projects, like Mozilla Lightning, which is to combine Thunderbird with the Sunbird calendaring, are barely on the launching pad. I have real hopes for this project, but I dont expect to see mature code for at least a year.

Now, as it happens, I think there is already one excellent Outlook replacement: Novells Novell Evolution 2.0, formerly Ximian Evolution.

Its got everything it takes to be an Outlook killer: all the popular mail-protocol support, Exchange 2000 and 2003 e-mail and calendaring support, GroupWise support, and, thanks to SpamAssassin, it now has good spam protection.

Theres only one big—and one minor—problem. The minor one is that Evolution 2.0 is only easily available on the SuSE/Novell Linux family. On most Linux platforms, unless you want to build it yourself, youre probably running, as I am on my Xandros 3 desktop, an older version like 1.4.6, which doesnt have the most desirable interoperability features.

The big problem though is that theres no Windows version. Yes, in a Linux-lovers ideal world, everyone would be running a Linux desktop. Its not going to happen any time soon, guys.

In the meantime, an open-source Outlook replacement for Windows would go a long way toward making IT managers think more kindly about a Linux desktop.

It looks, however, like help may be on the way. In January, Novell hired Tor Lillqvist, a noted developer whos known for his work in bringing Linux programs to Windows. His main job at Novell is going to be to port Evolution to Windows.

As Lillqvist writes, "No, you cannot run Evolution on Windows yet. No, there isnt anything [for end-users] to beta test yet." However, he is making good progress.

Thats good news for anyone who wants Outlooks functionality without the pain of constantly monitoring its fragile security.

Still, a real Outlook replacement isnt here yet. If youre a developer and you really want to help open source make inroads in the Windows world, you should be working hard to get mature versions of Chandler, Lightning or Evolution to run on Windows as soon as possible.

Even more so than Firefox, a real Outlook replacement could make a big difference in persuading corporate IT departments that now is the right time for open source on the desktop.

eWEEK.com Senior Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been using and writing about operating systems since the late 80s and thinks he may just have learned something about them along the way.

/zimages/7/28571.gifCheck out eWEEK.coms for the latest open-source news, reviews and analysis.