Outlook alternatives: Free open source applications

Outlook can be a pricey way to accomplish mundane, critical office tasks, but alternatives are available

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Zimbra Desktop

Zimbra

  • Best Feature: Zimbra's conversation view helps to keep email exchanges in a order that makes the most sense, without losing any important information.
  • Nice Touch: Social networking integration provides one spot to post and view updates across multiple social networks.

The Zimbra Desktop differs from other open source email/collaboration client applications in the fact that it was originally designed as the client portion of a commercial email/communications server product. However, through the years, the Zimbra Corp.'s product has changed hands, changed philosophies and changed names. Now it's marketed as VMware Zimbra Desktop, an open source collaboration client that offers email, group calendars and document sharing using an Ajax web interface as a no-cost desktop application.

Of course, the commercial Zimbra Collaboration Server is still available, but it is not a requirement to run the Zimbra Desktop. The free Zimbra Desktop client offers a way to meld online and offline information together under a single, easy to use GUI. The application works with cloud based email, calendar, contacts, files and document services, and is very adept at synchronizing that cloud based information with a local database, providing the ability to work offline.

The Zimbra desktop proves to be very easy to install, supporting Windows, Mac and Linux operating systems. The installation is wizard-driven. However, account setup does take some manual input, especially when working with gmail accounts, where you want to synchronize folders such as sent items and junk mail. However, support for contact and calendar synchronization is built right into the product, which makes things a little easier for Yahoo! Mail and Gmail users. Zimbra Desktop also works with POP or IMAP email accounts and supports multiple concurrent accounts, with multiple independent entities.

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Zimbra can implement add-ons that enhance how mail is viewed

The GUI takes a somewhat standard approach of offering multiple viewing panes, one for accounts, another for email headers and another for a preview of an email's contents. On top of that, the GUI also offers tabs, which make it easy to switch between email, calendars, tasks, documents and more. The GUI is fully customizable, allowing users to create views that best fit their work habits.

The GUI uses an Ajax web interface, which enables tool tips, drag-and-drop items, and right-click menus, fitting the paradigm of a standard desktop application. Notable is the support for "Zimlets", which are custom designed add-ons that create new functionality in the Zimbra Desktop environment. The list of Zimlets is growing. Hundreds exist -- one can find Zimlets that allow Zimbra Desktop to integrate with Salesforce, Webex or incorporate Google maps into email views and integrate Google Translate -- and others can be custom created using the Zimbra Ajax Toolkit.

Users dealing with multiple contacts and multiple concurrent email exchanges will really appreciate Zimbra Desktop's conversation view, which groups emails together by subject and includes both emails sent and received, giving a quick historical view into conversations. The conversation view will probably be the most preferred way of dealing with email, simply because it mimics how people interact with each other.

One interesting capability is Zimbra Desktop's inclusion of social networking content - such as twitter, facebook , dig articles and more. You can set up the product to directly interface with your Twitter and Facebook accounts and quickly post updates, read other posts and search for content.

Zimbra proves to be one of the most complete email/collaboration packages in the world of open source. Nevertheless, it does have its idiosyncrasies that can make it a challenging product to use. On more than one occasion, I encountered duplicated contacts and duplicated appointments when attempting to synchronize with calendars and contacts hosted on Google. Other times, the application would lock up, requiring a shut down and in extreme cases, a reboot of the system. However, those problems were relatively rare, but still worth noting.

Of course, several other open source and free email/collaberation applications are readily available, but the three mentioned above prove to be of the most interest. That is not to say that others, such as Claws Mail, Sylpheed and Eudora OSE have no value, but are perhaps best suited for niche users that require something different than the traditional Outlook experience.

However, the "traditional Outlook experience" may be the key term here - because Outlook can do quite a bit more than just email and scheduling and that may present a challenge for those looking to ditch Outlook in favor of an open source replacement. For example, Outlook offers tight integration with Microsoft Exchange, allowing enhanced rules, filters and other capabilities to be integrated at the user level - all of which could be important for compliance or other security reasons. What's more, Outlook offers integration into Microsoft's SharePoint collaboration server, which is in use by many orginizations.

So, the question remains, can one of the above mentioned open source applications replace Outlook? The short answer is yes - it all comes down to how Outlook is being used by an organization and how well Outlook is integrated into other business process. That said, it still doesn't hurt to give one of the open source alternatives a try.

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