March 23, 2011, 10:07 AM — The open source community has long offered alternatives to commercial applications, but businesses for the most part have shied away from those free alternatives, claiming compatibility or support issues as the reason. That may be true for certain lines of business applications, but it's not true for all open source applications. Case in point, open source alternatives to Microsoft Outlook exist and offer features that match many of Outlook's core features and are compatible with different mail servers, services and hosts.
Lately, three open source alternatives have garnered the lion's share of interest for those looking to replace Microsoft Office - those alternatives include Spicebird, Thunderbird and Zimbra - each of which deserves a closer look to uncover the value offered and whether or not they can replace Microsoft Office in a business environment.
Spicebird is a collaboration application built on top of various other open source software, mainly the Mozilla Platform and Thunderbird and is designed to work on Microsoft Windows and major Linux distributions. Spicebird sports all of the features one would expect in an Outlook competitor, including support for IMAP and POP accounts, as well as support for multiple email accounts and identities. Spicebird also features an integrated chat (IM) application, which works with Gtalk, Yahoo, Jabber, MSN and ICQ. An integrated calendar works with local and remote (Caldav, ICS) calendars and features multiple views by month, week, day and a custom range of dates.
Three things make Spicebird - ease of use, features and price. Spicebird is very easy to install, and operate. The GUI is customizable and lays everything out in a tabbed multi-pane view that clearly identifies each element.
Adding an existing email account to Spicebird is very simple, all you need to do is provide the email address and password - Spicebird does the rest. The program automatically queries the email server based upon the email address given, and determines all of the settings needed to make things happen. The application even verifies the security of the email account and offers warnings if that security level is less than ideal. I tested Spicebird with private POP accounts, as well as with Gmail, Yahoo and a hosted exchange account. Spicebird correctly obtained all of the needed integration information and worked as expected with each of those accounts. Easy setup may prove critical for those looking to deploy Outlook alternatives to a large audience.
One nifty element offered during setup is the ability for Spicebird to automatically integrate with Windows search - that means when you do a search from the Windows' start menu, emails will be included in the search results. That proves to be a real time saver when tracking down a file and its associated information.
The primary view can be customized to change how email is displayed on the screen in numerous ways, ranging from a traditional three-pane outlook-style view to custom threaded views. A popular option is the threaded view, which groups similar emails together. However, the threaded view shows only one side of a conversation, making it less powerful than a conversation view, which is how Google's gMail hosted service handles emails.
Other email capabilities include several methods of sorting emails (from date to sender to tags), several ways to organize emails via searches and folders, and a comprehensive selection of filters. Filters can be saved and re-used, appearing as folder icons on the main email screen.
The included calendar can be a little complicated to setup when working with remote calendars, such as those from Google (gmail), Yahoo or others. You will need to manually set up the calendar type and input the various settings for each. Luckily, plenty of help is available. I wish the same could be said about the contacts applet - here, it proved difficult to set up a synchronized contact list between contacts stored on a user's google's gmail account, forcing you to either download an add-on (Gmail Contacts Sync from Zindus) or manually import contacts from your other accounts. Either way, getting your contacts sorted out should not be this hard. A wizard to synchronize contacts with existing accounts would be a welcome improvement.
By default, Spicebird covers all the basics, however if you are looking to add more capabilities to Spicebird, a growing list of plug-ins is available. Currently, the plug-ins add some minor features, such as mail merges, personas and other enhancements - in the future, more robust features should become available.
All things considered, Spicebird proves to be a competent application for handling email, contacts, calendars and newsgroups. With a little more work on the vendor's side, SpiceBird could become a viable alternative to Outlook for businesses not needing complex capabilities, such as integration with Sharepoint and Exchange.
Next page: Thunderbird and Lightning