As a Linux consultant, I am often asked questions about various Linux compatibility issues. A typical question might be, “Can I use Microsoft Word with Linux?” We Linux people can always respond, “No, but you can run ‘X for compatibility,” where “X” is StarOffice, Corel WordPerfect, or your favorite Unix word processor.
One question that is not so easy to answer, though, is “What about Outlook, or ACT!?” To date, Linux does not have any groupware client-side applications. There are some that are Web-based, but none that are native to the two popular Linux desktops, KDE and Gnome.
That situation is about to change. Three very interesting projects are currently being developed within the various Linux communities that will allow the professional e-mail user to get the most out of Linux. The professional e-mail user is the person who requires a robust, efficient e-mail client to manage all of their information. A typical profile for such a user would be a salesperson or manager.
The first of the projects is the Evolution 0.6 (preview release) personal information manager client from Helix Code Inc., in Cambridge, Mass. Helix Code is the company that is driving the rewrite of Gnome into what is called Helix Gnome. Helix Code also maintains the very popular Linux spreadsheet, Gnumeric. The Helix Code Web site states:
“Evolution, the Helix Code groupware suite, marks the next step forward in GNOME applications. The email, contact management, and calendar tools act as a seamless personal information-management tool. Evolution is also highly extensible and it will be possible to use it to solve a wide variety of information-sharing problems.”
The above is marketing lingo for, “Hey, we’re creating Outlook for Linux.” A lot of people will take offense to that statement. For that I am sorry, but it is what Helix Code and the other projects (which we’ll talk about later) are trying to achieve. There is one little exception to Evolution’s mimicry of Outlook, however: Evolution is self-contained.
In order to take advantage of Outlook’s or Lotus Notes’ legendary collaborative abilities, you must be running Exchange or Notes Server. In other words, you have to shell out more money: at least $4,000 to $5,000 dollars for a minimal Exchange installation.
Evolution utilizes the iCalendar specification. The iCalendar (now renamed vCalendar) specification is set forth by the IETF as RFC 2445, 2446, and 2447. It defines an open platform capability for collaboration. Helix Code’s decision to implement a working standard will go a long way in the future adoption process.
In other words, you will be able to interact with any other iCalendar-compatible e-mail client. There will be no need for you to use Evolution if you wish to use Magellan or Kmail. They will all work together.
Evolution is currently in beta and not really practical for a casual user. It requires a large number of external development libraries to run. The libraries, if you already have Helix Gnome, include GAL 0.2.1, Bonobo 0.23, gtkhtml 0.7, gnome-vfs 0.3.1, libunicode 0.4.gnome, OAF 0.6, and ORBit 0.5.3. If you do not have Helix Gnome, you will also need gnome-print 0.24, gnome-xml 1.8.7, and gdk-pixbuf 0.8.0. Unless you know where to look (helixcode.com, or rpmfind.net), you have to compile all of the packages from scratch. That is a hefty price to pay, but I think you will find it is well worth the effort.
Evolution provides native Gnome support. Therefore, it supports drag and drop, file associations, MIME types, and themes. Evolution can also work with alternative desktops such as KDE 2.0 (my favorite) and IceWM. If you use an alternative desktop, you will not be able to use the drag-and-drop features.
Evolution supports a couple of items that I have been waiting for in a Linux IMAP-capable mailer for a long time: multiple identities and accounts. The multiple identities option allows you to select “who” you are sending from. For example, if you have two e-mail addresses, you may want to send e-mail to your mom from firstname.lastname@example.org, but send e-mail to your friends from email@example.com.
When you select Compose, you have an option to select the account you would like to send from in the From field.
You also have the usual options of To, Cc, Bcc, and Subject. Evolution also has a feature I did not expect: “vFolders.” These are virtual folders that are based on filters you apply to other folder sources. I realize that sounds a little convoluted, so let me explain.
VFolders are basically a filter that puts a container around your e-mail. Normal filters, which Evolution does support, are typically used to automatically delete spam, or to categorize e-mail into different folders.
A virtual folder is different. A virtual folder can be used across multiple sources. For example, if you are in a discussion with a development team that has four members, and you filter all of those members to their own mail folder, how do you view the entire thread without going through each mail folder? The answer is a vFolder. The vFolder doesn’t actually move the mail; it just allows you to select specific criteria across all of the members’ mail folders, and then makes it viewable in a virtual folder.
The calendaring portion of Evolution is definitely not finished. I added one appointment and then went on to other tasks. When I tried to go back to the calendar, it just hung. I restarted Evolution and received the same result. However, Helix Code gives fair warning about these problems, specifically stating that it is preview software and not yet complete.
The contact manager looks a lot like Microsoft Outlook. I am sure this is intentional, because one of the goals of Helix Code is to make Linux friendly for the desktop. If you are going to promote Linux for the desktop at this time, you make things look (but not act!) like Microsoft software. In other words, make the transition easy, but don’t crash a lot.
The contact manager supports all the standard features, including fields for Full Name, Job Title, Company, Primary E-mail, etc. It doesn’t support PGP or GPG signature storage, however. I think it would be interesting to see Evolution adopt a universal encryption standard like PGP/GPG. The ability to view a contact from the contact manager, hit Compose, and have it automatically grab that contact and sign the e-mail for that contact would be fantastic.
Additionally, Evolution supports LDAP-based directories for searching for e-mail addresses. Personally, I have only found these useful when looking for mass quantities of e-mail addresses. If you are unaware, several large directories on the Net contain information about you. No, this is not confidential information; usually it is just your name, e-mail address and possibly your physical address. That can be useful if you are looking for an old friend; but, on the other hand, it is an easy way for spammers to get a large quantity of e-mail addresses.
An item I would like to see in the contact manager is an external database connector. It would be nice to have the ability to set up an SQL server somewhere and have it host all the contact information centrally. You could do this with the LDAP functionality, but it does not support live viewing. It supports a query and add functionality. If my co-worker makes an addition to the address book and categorizes it into a public group, I would like to be able to view it immediately. This feature does not have to compete with any standard; it could even complement the existing iCalendar and vCard standards.
Evolution is a reasonable application, weighing in at 17 MG of RAM during normal usage. This is tiny in comparison to the recently released Netscape 6 e-mail client. I am starting to miss the days when an application that used only three or four MG of RAM was considered large. If Helix Code continues to develop Evolution in its current direction I would expect to see great things overall. I am not a Gnome user–I prefer KDE–but I may use Evolution anyway.
I am currently writing a series of articles on Linux groupware for OpenSourceIT. Over the next couple of weeks you’ll see articles on Magellan, TWIG, and the new beta of OpenMail 7. The Magellan product is essentially Evolution for KDE; TWIG is a Web-based groupware application, and OpenMail 7 is a Microsoft Exchange drop-in replacement for Linux from HP. We will see how all these stack up in the grand scheme soon.
Joshua Drake is the Webmaster of the Linux Documentation Project and the owner of Command Prompt Inc., a Linux and e-commerce company. Command Prompt can be found on the Web at http://www.commandprompt.com.