Open-source Outlook?

Open-source Outlook?

IT managers mulling over the pros and cons of replacing Microsoft Windows with Linux on the desktop have to consider a number of obstacles, but if we had to point to one deal-breaker, it would be the lack of office productivity applications that can easily replace Microsoft Office.

Most of the current crop of alternatives, whether from Applix, Corel, or Sun, are still struggling to catch up on the features of Office 97. But these efforts have focused mainly on creating work-alikes for Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, ignoring the need for a Linux collaboration and mail client that can stand in for Outlook.

If Linux is going to succeed on the desktop, it will have to play with proprietary collaboration and messaging tools such as Microsoft Exchange. Although it's easy to find Linux alternatives to Outlook's local functions such as e-mail and calendaring, interfacing with servers running Microsoft Exchange is another thing entirely. Many enterprises have developed elaborate Exchange environments, and they are not going to abandon them lightly. Plus, too many shops that would like to embrace Linux because of perceived cost and security benefits are prevented from doing so by the lack of a credible Outlook alternative.

But for now, too many users are either running two desktops - one with Windows and Office and one for doing the rest of the work - or running VMWare or something similar inside their Linux boxes. Ximian aims to solve the two-desktop crisis - and particularly the need for an "Outlooknix" - with Ximian Evolution 1.0, a component of the Ximian Desktop for Linux.

Ximian Evolution is a decent first stab at providing an Outlook-like collaboration and messaging environment, but it's not quite ready for corporate use. Ximian has effectively replicated the look of Outlook, but the feel is lacking, and our experience with an early gold release of the much-vaunted Ximian Connector for Exchange was simply a disaster.

Although we are impressed with the potential of Evolution's vFolders, a view of the Evolution message store created through an automatic indexing process, and with Evolution's out-of-the-box Palm support, we believe that Evolution itself requires another year or so before it can be truly useful. For one thing, Evolution won't support Exchange's Public Folders until the 1.2 release, due towards the middle of the year. For another, although it's possible to import data files from Outlook and other collaboration/mail programs, there's no way to import Internet account information from existing Microsoft mail programs, which is commonly exported to an .IAF file.

As we noted above, Ximian Evolution is included in - and requires - the Ximian Desktop, which is itself a Gnome derivative and a free download. Media kits are $US29.95 for the basic Ximian Desktop installation or $49.95 for the Professional kit, which includes Sun StarOffice. As Gnome desktops go, Ximian's is relatively user-friendly, maintaining our existing Red Hat desktop's appearance while adding helpful pointers to Ximian's Red Carpet Express download service.

Back on the Red Hat desktop, we installed the Ximian Connector for Exchange from Ximian's premium Web site - access that will cost customers $US69.95 per seat on top of Red Carpet's $9.95 monthly subscription. Then we launched Evolution to create the necessary program directories under our home, shut it down to install the key file for the Exchange Connector, and launched again to configure Exchange access.

After that, it should have been a breeze. But hours later, we still had no access to our Exchange message store, even after verifying that WebDAV (Distributed Authoring and Versioning) was enabled and running. Despite our best efforts and those of Ximian, we had to blow the whistle and leave our testing of the Connector for Exchange uncompleted.

Because the Connector is such an important, and relatively pricey, part of Evolution's Outlook emulation, our difficulties with the Connector directly affected our scoring for interoperability, suitability, and value. Scalability also suffered because we foresee numerous problems with managing key files in environments with thousands of machines, which is a problem Ximian will be lucky to have.

Although Evolution looks promising, it's immature and not yet ready for enterprise use. A huge pent-up demand for a credible Linux alternative to the unholy combination of Outlook and Windows exists, but this goes to show that in software, as in real life, Evolution is something that you won't get right the first time

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