UPDATE 1.12.2013: If you’re on Windows, you might also want to look at Inky.
Mozilla’s Thunderbird e-mail client has been my go-to free e-mail client when I decided I wanted an alternative to using solely Web-based mail interfaces. But, according to Techcrunch, the Mozilla Foundation is pulling its resources from the project. This news made me cast around again for what I might use if I needed a desktop e-mail client again.
To be honest, I don’t really need one. I use e-mail accounts from two major companies – Google and Microsoft – as well as ISP-based e-mail. They all provide Web interfaces. I am not always on my laptop, so it means that a desktop client isn’t always available and I get used to the Web as not only fallback but primary access point. There are times, though, that it’s nice to have a desktop client. For me:
- I use a desktop client with IMAP support when I want to backup my own e-mail, or if I’m shifting folders of e-mail from one account to another;
- if I am able to use the client, it means I can get a single view to multiple e-mail accounts, which is a far more efficient method of managing e-mail than cycling out to 3 different sites, logging in, and checking to see if something has appeared.
I took another look at the Zimbra desktop client, the IMAP enabled software that was purchased first by Yahoo! but which is now a VMWare product. They also have a free, open-source Zimbra e-mail and collaboration server, as well as a paid version. I have looked at the client before but found, and still find, the interface to be a bit clunky.
However, Thunderbird wasn’t always perfect. In particular, it was just an e-mail client. You needed to add plug-ins, extensions, to get a calendar and other functionality that is common in other e-mail programs. As a stand-alone e-mail client, I found Microsoft’s Windows Live Mail client (the successor to Outlook Express) to be perfectly adequate. Both Live Mail and Thunderbird allowed you to manage multiple e-mail accounts, supported IMAP, and enabled saved search folders and some advanced features.
The latest version of the Zimbra Desktop does this as well but I’m finding some additional integration or thinking that makes it better than either. In light of Thunderbird’s potential dormancy, Zimbra looks like a solid alternative. I’ve been playing around with version 7.1.4. Here’s what I’m liking so far:
- Like most current e-mail clients, it will autoconfigure GMail and Yahoo! e-mail accounts, so you don’t need to know the server addresses. It also supports IMAP and POP3 to any ISP, although you do need to have the specific configuration information;
- Contacts and calendars can be synchronized. When I click on the Calendar tab, I can view my local calendar as well as the calendar in my Google account. I haven’t found the contacts to synchronize as well;
- It works on multiple OS. I have it installed on Windows 7 and Ubuntu 12 and it runs fine. The Windows 7 install was straightforward. On Ubuntu, I needed to make sure I extracted the tar.gz file as sudo, and then installed it under the same account. Once you’ve done that, there is a user script that any user can run to create their own account. There was one substantial missing prerequisite -ia32-libs – but once it was installed, I was able to get going;
- There is some expandability built-in, but it’s not really necessary. By default, Zimbra has e-mail, contacts, and calendar integrated. You can add so-called Zimlets for additional functionality. Some of these are community-provided – like these interesting ones by students at the University of Guelph – and some can be pretty niche solutions. The more popular ones are included by default, including a Social one that allows you to display a Twitter feed on a tab and send messages from within Zimbra;
- You can automate backup of all accounts, creating a local copy of your online services. I have not seen this in any application before, and it is likely to become a feature I can’t live without.
One feature that looks interesting but requires a Zimbra server is the Briefcase function. You can upload files to the Briefcase and then share files or folders with others working on the server. I could see a non-profit using Zimbra as an inexpensive alternative to Microsoft Exchange and being able to benefit from the collaborative elements that are built in if you’re using the server.
There are also some unusual features that I hadn’t expected but, having seen them, am interested to use. For example, if you receive an e-mail that has a date in it or a reference to a day (Wednesday, tomorrow, last Friday), Zimbra will create a hyperlink to your calendar. I haven’t tried this yet, so I don’t know how it handles a generic “Wednesday” but it could be a great help to have visual cues in your e-mail about possible calendaring needs.
So far, it has met all of my needs as far as a desktop e-mail client goes. Unless Thunderbird goes through a significant metamorphosis, I can see Zimbra becoming my primary e-mail client when I’m able to work from my own machine.