Zimbra Desktop Good Alternative to Thunderbird

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.

David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.


  1. While I have trialed Zimbra (desktop client) in the past. Way back then, it was an client that was only usable when you were connected. It had no value as an offline client to let you read or edit your e-mails. I was looking for a desktop client that was fully functional while offline and only required online access when I wanted to receive new inbound e-mails or send new outbound e-mails. So I’m still using Outlook albeit a pretty old version. I keep trying to find something that will replace ALL the features in Outlook that I use. That isn’t just e-mail but calendaring and notes. Zimbra and Thunderbird doesn’t have notes (don’t get me started on the crappy note add-ons for Thunderbird) so using either means I would have to find a new application for storing all my notes, like TreePad. EssentialPIM has e-mail, calendaring, and notes but it’s not a “deep” product in that it has the features but they aren’t robust. Still EPIM is a contender in my list for my next trials for e-mail client replacement.

    Despite Thunderbird’s development cycle demise other than security updates (i.e., staid product with only security updates), I might look at Zimbra again. What concerns me is the stability of Zimbra’s own development team. Zimbra was released in 2005. In 2007, it was acquired by Yahoo. In 2010, it moved to VMware. In 2013, it moved to Telligent. With the product bouncing between owners every 3 years, or less, there is reasonable concern about the stability of both the product and its development team. It bodes poorly for longevity of the product. A product that keeps bouncing around to different owners smacks of a hot potato that no wants to own for long. Who is going to next acquire Zimbra? What if nobody catches it on the next toss?

    I’d like to switch to a newer e-mail client (well, actually a PIM that includes calendaring and notes) but Thunderbird already lacked functions that knocked it off my trial list last time and it won’t be addressing those in later versions. Zimbra is a possibility but not when it its future seems unsure.

    1. Agreed. I thought Zimbra was a nice client but it’s status as a hot potato is a drawback. There seems to be a splintering, with most email client developments either going to the mobile devices or onto the Web. And these apps don’t have the kind of integration that was possible with desktop clients. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. I would stick with thunderbird without a second thought. A long time tested product, probably the most customizable one there is out there till this very date, currently in use by millons of people over the world and with an every day growing number of ussers being how it is the default email client on several linux distributions. From my perspective, I really see not much benefit on a migration really. Maybe the calend thing is a great toool. But i can forsee an extension for that if requested on forums. Thanks for the intel on Zimbra though! Yours is some very nice review about it!

  3. I personally like Clyton. It has a configurable Spam filter that is ‘second to none’. I’ve been using it for over a year now and it is great. I’ve used everything from Outlook Express, GMail, Thunderbird, EMClient, Postbox and so on and Clyton takes the cake. It was developed (and being monitored/updated) by Greg Wittmeyer and distributed by him through Gammadyne.Corporation.

    1. Thanks for the tip. I’d never heard of Clyton but will take a look.

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