First Look: Zimbra Web-Based E-Mail for the Desktop

Zimbra, a Yahoo-owned company, last week released a beta of the open source Zimbra Desktop solution, which is meant to be an alternative to more traditional e-mail/groupware applications such as Microsoft Outlook.

In keeping with its Yahoo roots, Zimbra Desktop offers extensive integration with Yahoo's tools and e-mail, plus Yahoo branding throughout the user interface. The program itself has a very Web-like interface, with clean organization and a convenient tabbed toolbar at the top. The toolbar offers features such as e-mail, contacts, calendar, a to-do list, briefcase and documents.

I have a Google Mail account, so I was eager to see how well it integrated with Zimbra Desktop. After providing the login information for my account and configuring it to work with IMAP, I was pleased to see that Zimbra Desktop loaded my e-mail in-box properly. However, Zimbra Desktop does not provide access to Google Talk, which uses a standard Jabber protocol supported by many third-party chat applications. Moreover, the program did not automatically import my rather lengthy Gmail contact list. However, there's a workaround, as contacts may be imported from CSV files.

Zimbra Desktop is fairly configurable. It allows the user to define signatures, default font options for messages and provides the ability to display e-mail as HTML.

Users can filter spam in Zimbra Desktop by defining actions based on keywords, such as deleting messages containing a certain words. However, I was disappointed to see that there was no way to integrate more powerful Bayesian filters, such as the popular open source SpamAssassin tool -- something needed in today's spam-plagued world.

Zimbra efficiently uses the desktop space. For instance, the main window of the program can be closed completely and the program will still keep a daemon running in the background, thereby freeing up precious taskbar space. This daemon is also able to pop up a notification message when new mail arrives.

Zimbra Desktop is built on the Mozilla Prism platform, which allows Web applications to be packaged in an executable wrapper powered by Firefox. This frees Web applications from the standard browser interface to make them truly stand-alone apps.

The memory usage of Zimbra Desktop (prism.exe) averaged 40 MB during my test, which is fully acceptable for modern applications on today's powerful desktop systems. I noticed that it took seven to nine seconds for Zimbra Desktop to fully start up (without the daemon running) and load my in-box. In contrast, Gmail's Web interface took about half as long (three to five seconds) on several tests. While the slightly slower speed not a serious problem, it would help if the program's speed could be increased, since there is also some delay between switching between tabs in the interface.

If this speed issue can be resolved and a few more features added, the program will be very promising in the final release. The beta for Linux, Mac and Windows can be accessed here.

About the Author

Will Kraft is a Web designer, technical consultant, and freelance writer. His website is Pagewizard Web Design. You can contact Will at will@pagewizardwebdesign.com.

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