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The Outlook on Evolution & Aethera

What's stopping Windows users from adopting Linux? Perhaps it's the lack of an acceptable alternative to Outlook.

(LinuxWorld) -- Given the kinds of comments I receive in e-mail, people who feel they cannot switch to Linux on the desktop seem to fall into one of three groups. There are those who say they need Microsoft Word and Excel, others who say Quicken is the deal-breaker, and still others whose corporate lives revolve around Microsoft Outlook.

Now, the glass-is-half-full way to look at this is that I don't hear anyone complaining about the lack of a good Linux desktop environment anymore. Indeed, the situation has reversed. If anything, Microsoft is now in catch-up mode, especially with respect to KDE 2.2. That obviously isn't enough to make people switch. Despite the fact that Outlook, combined with the poor security model of Windows itself, costs companies a fortune in damages, I believe Outlook is the show stopper here.

I'm a well-known critic of Microsoft, but I have no trouble understanding why Microsoft Office is more appealing to the average corporate user than anything you can run on Linux. But the gap is not at all wide. I hear from people regularly who switched and don't miss Microsoft Office in the least. The alternatives are not only functional, they are appealing.

I prefer KWord, Abiword and Open Office to Microsoft Word, in that order (although feature-wise, you'd have to reverse the list), and I'm perfectly happy with KSpread, Gnumeric and Open Office. Many companies could switch to any combination of these open source productivity applications with minimal user complaints or loss in productivity. Indeed, they're more likely to see productivity gains.

As for Quicken, I plead ignorance, since I'm allergic to finance management. I fired up the Quicken-replacement Gnucash just to see what it looks like, and it appears powerful. While I may be wrong, I don't see why Quicken is the real barrier between Windows and Linux. (The Kompany also has a Quicken replacement for Linux called Kapital. It's not free software, but it's not expensive either. See Resources below for links.)

Outlook users do not live on e-mail alone

There are many great e-mail programs for Linux. What do we have that, like Outlook, combines e-mail, scheduling, and contact management? Practically nothing. Ximian's Evolution is the most promising replacement for Outlook. But Evolution is still too much of a Neanderthal to satisfy anyone who has used Outlook. It's bad enough the default graphical theme for GNOME and GTK (at least on my Debian system) gives GTK or GNOME-based applications the visual appeal of an abandoned warehouse. Even if one assumes you're savvy enough to set up your users with a more appealing theme to make Evolution look better, Evolution still reeks geek.

Ironically, the first impression you get when you crank up Evolution is Ximian intended to give Outlook users the glitz they crave. Evolution deliberately emulates those cute sliding panels of icons on the left side of Outlook, for example. But the geekoid mentality of the rest of the application becomes evident once you actually start to use the program.

For example, although most of the fonts in Evolution are fine, the message text is way too tiny for me. There may be an option I missed, but try as I may, I couldn't find a way within Evolution to change the font to make the message text readable. Oh, but the programmers were thoughtful enough to include an obvious menu option to display the raw text of an e-mail message. Although I couldnt read my messages without squinting, I could sleep comfortably at night knowing I may see all the mail header labels and values if I want to.

Quite by accident, I discovered the answer to the font problem. I happened to click on "Properties" in the "Edit" menu while composing a new message with Evolution. To my surprise, that launched the GNOME control center and automatically took me to the sub-category "HTML Viewers" under "Document Handlers". At this point, despite the fact that the GNOME control center likes to crash when you run it under KDE, I set the default font for viewing HTML documents to a larger size. Although I was composing a message rather than reading one, I had a hunch this was the secret setting.

In retrospect, I can see why it worked. Even though Evolution runs in environments other than GNOME (like I said, I was running it under KDE), it re-uses the GNOME HTML rendering library to display the message text. That makes sense. Why reinvent the wheel? Therefore it would also make perfect sense to a programmer that you could adjust the font size of the message by changing a global setting for the HTML viewer module in the GNOME control panel.

It would make sense to a programmer, that is. And that's precisely what's wrong with Evolution and GNOME in general. GNOME and most GNOME applications behave the way you would expect applications to behave when they are written by brilliant programmers who have forgotten there's a world outside their own personal keyboards and monitors. Don't get me wrong. I sympathize because I fall into the same trap all the time (although the "brilliant" part is questionable in my case). But if Ximian really wants to pit Evolution and its version of GNOME against Windows and Outlook, it's going to have to insist its programmers go through some serious attitude adjustments.

Ethereal Aethera

This is the area where KDE and KDE applications usually blow away GNOME and its applications. KDE and the programs written for it have plenty of flaws. And they often lack some great features you'll find in GNOME applications. But the KDE folks seem to spend a lot more time and effort than GNOME folks on cosmetic and usability issues. It's tempting for all programmers to be snobbish about this, but KDE programmers seem to understand that cosmetics are very important when it comes to winning over ex-Windows users. GNOME programmers tend to ignore this unpleasant fact of life.

One might assume, therefore, I'm placing my bets on the KDE program Aethera, the "other" Outlook replacement. In case you're not familiar with it, Aethera started out several years ago as a program called Magellan. There was a Magellan Web site with screen shots that made the program look like it was going to be the ultimate Outlook-killer on Linux.

At the time, there weren't many IMAP4 email clients for Linux, so I checked the Web site frequently to see if there was something to download. Every time I saw new promises the alpha source code would be released any minute now. A year later, the source was still going to be released any minute now, but it never was. From what I hear, Magellan was never much more than mocked-up screen shots the whole time. Even now that Magellan has become Aethera, the source code is still littered with the word Magellan, so there must have been something in progress. But obviously not enough to matter.

Regardless, a company called The Kompany thought the product had potential, wrangled with the author of Magellan for a while, and after many twists and turns the open source Aethera project emerged in place of Magellan. As far as I know, there is some continued involvement by The Kompany, although its Web site refers to the latest release of Aethera as 0.9.1, which is the April version. It is now 0.9.3. Not that it matters, as you'll see in a moment.

In its current state, Aethera is the antithesis of Evolution. Unlike Evolution, Aethera not only promises to deliver the functions of Outlook, but to fulfill the Outlook user's need for meaningless glitz at every level. To be perfectly fair, I couldn't find a feature to specify a default message display font in Aethera, and I didn't even see a feature that lets you view raw header text. I did notice there is an option to set the default font for composing messages. Nevertheless, if you download it and try it for yourself, I guarantee you'll get the impression Aethera will be much more user-friendly than Evolution.

Here's the problem. Whatever features Aethera may have or promise to have, I'm still trying to find one that works. I looked at the source code and found many of the promised features are in there. Aethera claims to support IMAP4, and I can vouch for the fact IMAP4 code exists in the program. Aethera let me define an IMAP4 account. I even found the section of code where it figures out when to launch a thread that logs in to the IMAP4 server. The code that actually logs you into your IMAP4 server seems to be AWOL, but the place where it's supposed to happen is right there.

Of course, I haven't studied the code carefully, so I don't know for certain if the programmers missed that minor detail or if I misinterpreted the way the program is structured. But it would certainly explain why I couldnt get Aethera to retrieve my mail. What it doesn't explain is why nothing else seems to work, either.

Web or glitz

Actually, most of this complaining is for naught, because I believe the Outlook approach to managing e-mail, schedules, and contacts is all wrong. Even if Evolution and Aethera were flawless, I'd recommend a Web-based approach, but that's another column. Corporate Web-based e-mail is unrealistic today. Most big customers aren't ready for a Web-based solution. Heck, the Web isn't ready for a Web-based solution.

Until then, we really need a fully functional, glitzy, user-tested Outlook replacement for Linux as soon as possible. Evolution is the most likely to deliver the functionality first, but unless Ximian deals with the usability issues, it's not going to win many Outlook users.

As for Aethera, I conclude that when they dropped the name Magellan, they should have called it "The Theory of Evolution". I'm not suggesting that name because it competes with Ximian's Evolution. At the rate Aethera is progressing, I suspect the developers simply tossed some monkeys and typewriters together and figured they could wait long enough to see if the theory works.

More Stories By Nicholas Petreley

Nicholas Petreley is a computer consultant and author in Asheville, NC.

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