MS Outlook vs Linux Alternatives: the Best Choice?

Tuesday Jul 17th 2012 by Matt Hartley
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The Linux alternatives to Microsoft's popular Outlook each have their strengths and weaknesses.

For many of us working in an enterprise space, the need for a solid personal information manager (PIM) is a must. Unfortunately, unless you're running your own company, chances are you can't simply use just any PIM. Usually, there are certain levels of functionality or specifications, that need to be considered.

In most instances, it's locked in, with Microsoft Exchange doing the data handling for desktops and mobile users alike. Thankfully, however, some companies are looking at alternatives, including Google Apps and other self-hosted solutions, running on Linux servers.

In this article, I'll explore alternatives to Microsoft Outlook, while comparing features and compatibility along the way.

Evolution – Generally considered to be Gnome's answer to Microsoft Outlook, Evolution is a PIM application I've had mixed results with over the years. While the basic calendar/email functionality has never been a problem for me, updates have often been known to hose Evolution's MS Exchange connector.

Sometimes the errors had come about due to a new release of MS Exchange...which is something out of Evolution's control. Other times, I found bugs within various versions of MS Exchange connector, which is usually within the developer's scope of control. If you are absolutely in need of connecting to MS Exchange and the connector is working, then Evolution is an option.

For users of the Google Apps-based solution or other groupware solutions, hosted in-house, Evolution also has a lot to offer. Evolution offers its users junk mail controls, smart filtering, web calendar support, and multiple accounts management. The downside is the spotty support for other platforms. While efforts have been made for Windows and OS X support, overall Evolution is best suited for Linux distributions.

Kontact – Widely considered the goto PIM option for those running KDE desktops, Kontact incorporates a multitude of powerful KDE applications into one single PIM suite. Unlike Evolution, which is primarily designed to mirror functionality found with Microsoft Outlook, Kontact attempts to take things a step further. In addition to expected PIM functionality, Kontact also incorporates RSS aggregation, blog composition, an alarm clock, time tracking, plus other off-the-wall software.

Sadly, I've found Kontact to be fairly problematic if you need to connect to a MS Exchange server. Email is available only through POP/IMAP for Exchange users. Without splitting hairs, suffice it to say that Exchange support with Kontact is pretty poor. And if opting for IMAP email isn't possible, there is limited OWA support for connecting with Exchange via Davmail.

Compared to Evolution, Kontact is vastly more attractive to look at and use. And if you prefer to have an abundance of options for your PIM, Kontact exceeds all reasonable expectations on that front. For most of us, however, the only reason I can see using Kontact over Evolution is due to the desktop preference. KDE users will feel right at home with Kontact.

Thunderbird – Unlike the other options shared above, the most stable and cross platform friendly option is Thunderbird. And despite all the gloom and doom you may have heard about Thunderbird, I promise you that the companies who rely on it won't let it see an early demise just yet.

For Microsoft Exchange users, using Thunderbird really comes down to basic IMAP support. There are various MS Exchange add-ons for Thunderbird, but most if not all, are poorly supported and no longer working. Like most instances, I recommend avoiding Exchange if at all possible, since Microsoft has worked very hard at keeping it restricted to the platforms they approve.

On the flip side, Thunderbird is a great fit for those self-hosted groupware solutions or even Google Apps. Unlike Exchange, Google Calendar and email work smoothly with Thunderbird once you install Lightning and this additional add-on for Google Calendar.

MS Exchange alternatives

Now that the best software candidates have been shared above, it's time to decide which one is the best fit for your workplace. My first suggestion is to accept reality. If your company is bent on sticking with MS Exchange, you might be forced to simply rely on OWA. While it may lack all of the functionality you'd find in Outlook, at least you know that OWA will work cross platform.

So what about using the options above that support Exchange? Well, the problem is that none of them do so with Microsoft's blessing. Any Exchange support enjoyed by the end user is happenstance and luck thanks to Microsoft's closed source approach. Despite some great developer efforts with the applications above, none of them offer 'great' MS Exchange support. Denying this is just silly.

If at all possible, look to groupware solutions that can be locally controlled. Or if needed, consider Google or a hosted groupware solution not bearing the Microsoft logo. For example, a solid recommendation would be EGroupware. EGroupware works nicely with any of the applications above. If, however, you're comfortable with a Google hosted option, it would be worth mentioning that it'll make your life easier. Even though many companies aren't comfortable with Google hosting their data, it's a viable option to be considered. Best of all, like with EGroupware, it's going to work smoothly with all of the options above.

And the winner is?

Assuming migrating to Google or EGroupware is viable, which software solution is best? For the enterprise space, I'd avoid relying on a Thunderbird/Lightning combination.

While it's suitable for those who work at home, in the workplace it's really not a good solution. My concern with Thunderbird isn't a lack of support, rather the fact that each update to the client puts the add-ons at risk of not working. This isn't usually a problem with the other PIM clients. Well, at least when you're not trying to connect to Exchange, that is.

I'm also a fan of using the client-side software that is designed to integrate smoothly into your desktop environment. So for KDE users, I recommend Kontact. And for those who run Gnome, consider using Evolution. And for those wondering, yes, Ubuntu dropping Evolution was indeed a really stupid if they're looking to attract enterprise users. Thunderbird is a toy at best, a bundle of patched software at worst, thanks to its add-ons.

Mobility considerations

The final piece to the Outlook alternatives puzzle is looking into how to best handle syncing to your smartphones. Blackberry, iPhone, Android – no matter how you cut it, you need to keep your data in sync. And while there are a few different localized options that allow you to sync your devices up with your smartphone, the most reliable method is -- and will always be -- over the air (OTA).

Whether you opt for a Google-based solution or one from EGroupware, both options work great OTA and will work well with Android and iOS devices. It's also possible to sync with Blackberry, though I've heard it can produce mixed results.

If I had to recommend one single option, I'd be inclined to recommend going with EGroupware. While both support OTA options for your mobile device, EGroupware offers a vastly more professional appearance and more consistent user experience. Unlike Google Apps, which sends you from page to page, EGroupware provides everything in one area. Everything is tabbed and easy to find. Plus, EGroupware offers additional functionality not found with Google Apps, such as a company news page and a project tracking system.

Final thoughts

If your company is looking to dump Outlook once and for all, the applications above will provide you with a solid jumping off point. Be sure to test out each application to see which one is the best fit for your needs. All the software above have different approaches to functionality and UI layout -- there is no perfect fit for everyone.

The last thing to consider is this: if you're dumping Outlook, take this as an opportunity to dump Exchange as well. Even if you find that the localized software selections above aren't good enough, browser access for Google Apps and EGroupware work really well in any modern browser. Unlike MS OWA, you won't be tied down to a limited version of the software if you're not using Windows.

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