Zimbra Desktop is an alternative e-mail client. I don't mean that it is yet another choice in e-mail client-land. It is more than merely another choice. Zimbra Desktop is an attempt to blur the lines between a browser-based Web application and a traditional desktop application. In many ways, it is similar to applications like Evolution, Outlook or KMail—what Zimbra refers to as “fat” clients—but in other ways, it has more in common with browser-based e-mail platforms, such as Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo mail. In a nutshell, Zimbra Desktop is the Web-based Zimbra Ajax Web client running inside a custom Prism install (for more about Prism, see the What Is Prism? sidebar).
What Is Prism?
Prism is a Mozilla Labs project. Its aim is to allow you to split Web applications out of your browser and run them directly on your desktop. In reality, it allows you to run your Web application inside a stripped-down Firefox window, with no buttons or bars to get in the way.
The reason this is useful is because of one of Firefox's design decisions. In order to save on memory and processor usage, all of your browser windows run under a single Firefox process. This generally works well, except when Firefox crashes. Because of the design, a crash in one Firefox window affects all other Firefox windows. Prism lets you separate Web applications into their own processes. In this way, they behave more like traditional desktop applications—for example, if my Prism Gmail application dies, it doesn't affect the other Web applications I have running or close the Web sites I currently have open.
Development is ongoing, and new features are coming out all the time. For example, a new plugin for Firefox 3 recently was released that allows you to convert a Web site into a desktop application simply by clicking Tools→Convert Website to Application.
More information about Prism is available at labs.mozilla.com/featured-projects/#prism.
At first blush, I thought to myself, “Why would someone want to do this? What's the point?” Well, the point, I came to discover, is that desktop e-mail suites have certain advantages over browser-based e-mail suites, and vice versa.
The main advantage desktop e-mail clients have over their browser-based brethren, in my opinion, is the ability to read saved e-mail when you are not connected to the Internet. There is also, in corporate settings especially, the advantage of integration with LDAP directory servers and scheduling functions through shared calendars and the like. On the other hand, the main advantage that browser-based e-mail clients have over desktop e-mail clients is that they run exactly the same, or very nearly the same, on multiple browsers and operating systems. There also is no lengthy install process; you simply go to the site and there it is. The aim of Zimbra Desktop is to give you the best of both worlds.
Unfortunately, because Zimbra Desktop acts like a traditional application, there is an installer. The installer itself is an approximately 40MB shell script. Actually, it is a 340-line shell script cat'ed to an approximately 40MB tar.gz file. The script extracts the tar.gz file from itself, gunzips and untars it, and then runs the Java-based installer that lives inside. This sort of installation bootstrapping, by extracting a file stored inside a shell script, is something commercial Linux software seems to prefer doing, and I have to say, it does work.
The GUI installer is nothing special. It uses install4j, and it gets the job done.
At the end of the installation process, you'll have a zimbra folder wherever you instructed the installer to put it. The home folder of the user that performed the install is the default location. Optionally, you also will have a desktop icon, if you did not uncheck the Create Desktop Shortcut box.
Double-click the desktop icon, and Zimbra Desktop launches and prompts you to enter in the settings for an e-mail account of your choosing. Zimbra Desktop supports Zimbra Collaboration Suite (ZCS), Gmail, Yahoo Mail Plus and standard POP and IMAP accounts. I tested with Gmail and ZCS, as those are what I have.
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