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Is Evolution the Outlook Killer?

Is Evolution the Outlook Killer?

If you're still using Windows on your desktop, it's pretty likely that you also gather your e-mail with Microsoft Outlook. Perhaps you also let Outlook control your life, with appointments, to-do lists and the other doo-dads Outlook comes with. You may not like everything about it, but you're comfortable with it. You know its quirks. Maybe it's all you've ever used.

GNOME desktop guru Miguel de Icaza and his compadres at Ximian understand these feelings. If you're new to Linux, you just might long for something that seems familiar and works like you expect it to. And if there's any specific computing task Linux is particularly good at, it's sending and delivering e-mail! The OS we know today could never have been built without the dozens of listservs (electronic mailing lists) handling coding and support discussions from users and developers worldwide.

So now we have Evolution, an e-mail client that looks and feels so much like Outlook, there's hardly any learning curve. If you use the fvwm95 window manager with your GNOME desktop, you may even wonder if you've gone back to Windows (OK, maybe before that first morning caffeine hits).

Evolution is not just a copycat, though. For people like me, who find Outlook adequate at best and supremely annoying more often, Evolution solves some vexing Outlook problems. And I'm not just talking virus-free here. There is some really good stuff here.

The basics
Like Outlook, you can have Evolution just manage your e-mail, or be the entire center of your life. Outlook Today (excuse me, the Summary page) tells you what you have to do, who you have to meet with and how much mail sits in your Inbox. It will also deliver a weather report and some news (mostly computer-industry related) if you want it.

By default, you get a Shortcut Bar (with icons pointing to the Summary page, Inbox, Calendar, Tasks and Contacts) and a Folder Bar (with all of the above, along with any other e-mail folders you may have) in a folder-tree approach. It's easy to turn one or the other off to reclaim the screen real-estate.

Setting up an e-mail account is fairly easy, but there are limited offerings for directly importing settings from another e-mail program. Though nearly all my e-mail is in KMail, Evolution didn't find that. It offered to import settings and/or from Netscape only. This means that you will have to know how to connect to your e-mail server before getting your first batch of e-mail in Evolution.

Like KMail, however, Evolution can handle any mbox-based mail, including Eudora for Windows and Mac. Just copy the *.mbx file(s) to /home/evolution. It will also connect to IMAP servers, and soon will connect to Microsoft Exchange Servers. The latter will be possible with Ximian Connector, which is the proprietary piece which Ximian hopes will finance Evolution and the rest of the company.

Organizing E-mail
I don't know about you, but I get a lot of e-mail every day. Electronic mailing lists are both the joy and bane of my online life. So I like to separate out the steady stream of listserv traffic from the stuff sent only to me and/or the genuinely important. This kind of stuff is critical for the modern e-mail client, and Evolution does this amazingly well. Again, the terminology used is very similar to Outlook, but there are differences.

Chief among those differences is the VFolder. Ximian describes vFolders thusly: "it looks like a folder, it acts like a search, and you set it up like a filter." Essentially, it is a database with the full text of messages available to query.

One way to take advantage of this powerful feature is to keep messages together that fit several categories. Say you've got a folder for action items, plus you've got several folders related to each project you have going on. When you get a message from the boss telling you to call Jean Woznofsky to check on the status of the credit line project and Horace Green to follow up on the cell phone distribution plan, you can move this e-mail into your task list, and vFolders for action items and the two projects. Instead of three physical copies taking up disk space, only one is needed.

You say you aren't that organized? You never throw anything out, but you can never find anything when you need it? Then vFolders are even more your kind of program. Have you ever tried running a search for a message in Outlook? If the Inbox or folder has more than a dozen messages in it, a full-text search can be painfully long. In Evolution, a single-word full-text search through a folder with nearly 400 messages in it was complete in (literally) the blink of an eye! Your search term is highlighted in each message. The search results are in a vFolder, which can then be saved.

There doesn't appear to be a way to search multiple folders at once, which would be nice, although searching folders one at a time and adding the results to the vFolder is probably still faster than any other email search tool in existence.

Organizing your calendar and to-do list
Have I mentioned that Evolution closely resembles Outlook? The influence is here in the calendar as well. Display a single day or a work week. Add appointments, set times, add categories. It's all here. The calendar is also searchable.

The alarms are pretty cool. You can have Evolution pop up a custom message, play a sound or even run a program! You can also tell it to repeat the reminder at designated intervals. So if you need to know that your significant other's birthday is a week from now, it will tell you, then tell you again every day until it arrives.

Evolution uses the iCal standard for appointments and other calendar goodies. This makes it fairly easy to (manually) import calendar items from other programs. It doesn't have its own utility for storing and displaying the holidays in Botswana, which you may consider a positive.

Tasks are easy to set up. When you set a due date, you can also specify a time in the dialog. Outlook always sets the default for 5 PM, so you don't get the flagged warning until the next morning! The problem I have is that it will only display the task and due date. Priorities (or any other field) are not in the task display, so you can't organize the list by anything other than deadline.

You can also set up and read tasks in the calendar display (and, of course, in the Summary page). And everything can be synchronized with your Palm organizer. This is best done under the GNOME desktop. When trying to run the utility under KDE, Evolution complained about not finding the GNOME Pilot tools.

Contacts and addresses
Again, this is something Evolution does quite well. All the standard features are there. Right-click on a message (even from the preview pane) and you can add the sender to your address book. Create groups. Fill in as much information about each contact that you want.

Overall, with some rough edges, Evolution is a great little e-mail program. It groups a bunch of related tasks into a clear interface. Will it make people switch to Linux by itself? Well, no. But it will ease the transition for those who need the drop of familiarity.

More Stories By Mike McCallister

Mike McCallister is a freelance Linux writer based in Milwaukee and is constantly on the lookout for interesting documentation projects. Mike is the author of Computer Certification Handbook (2000, Arco Press).

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