When I heard that we’re migrating from our current Microsoft Outlook e-mail system to the Zimbra e-mail system, first thing that crossed my mind was What is Zimbra? I’ve never heard of a mailserver like that before, and other than Outlook mailserver, I’ve only encountered Lotus (during our OJT in Alcatel, five years ago).

One of our IT colleagues, Sir Armand, finally sent word about Zimbra about a week ago. We from IT were told to test-drive it prior to bank-wide deployment.

Zimbra surprised me with its array of features! It was almost Gmail-like with its tagging system that can finally allow me to sort out messages without placing each email exclusively in some folder. (Anyone who has gone through set theory will understand that some emails can’t just fit in exactly one location :p ) There’s also the built-in chat module that can allow me to communicate one-liners with other people in the bank without having to send an email. And of course, what I had been wanting all this time — web-based access to my office email, so I can finally not have to make do with my other Gmail account when dealing with IT problems during weekends. (Just to make things official.)

One gripe I and a few others who have tested Zimbra initially is the speed at which the browser displays the features. I think this is one web-based application that seems to test the limits of Javascript (and consequently, AJAX) in the web browsers. Because it’s web-based, I can access it from just about anywhere for as long as there is an Internet connection, but I can’t expect it to be as snappy as compared to an installed email client when, say, I am about to compose an email to my boss. A split-second goes by via the web-based mode just to compose or open an email.

Thunderbird's dashboard

Here comes Mozilla’s Thunderbird to the rescue. For the longest time I had been using TB as my Gmail client whenever I’m at home. I have loved its features in the same way I have worshipped its web browser counterpart, Firefox. It’s a good thing that Zimbra offers IMAP connection to access email: With this, I can access my email and get to sync it with my online web-based access and TB here at the office.

Of course, the program has its own limitations. It hasn’t any support for directly synching with Zimbra’s GAL (Global Address List), among other things. Had this been in Outlook’s case, I just would have slumped and had to make do with the usual Import/Export procedure.

Blessed are the TB addon developers, for they shall improve thy user experience.

Just to share a few of the highly-useful Thunderbird extensions…

  1. Zindus* – Synchs Zimbra’s GALs with your Thunderbird. Also useful for Gmail contact lists.
  2. Tag Toolbar* – If you’re like me, who prefers use of tags over folders, you’d find this addon quite useful to tag emails more easily. Again, just like Zindus above, tagging one email inside TB synchs it to be also tagged with your email in Zimbra.
  3. Personas – More of a aesthetic addon to provide TB with lightweight themes, especially if you’ve become totally bored about Outlook’s ho-hum interface.
  4. Signature Switch – A minor addon that I like so I can change my sig in a fly
  5. Lightning – Another open-source product by Mozilla that acts as the calendar counterpart as in MS Outlook. (I actually haven’t tried this because it wasn’t compatible with TB3.0)

* The links for the above addons are for their versions that are usable in the upcoming Thunderbird 3.0 (which, as of this writing, is in its fourth beta).

I really like to try things out and though they warn me of instability and other nasty stuff that can possibly happen, it’s ok with me. TB3.0 isn’t yet stable (they say) with the current fourth beta, but the features available in it are quite far from TB’s stable version 2.x.x that I can’t wait for the final version to be released. For starters, it now offers displaying emails in tabbed format, similar to Firefox. Another nice feature is its new and improved search functionality (Outlook’s is, well, fail). And I believe I had been raving at its tagging functionality earlier!

For those who’d prefer the stable versions, you can always check them out at addons.mozilla.org 🙂

Lastly, another (small) issue I wanted to explore with Zimbra is its chat module. I wouldn’t want to get left behind by all those taking advantage of this module! I was glad to see earlier that interestingly, it is accessible via the use of Pidgin Instant Messenger. A configuration guide is available for those who also want to use it with Zimbra Chat.

I know it’s a bit weird for me to be preferring client programs instead of web-based applications, but I think people should have choices, just like Firefox and the rest of the free and open source applications that advocate choice. Some will be glad that they’ll be able to read their mail while doing their tasks on AUB Teller360™ or AUB Online Banking, while others still won’t easily be able to reel from Outlook’s effects and stick it out with an installed email client like Thunderbird. Either way, the important thing is users should be able to do the things they want to do in the most comfortable way possible.