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An overview of FLOSS email clients



Everybody uses email as one of its primary communication means; Free Software desktop users are no exception. In this regard, email clients play a central role in the way we work and generally live in the Internet. These last years have seen some relative decline in the usage of email clients. The use of standard, more mature web technologies such as Ajax have made the online service of email providers much more attractive, while the justified criticism of "everyone's " email client, Outlook Express drove many to use the simple online interfaces of some major email service providers.

Today I would like to discuss the present state of Free & Open Source email clients. I do not intend to present a comprehensive state of the art of email clients but rather to share my experiences over several years as an user who has accumulated gigabytes of emails. I will mention non-Free Software applications such as Outlook and Apple Mail, which I also used.

I was willing to share my experience as -let's say it right away- I seem to have a problem with Thunderbird. Thunderbird is a nice application but for some reason I always had problem backing up my emails and mailboxes. Oftentimes, I would reopen an archive with Thunderbird to find unreadable messages. I may have done something bad, but what is interesting is that if I ever opened it either with Apple Mail or Claws , the mail would be displayed correctly and without data loss. For some time I was exclusively on a Mac, which I still use only as a laptop, and I used Thunderbird for my email. Aside these archival issues I was not really happy with the overall look and feel of the application and the beta of Thunderbird 3 failed to impress me.

This is why I investigated email clients again when I started to work on my main workstation that runs Fedora 10. I was hesitating between going back to Thunderbird (after a nice trip by Apple Mail) in spite of all my issues with it, returning to Evolution, an application that I had used several years ago, the intriguing Sylpheed / Claws twins, and even KMail.

I finally picked up Claws, and so far I don't regret it. But by installing it, configuring and using this application, I learned a couple of things about email clients. Let's review the options I had.

Thunderbird: It would have been the default fallback option but I was decided to look somewhere else.

KMail: I was very interested by KMail. Now part of the KDE's Kontact suite, its integration with the KDE desktop is excellent and the configuration very easy to perform. However, KMail had one big issue, perhaps one of perception: It would not handle large mailboxes. I decided not to take the chance. And besides, KDE apps tend to look awkward in non Qt environments.

Evolution: Evolution was a viable candidate for me. In fact, Evolution and Sylpheed - Claws have something in common that marks them as the exact opposites of Outlook and Thunderbird. They do not handle mail by mail account, but by mailboxes. And this makes a huge difference. This means that your application will be mailbox-centric, and not account-centric. You configure your mailbox first, and on top of it, you have your email alias, with the settings specific to the email account. Terminate your email account, get a new one and use the same mailbox. The mailbox usually has a proper format that is used for archival (mbox, maildir, MH) which is not application-dependent. The problem I had with Evolution wasn't its size, my new computer can handle the load pretty easily. Rather, I had used Evolution before and knew the Ximian guys (now Novell) had gotten it the wrong way: They had made the application too mailbox-centric in a sense. Evolution lets you have multiple accounts... but one mailbox. Folders and subdirectories won't change the fact that at the end of the day you will have to deal with one mailbox which is in my opinion not practical.  On the other hand, Evolution comes with nifty little features (calendar, newreader, etc.) that are nice to have and to use.

Sylpheed - Claws: It turns out I chose Claws, perhaps because Sylpheed seems to have a slower development cycle and is a one-man effort. Claws is more populated and has more features. Claws really is a fork of Sylpheed although the two were supposed to work together and Sylpheed would have been the stable version of the couple. It seems it's not the case anymore. However, I think that the two share more than 80 % of their code, so I'm really just talking about the two at the same time here. I knew Claws had two advantages on the onset: it's lightweight (12 Mo) (therefore it's quite fast) and operates on a mailbox logic. I was quite surprised to see it was easy to configure, and it just required easy logical reasoning, something that is a bit rare in configuration assistants these days. I was able to consolidate and retrieve almost all my email in three years, something that never happened to me with Thunderbird and Apple Mail. The interface is a bit simplistic, being in GTK +2 but it is not unpleasant. One can customize it with themes if needed. I had several other pleasant surprises: GPG configuration was a breeze but you need to install plugins. However, plugins can do many other things: for instance they got me a calendar and a feedreader that can import OPML files...

I will thus recommend Claws to anyone who cares not just about freedom, but also about using a robust email application that is easy to use and configure and not lose emails.

The future of emails may be in the cloud, which I think is partly true; for people who uses email daily and handles several accounts, you need a really powerful, extendable buggy. I found mine: Claws.

Charles-H. Schulz (http://standardsandfreedom.net)