Much to my chagrin, most of you use Microsoft Outlook. It’s just one of those facts of life. Most people think it’s the only way to read their e-mail, schedule their time, keep track of their friends, and maintain their sanity. Ask why many of those people have yet to migrate to Linux and they’ll chime, “No Outlook.”

And then those grand monkeys at Ximian arrive on the scene, pounding out code. What does the mastermind Miguel di Icaza have brewing up in Boston? Evolution, my friend. I’m not talking evolution of the Darwinian type, I’m talking the Linux equivalent to Outlook!

I’m going to show you that with Evolution there’s a bright light at the end of the tunnel and that you can finally get rid of that nasty Microsoft taste left in your mouth every time you sit at your computer.

What is Evolution?
Evolution is a client-side-only groupware application (Ximian is working on the server side as I type) that has just enjoyed its official first beta release. I’ve been using this suite since its early alpha stages and have found it to be one amazing tool, especially considering that it was, in fact, way pre-beta. It has been my primary e-mail client, my only contact manager, and my only calendaring application. Outside of a few crashes here and there, the suite of tools has rocked.

Downloading and installing Evolution
Okay, this isn’t always the most painless process (remember, this is still in beta), so we’re going to go about it the easy way. The first thing you have to have is a working installation of GNOME (preferably the latest GNOME). The next step is to upgrade to Ximian GNOME.

Open a console window, su to root, run the command lynx –source | sh, and answer all the questions. Next, su to root and run the command red-carpet to run the red-carpet installer application, click the icon to subscribe to the Evolution Snapshot channel (and any other channel you wish to subscribe to), go to Subscribed Channels by clicking the icon on the left nav bar (as shown in Figure A), select the Evolution Snapshot channel, and then click Install Packages.

Figure A
You can subscribe to four channels in the Ximian installer environment.

Once the packages are installed, you can quit the Ximian installer application and run Evolution with the command evolution. Let’s look at some of the features of each tool in the suite, shall we?

You’ve got mail
The Evolution mail client has quickly become as robust and user-friendly as any on the market. Its feature set is like any fully packed, fully priced mail client, only this time, it’s open source!

The layout of the mail client is very similar to that of Outlook. On the left is a vertical pane that allows you to move back and forth between the various applications. To the right of that are two horizontal panes; the top pane is a listing of the current selected folder, and the bottom pane is the display window for the e-mail.

The Evolution e-mail client handles pretty much everything you can hit it with. HTML mail? If you prefer that type, no problem; Evolution can handle it. Links? Sure. Tables? Of course. In-line images? Not a problem. For those of you who prefer your e-mail pretty and bulky, Evolution has got your back.

Setting up the Evolution mail client is a snap. The first time you try to compose an e-mail, Evolution is going to remind you that you haven’t configured your mail settings, ask you whether you’d like to, and (if you say yes) run you through the setup wizard. If you miss the setup wizard, it’s no big thing—you can walk through the entire configuration from within the Evolution Account Manager.

To open the Evolution Account Manager (EAM), select Mail Settings from the Tools drop-down menu. From within the EAM, you can add, edit, delete, set as default, and disable accounts. This tool will also allow you to configure a number of other settings for your mail accounts. Figure B shows the configuration tabs available in the EAM.

Figure B
Configure your accounts and how your mail will look and feel from within the Evolution Account Manager.

One of the best things about the mail client is that it can handle multiple accounts, as well as multiple types of accounts. POP, IMAPv4, Qmail maildir, Standard UNIX mailbox, and UNIX mbox spool type accounts are all supported.

A huge selling point for me is Evolution’s ability to interact with such Mail Transfer Agents (MTAs) as procmail. I’m a big fan of the procmail/fetchmail combination, with flexibility, reliability, and security being three prime reasons. Evolution allows you to use your already spiffed-up procmail setup instead of the inherent delivery agent. So all those procmail rules I’ve spent months (nay, years) honing are all still sweet!

Another really sweet deal with the Evolution e-mail client is the ability to create Virtual Folders (vFolders). vFolders speed e-mail by automatically organizing it based on search criteria you supply. This is fast and also has the great benefit of allowing messages to simultaneously exist in multiple vFolders. Messages aren’t moved and copied to vFolders; they’re automatically and “virtually” grouped by search criteria.

Finally, all e-mail within the Evolution mail component can be encrypted using the GnuPG encryption tool. As of beta 3, the encryption tool works fairly flawlessly. Anytime you receive an incoming encrypted mail, you’re asked for the gpg password. If the password is correct, the mail will automatically be decrypted! This is great news to those who grow tired of composing encrypted mail outside of the mail client.

I’m late, I’m late…

Figure C
The Outlook calendar application helps you remember to do things with others.

Figure D
The Evolution calendar application helps you remember to do stuff with people.

One of these things is not like the other! Take a close look at Figures C and D. Figure C is Microsoft’s Outlook calendar application, and Figure D is the Evolution calendar application. The differences are subtle, but you can see that both applications are user-friendly.

When I asked the developers of Evolution about the sharing of contacts, calendars, and so on, they had this to say:

Interoperability with messaging standards like MS Exchange is important to customers, especially in corporate settings. By virtue of its IMAP support, Evolution can act as an e-mail client for Exchange. With its support for vCard, vCal, and iCal standards, Evolution users can also share calendar events and contacts with non-Evolution applications, such as MS Outlook, that support those standards. LDAP support also enables Evolution to use existing address directories. Ximian is working to provide this interoperability and will continue to push the Evolution to work with other products and further extend resource sharing capabilities.

As of the beta 3 release, the Evolution calendaring tool allows for the use of reminders via message, sound, event, or e-mail. It’s young in its evolution (pun certainly intended), and the reminder aspect of the Evolution calendar application isn’t quite fully functional. Of the reminders available, the only type that’s fully functional is the display of messages. This shouldn’t be difficult to resolve, due to the Evolution team’s frequent “bug day” events that culminate in the reparation of numerous bugs.

Evolution users have seen vast improvement with this newer release; your favorite Linux groupware suite can now accept Outlook meeting requests, as long as they are sent in iCalendar format, and even automatically update your own calendar. Along those same lines, beta 3 allows you to send meeting requests to those lower on the evolutionary ladder (Outlook users, that is) and they too can accept, reject, and update their own calendars.

…and the rest
Rounding out Evolution’s tools are the Contact Manager and the Task application. Both tools are very simple to use and quite stable. Both integrate well within the groupware suite and are relied upon by all other applications.

The Evolution groupware suite has quickly become my tool of trade for all communication and management needs. The app is strong, stable, and built by a company and group of developers I highly respect. If Microsoft Outlook is one of the remaining fetters tying you to Windows, fret no more! Give Evolution a try and tell Miguel that Jack sent ya!

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From the hottest programming languages to commentary on the Linux OS, get the developer and open source news and tips you need to know. Delivered Tuesdays and Thursdays