Evolution's latest mutations

It's been a while since I've looked at Evolution, the GNOME project's answer to Microsoft Outlook. I wrote about Evolution 0.2 last summer, when it was barely out of the larval stage. While some serious progress has been made between 0.2 and the current 0.8 release, there is still work to be done before 1.0 goes out the door later this year.

The biggest difference is that I can now use Evolution in my everyday life. It still crashes and you should still back up your mail folders, but I'm using it now for two POP accounts, calendaring, and contact information.

What's the same? Evolution is still very attractive. It still operates out of the same basic framework and looks like it will become the premier mail client for Linux. And it is still a work in progress. I don't recommend throwing away your current mail client and moving to Evolution today. But brave souls -- in addition to the Evolution hackers -- are doing just that. If you're not quite ready for mail on the edge, you might think about switching later. It's going to be a dandy.

Inside Evolution

Evolution 0.8 has four major components: Executive-Summary, Mail, Calendar, and Contacts. Documentation is scarce, but I've been able to achieve most of my objectives just by following my nose and the GUI design. But beware: Not every option on menus and elsewhere is functional. If you become an early adopter, it's going to take some trial and error to discover what works and what doesn't.

I wasn't at all sure after looking at it what Executive-Summary was supposed to bring to the app. When I clicked on its icon, it brought up an almost empty page (please, no jokes about how fitting that is for executive management) with a text box area marked "Search on Google." However, entering text in the box and hitting enter didn't do a thing.

I wrote an inquiry to the development team and Evolution's project lead, Ettore Perazzoli, responded that the summary page lets you add plug-in applets to summarize how much mail you have waiting, remind you of appointments from your calendar app, or perhaps show you the latest Slashdot headlines. It's going to be much more useful than I had imagined.

Perazzoli doesn't claim Evolution as his own brainchild. He told me that Evolution began as the GNOME mailer project, then morphed into a Ximian (née Helix Code) project and picked up design ideas from both the mailing lists and Miguel de Icaza's "own creative mind."

I'm most interested in the mail component. There is no doubt in my mind that email is the single most important application for most users. The Linux community -- in spite of the improvement to KMail in KDE 2 -- has lagged behind the Windows crowd in the number and quality of GUI mail clients. I know, I know. Mutt, Elm, Pine, and Emacs all provide millions of happy users with all the email they can read. But to grow the community even larger and become a recognized player on the desktop, Linux must deliver an email client that recent converts from the dark side can easily navigate and use.

I set up Evolution 0.8 to handle two POP accounts: one at my ISP and another from the server on my LAN. If there is a way to automate mail gathering, I haven't found it yet. But there is a nice icon to click when you want to get new mail. Evolution provides for folders and nested folders. You can quickly and easily set up filters to drop the incoming mail wherever you like. In my experience, the filters do not yet work all the time. Some mail I've created filters for goes into the appropriate folders; other mail seems blissfully unaware of the filter I created for it and drops into the inbox. I suspect that closer examination will show that the filtering problem stems from my configuration, not from Evolution.

Encryption is available too, though judging from traffic on the Evolution users list (see Resources for a link), you need to edit the configuration files by hand to enable the features.

Are you tired of having to parse HTML to read mail from creative folk (usually spammers or Windows users) who feel they must express themselves in color and bold fonts? Evolution handles that just fine, and since I started running it, my spam has been a lot easier to read.

I subscribe to one mailing list devoted to photographs of donkeys and mules. No, it's not the Barr family reunion list. It's for breeders and fanciers of miniature, standard, and mammoth donkeys and mules. In KDE 2, KMail opens and displays photos attached to messages. In Evolution -- at least in the current default configuration -- I had to click on each attachment and ask to display it. Hopefully, that feature is or will become configurable.

If that kind of talk makes you think I want Evolution to be as easily infected as Outlook, just hold on. That was one question I posed to Evolution developers last summer when I first looked at the program. Others have asked too, often enough for it to become the number one question on the FAQ. The Evolution FAQ says:

Evolution will never execute scripts (or binaries) received in mail. If the user receives a message containing an "I LOVE YOU" program that he wants to run, he would have to save it to disk, use the chmod program to mark it as being "executable", and then run it by hand. (This is exactly the same thing you would have to do in any other UNIX email program.) In addition to my two POP accounts, I have set up two "identities" for myself in Evolution. If, like me, you have email accounts scattered hither and yon, it's convenient to reply to messages using the same name and email address that received the message. Evolution appears willing to let me set up as many identities as I want.

Evolution contains some code for newsgroup support, but it probably will not be completed by the time 1.0 is released. You can currently configure an account on an NNTP server and select the groups you want to subscribe to. But that's it -- you can't retrieve or post messages at all.

In conclusion, if you're the adventuresome type and can live with an occasional segfault for the greater good, this would be a great time to get involved with the Evolution project. Not only would it give you a chance to help with bug reports and feedback, you might be able to shape the final product's polish and functionality by making your wishes known to the hackers.

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