Spicebird: Open source e-mail done right
Oct 13, 2008, 5:09 GMT
Washington - Web-based e-mail services may get most of the attention these days, but traditional desktop-based e-mail remains indispensable for most. That's in part because of history - people are still accustomed to downloading their e-mail into a traditional application - and in part because many have grown dependent upon the additional features that have come to be seen as essential to e-mail programs but are lacking in Web-based e-mail: contact management, calendaring, and more.
The trouble is that Microsoft's Outlook has come to dominate the e-mail application market, and the serious competitors have gradually fallen away. Outlook enjoys a near monopoly status - with prices to match. Mozilla Thunderbird has won the hearts of some as a viable alternative, but Thunderbird is essentially an inbox tool, lacking some of the essential functions found in Outlook. A new alternative, though, has emerged: Synovel Technologies' Spicebird is an open-source Outlook competitor, offering full-featured e-mail functions, a built-in news reader, contact management, calendaring, and task management. It's free, full-featured, and worth a look.
--- Tabbed interface
Spicebird's tabbed interface borrows from the tabbed layout of most browsers today - and will therefore be immediately familiar to those who have become accustomed to switching from one area of an application to another using tabs along the top of the content area.
Instead of switching from one Web page to another with tabs, however, Spicebird's tabs are used to move from the e-mail component to contacts, calendar, tasks, and the home page, which is entirely configurable, with items such as news from the Web, RSS feeds, world clocks, and calendar items all able to be displayed.
Keyboard mavens can even use the same keyboard shortcut - Ctrl-Tab - to move from one tab to another in Spicebird as they can from one tab to another in a Web browser. And keyboard lovers will be enthused, too, at how much of the functionality built in to Spicebird can be tapped without ever touching the mouse.
The interface in general is highly configurable. It can be loaded up with colourful icons or stripped of button bars, status bars, and side bars altogether to provide a no-nonsense workspace for sending and reading mail and working with daily schedules and contacts.
--- Setting up Spicebird
Spicebird is simple to set up, whether you want to use it as a replacement for your current e-mail program or on a trial basis to figure out whether it's worth the effort.
During the installation process, you're given the choice of whether to import your existing mail from the major e-mail programs in use today - Outlook, Outlook Express, Eudora, and even Gmail. The latter option is particularly interesting in that Spicebird gives you a way to access your Gmail in a conventional e-mail program with no configuration other than supplying your Gmail user name and password.
If you set up Spicebird to handle your Gmail, in fact, you'll get the best of both worlds: desktop-based access to your Gmail, including a taskbar pop-up that notifies you of new incoming Gmail, as well as continued access to Gmail through your Web browser. You don't have to worry about importing mail from your other e-mail programs right away, either. You can try out Spicebird and import e-mail and settings later.
A primary reason that people continue to turn to desktop e-mail programs like Outlook is because of built-in contact management and calendaring abilities. Outlook, in essence, is as much a contact manager as an e-mail program, and here's where Spicebird takes direct aim at Outlook.
Spicebird has both a Contacts and a Calendar tab, and both offer features that will stand up well to those offered in Outlook. In Contacts, you can create address book entries on the fly, or you can import your existing contacts from Outlook, Eudora, or a text file. The same goes for the Calendar tab. Import your settings from Outlook, schedule appointments with others, and get a view of your schedule by the day, week, or month.
The e-mail part of Spicebird is full-featured and will be instantly familiar to Outlook users. The screen is organised in the same manner, with folders in a left-hand pane, message headers to the right, and the text of messages in a window below the headers. You can create folders for different types of e-mail messages; a filter function, similar to Outlook's, allows you to route specific types of incoming messages to particular folders. An included spam filter works reasonably well.
While Spicebird offers discrete areas of the program for mail, contacts, calendaring, and tasks, these functions are, in fact, fairly tightly integrated, or at least aware of one another. For example, if you receive in e-mail message in which Spicebird detects an appointment or meeting, the program will provide a link that allows you to add the event to your calendar. Clicking the link will take you directly to your calendar tab.
Like Mozilla's Firefox browser, Spicebird's functionality and its look and feel can be enhanced beyond the basic package by downloading and installing plug-ins, extensions, and themes. Among the plug-ins included in the initial download are a Windows Media player and Acrobat reader; the single extension included in Spicebird is the instant messaging client. You can actually install other instant messaging clients, as well, including GTalk.
--- What's ahead
Synovel has some impressive plans for future functionality of Spicebird. Although the current version is still beta software - or pre 1.0 - Synovel plans to include tie-ins to blogging software even before the official 1.0 release. With this feature, you'll be able to post to your blog simply by sending an e-mail message, and any comments posted to your blog will show up in Spicebird as replies to your e-mail message. You'll also be able to store instant messaging sessions. The official 1.0 release is planned to have a Microsoft Exchange connector, as well, which should make Spicebird a viable replacement option for Outlook in business environments.
--- Compatibility and availability
Currently Spicebird is compatible with Windows and Linux. The current version is Beta 0.4 but is quite stable, probably because several of the application's core functions are based upon technology that has been in the open source community for some time and is fully tested. Download Spicebird from http://www.spicebird.com/download.