How do you replace Microsoft Outlook? Groupware applications

Short URL:


How do you replace Microsoft Outlook? Do you go for Evolution or Kontact? Can a combination of Mozilla Thunderbird and Lighting do the trick? Do you split the features and are there any compromises to be made?

Regular readers will immediately recognise this as the next in my free software for the voluntary sector thread but the questions I'll be looking at apply equally to other sectors. The background to this is that Contact a Family have been using Microsoft Outlook XP for about 6 years. We don't use Microsoft Exchange and we have our own POP3 server with users dotted across the UK. Myself and my team have long had enough of supporting Outlook and recently I've noticed an increase in user complaints about it. Note these are not about the mail server being slow or the levels of spam (although I do get those): these complaints are about Outlook in particular. They range from the way it "forces" you to top-post (yes, this was from an end--user!) through the terrible attachment handling to not permitting spaces in distribution list names. Personally, I dislike the monolithic PST files and the inability to view plain text by default without a registry hack. Yes I know this is possible in 2003/7 but I'm not paying for the upgrade just for that!

Time for a change

So it's time to change. We're looking at changing a lot more than just the MUA though: IMAP in place of POP3, better automatic server-side inbox filtering, implementing more uniform retention policies and the avoidance of monolithic PST files as a mail store. Ideally I'd like to use Maildir as my store format and most IMAP servers support that. Of course much of this is not dependant upon the MUA but moving to an IMAP/groupware server will usually require additional--and paid for--plugins for Outlook. So we're looking for alternatives.

Any of Evolution, Kontact or Thunderbird will do the mail job admirably but Thunderbird is lacking stability on the calendaring side--even with Lightning. Thunderbird does have the advantage--in this instance--of being cross platform: it has a native Windows client. This would mean I not having to upgrade all of my end-users to GNU/Linux just yet*. I should point out that KDE 4 is being ported to Windows and will probably bring Kontact with it. Evolution already has a Windows port but it remains largely untested.

* This is a project planned for the future but right now there are a few reasons why it's impractical.

Moving away from the desktop

One of the needs of my users is the ability to access their e-mail from home as well. Currently--with our POP3 setup--this is "handled" using third party web-based POP clients but it's not ideal and creates its own set of issues. Moving from Outlook to say another desktop client won't really resolve this. As I've already mentioned I'm looking into web-based group--ware applications as a solution. The front runners are (OGo and no relation to, eGroupware and phpGroupWare--all three being reasonably mature. The former grew out of the Skyrix proprietary solution. In fact Skyrix is now the "enterprise distribution" of guess the relationship is similar to that between and StarOffice.

eGroupware: forks (and knives?)

eGroupware began as a--quite acrimonious--2003 fork of phpGroupware so the two--kind of--share a common codebase. That said it's been 4 years so there will inevitably be some differences in direction by now. Interestingly the eGroupware project has hit the headlines again recently with the inclusion and then expulsion of the Tine2.0 codebase. Normally I see forks, healthy debate and codebase sharing as a good thing but too much of this kind of activity makes me--probably incorrectly--question the codebase itself. Perhaps I am being unkind--and I have not been able to follow the whole situation very closely--but in my experience too much political activity can often distract from the purpose of creating and maintaining good software. Then again one of the purposes of free licencing is so the code will survive even if the project is going through a rough time.

Getting back to the comparison of the three, they all seem to tick the boxes I have in front of me. OGo and eGroupware both claim support of PDA synchronisation--which I know some of my users will want. phpGroupware may well do that as well but on-line docs are harder to find just now and I haven't installed it yet. All three have hardware and OS requirements well within our reach. So it just comes down to how easily they can fit our needs, how intuitive (for my users) their interfaces are and--in the end--whether they will create or save me and my team some work in the long-term. The answers for which will take more space than I have here and which I haven't fully established yet.

So which way to jump?

I think we'll probably go for a group-ware solution with web-based clients--we already have a well used Intranet and this would make a good addition to it. Not having a specific desktop client will open up the possibilities for migration to a free desktop in the future. We already plan to migrate to and a web-based PIM solution will be the last piece in that puzzle as well.

I'd be interested to hear from anyone who has been through this--how hard is migration from Outlook (with or without Exchange) to one of these? Comments just below here please.



Antonio Censi's picture

Look at

Even if in Portuguese, I hope you can grasp the important parts.

Probably one of the largest eGroupware deployments, with some additional modules and functions.

garyc's picture
Submitted by garyc on

Hi mate, have tried most of these, and I think XXXX is the best ( [EDITED: This is about a non-free product, and this comment is too marketing-speech. Also, the user was created just to leave this comment. Too suspicious.] . It has a truly excellent web based interface, and is free for 10 premium users (slightly older version 10 is free for 25 users). Premium users can use the provided outlook connector (for versions 2000 thru to 2007). Unlimited Number of "standard" users can be added, who are confined to (brilliant) web interface, which can be accessed internally as well as externally (i even found it ran at acceptable speed on a laptop with 56k dialup connection). Stability is outstanding, my mail server has been running for 4 years now with around 500k emails and never has been down once. Zimbra also had a nice offering if i remember correctly. Good Luck !

xurxosanz's picture
Submitted by xurxosanz on


Very interesting post but I wonder why you missed the Zimbra suite (

I have no idea about how good or bad it is but IMHO it's at least a nice app to test (or write about).

Best regards

Ryan Cartwright's picture

Very interesting post but I wonder why you missed the Zimbra suite

Well it hasn't really crossed my radar that much - not sure why but there you go - so I guess it slipped my mind when researching. When I have looked into it I've heard of some issues with integrating it with Exim--which is what we use as an MTA and would like to continue doing so. If anybody knows different--feel free to comment. Shame really because at first glance it looks good.

thanks Ryan

henningsprang's picture

We use Zimbra in our company and are quite happy with it. For clients that need or insist on having a fully outlook compatible Groupware server, we sell and recommend Zarafa, a MAPI Server running on Linux that looks to outlook clients as an exchange server, and has a web interface(I cannot say uch about it as I didn't try it myself - I'm currently workjing more in the areas of virtualization, automatic installation and Java development).

awilliam's picture
Submitted by awilliam on

"I guess the relationship is similar to that between and StarOffice."

It isn't. The relationship is described in a recent interview over at Linux World.

" is a much larger community than the community, and Sun is a much larger company than SKYRiX, so the projects cannot meaningfully be compared. SKYRiX is a small company which works together with a few other companies on the development of OGo []. OGo is a very open project and SKYRiX places very few restrictions on OGo's development. Contributors to OGo do not need to assign copyrights to SKYRiX. The most active members of the OGo community are not employed by SKYRiX, although a few occasionally do paid work for SKYRiX customers."

wreker's picture
Submitted by wreker on

I have been using it for about a year. The community edition is free. You can pay for support if you want. There is a large community if you want help. Yes I did register to leave this comment. Though I may likely keep the account.

My problem with Zimbra is the cheesy web interface. It just looks terrible.

[Edited to remove marketing type speech]

Ryan Cartwright's picture

The community edition is free. You can pay for support if you want. There is a large community if you want help. Yes I did register to leave this comment. Though I may likely keep the account.

I and many others have a problem with the licence used by Scalix. It's a modified Mozilla Public Licence and although you do get the source code the modifications place restrictions on your use of the software. Specifically there is a clause which insists you place the Scalix logo on every page produced. So although the community edition is open source (although the OSI have never approved it), it is not free software and that is why I did not consider it.

You probably realised this but when we speak of free software here we do not mean cost but freedom. It's to do with what you can do with the software rather than what you pay. Have a look at the following links for more information on what we mean by free software.

Beginners guide to free software (FSM issue 15)
Free Software Foundation (FSF)


McNee's picture
Submitted by McNee on

I have been using eGroupware for a couple years now, and overall have been very pleased with it. However, from an admin standpoint it is not 'easy'. Installation took me awhile, and I consider myself fairly savy.

I recently upgraded to the newest version, choosing to do a fresh install for a variety of reasons, and while the installation has not gotten any easier, it went smoothly. I was never able to get the imap mail client to work in the previous install, but it is working great.

We're a construction company, so having shared, remote access on job sites was the major reason for moving to eGroupware from previously using ACT!, and the bonus of it being open-source for me was huge. I've also just recently helped a friend set it up for his company.

We both work for small companies, (dozen or fewer employees) so I can't speak to how well it works on a larger scale, but it has met the majority of our needs consistently, and I would recommend it.

Rob Portinga

mschering's picture
Submitted by mschering on

Please consider Group-Office as an altenative too. We developed a brand new version with an interface that's very close to a desktop application but it's still web based and works in all major browsers. You can share projects, calendars, e-mail, CRM and synchronize this information with mobile phones. The link:

Ryan Cartwright's picture

As it happens we are seriously considering this. In fact I think you've been communicating with one of my team regarding it (Charity discounts ring a bell?).

It should be noted for completeness sake and the benefit of FSM readers that the core and majority of the suite is free but the billing module and the ability to edit documents within the browser (using Javascript) are both proprietary. Neither of these interfere with the kind of functionality I've described in this article and you can of course use the suite as free software without these reasonable niche modules.

Oddly enough I am just composing a follow up to this regarding Group-office but yes it is very good.


Author information

Ryan Cartwright's picture


Ryan Cartwright heads up Equitas IT Solutions who offer fair, quality and free software based solutions to the voluntary and community (non-profit) and SME sectors in the UK. He is a long-term free software user, developer and advocate. You can find him on Twitter and