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You Say You Want an Evolution

Previewing Helix Code's New Mailer/Calendar

  • June 30, 2000
  • By Michael Hall

Almost a year ago, the GNOME project's mercurial founder, Miguel de Icaza made mention of the Camel mail API, but only long enough to whet the appetites of GNOME fans: no client was immediately forthcoming, but the architecture was there. Since then, the number of GNOME mail clients has exploded, and few nondevelopers have seen much. That recently changed with a preview release of Evolution, Helix Code's upcoming contribution to the desktop wars.

Though the GNOME desktop already has plenty of mail clients, a calendar, and an address book, a certain level of integration has been missing from the equation. Few of the mail clients, for instance, take advantage of the address book. None of the programs available offer the sort of all-in-one convenience of a Groupwise or Outlook. Evolution was designed to change this, and provide additional features along the way that may cause many non-GUI mail hold-outs to take a second look.

Getting Evolution 0.1
Those curious about Evolution have an interesting road ahead. Like most early release software, it's heavily dependent on leading-edge libraries, though RPMs have been created for Red Hat 6.2 users. The RPMs also work gracefully enough with alien on a current Debian 2.2 (Potato) machine with the latest Helix Code GNOME release.

If the RPMs or alien don't cut it, you'll have to pay a visit to Helix Code's site and download the source. Instructions are provided at the site, and it's worth your time to read the README file provided. Getting Evolution to compile isn't the simplest proposition, though we got it to work on Debian, Red Hat, and Mandrake boxes. There's little advice to offer, except to follow the directions in the README, and have some time on your hands.

Once they have Evolution compiled, users should also beware that in its current state, Evolution is more about the pieces they can't see. The back-end is largely in place, but the user interface is not much more than a scaffolding. Some features aren't implemented, many menus include the label "FIXME", and some things you can't help but click on induce crashes. As with the general GNOME environment before it, Evolution's developers have chosen to toss a rough draft out to the public to attract feedback, curious developers, and (considering Helix Code is behind much of the development) some buzz for what promises to be a Fall season dominated by desktop-oriented software.

Looking at the Mailer
There's a widespread belief that a good GUI mailer is hard to come by in the Linux world. This perception seems to stem from the notion that users require an all-in-one solution. Most Linux users with a little time under their belts have probably set up a working fetchmail/procmail/client pipe that works interchangeably with whatever client is at hand. Plenty of clients offer direct support of POP and IMAP if fetchmail isn't an option, and a few others offer built-in filtering if procmail seems like too much to deal with.

With even those outside the Linux community predicting that Linux will "kill"; Microsoft in the server arena, though, the new fight is for the desktop, and the ever-elusive "typical user" migrating from "friendlier" environs wants integration (and, it's safe to admit, probably doesn't want to deal with regular expressions). Evolution will not only provide the friendly GUI, but some nice tools for processing mail that will rival (and likely surpass) most offerings in the Windows world. It's the added features and eventual polish (already showing through despite the preview's lack of completeness) that will make Evolution a hard app to beat.

Consider, for instance, Evolution's use of virtual folders. Users of Emacs' Gnus or vm readers will be familiar enough with this feature, since it allows the user to "can" queries that organize mail without requiring the creation of "real" folders in the user's file system. This, in turn, allows users an added dimension of freedom in organizing their mail. A set of virtual folders might, for instance, allow a user to view mail by the mailing list it originated from, the user that sent it, or others who received the same message. This feature doesn't require a separate, space-consuming folder for each desired view of one's mail, and it allows users to experiment with mail organization without risking losing anything thanks to an ill-advised deletion of an undesired folder if an organizational scheme doesn't suit.

Though this sort of solution can be engineered easily enough in some existing clients, Evolution's designers have also decided to harness the somewhat new GNOME Druids to make design of virtual folders a relatively painless procedure. Users will have the ability to modify premade virtual folders, or create their own. Users who prefer to simply create filters can also do so, and the process is facilitated with easy-to-use Druids that use plain English to create the rules and conditions to move mail around.

One other convenience feature that sticks out is a handy search field, which allows users to look for keywords (or their lack) in either the subject or body of their messages.

 

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