On its own, Mozilla Thunderbird is a handsome, capable mail app. It does everything you would expect a mail application to do and a bit more. I would compare its capabilities — unfairly — to Outlook Express rather than Outlook proper, as it lacks calendaring and tasking capabilities. Outlook, though traditionally one of the major security holes in and attack vectors for Windows, is otherwise quite a functional application, though nothing particularly special.
What Outlook does, though, is easily plug into Exchange. Which just happens to easily plug into things like Sharepoint and Office. All of which rests on a foundation of MSSQL and Active Directory. Which only exist on Windows Servers. This is what we call an ecosystem. It’s one of the few things that Microsoft does right. Outlook is simply the thin end of the wedge, that little bit of lubrication that enables you to more easily give money to Microsoft.
And right now, there’s really no good alternative. Outlook + Office + Sharepoint + Exchange + MSSQL + Windows Server is damned expensive, (often) hard to maintain and administer, and hooked into a system of constant and unnecessary upgrades that ensure it will be expensive now and in the future, but it’s so easy.
Thunderbird doesn’t have that ecosystem. Evolution doesn’t have that ecosystem. Thunderbird is getting close with the Lightning calendaring application, a fine, even essential addition to the program. I can’t imagine installing Thunderbird without Lightning. But this is all frontend stuff. If you want to set up a proper backend for Thunderbird using, say, Linux + MySQL + Postfix + whatever, you’re in for quite a steep learning curve. Unless you have a lot of spare time, that learning curve will be almost insurmountable.
What the Linux business community needs, to penetrate the SMB market especially, is something along the lines of Exchange. Something like Zimbra, for instance. We need to cast aside this idea that a competent UNIX admin must be in charge of the Linux server. Most small and medium sized businesses simply do not have the resources for that. We need to be able to say, here, have this server. It will do what you need it to do.
Can you imagine a Linux-based server with a bunch of pre-built virtual machines designed to work with each other to provide a smooth computing experience for those of us who can’t afford to hire an admin full time?
You buy some iron, lay it down in the spare room, and say, okay, I need the “Storage” virtual machine and the “Mail Server” virtual machine and the “Web Server” virtual machine, and the “Collaboration” virtual machine. You install them, you click through a bunch of helpful wizards and boom, you’re done. Maybe it points you in the direction of a backup server for good measure.
You go to your Windows or OS X or Ubuntu machine and start it up. You install a couple programs on it that just work right out of the box. Could be Firefox, Thunderbird, OpenOffice.org, or whatever. You get to work and everything is exactly the way you want it.
Then one day when your company has enough money for an full-time admin, you separate that functionality into separate servers or whatever.
I guarantee that business owners will pay for that. Bundle all these free software ideas together and make a usable package out of them. I don’t care of you GPL your front end or not. I’m a pragmatist when it comes to things like that. But there is serious money to be made in the marketplace for a company brave enough to do just that. You can sell your product and the support of that product for far less than all that Microsoft software. You can undercut them and create a better, more secure product in the meantime.
A guy can dream, right?