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Zimbra Desktop gives Yahoo Mail offline access

Yahoo, an early leader in Web-based e-mail, is trying to leapfrog Google with its Zimbra Desktop software, which offers online documents and offline access.

Update 11:03 a.m. PDT: I added more comment from Zimbra. Update 9:25 a.m. PDT: I added more background and details about my hands-on test.

Any of the 263 million Yahoo Mail users who were antsy for change now have something they can sink their teeth into.

The first real fruits of Yahoo's $350 million acquisition of Zimbra are becoming apparent with the release Thursday of the Yahoo Zimbra Desktop. The e-mail software, available as a free download for Windows and Mac, works when the user is offline, and it offers options for basic online word processing and spreadsheets, task management, and file storage.

Zimbra Desktop's e-mail interface should be familiar to users of either Outlook or Yahoo Mail.
Zimbra Desktop's e-mail interface should be familiar to users of either Outlook or Yahoo Mail. (Click for larger version.) CNET News

Zimbra Desktop means that Yahoo beat out Google in the race to provide e-mail that also works offline, but it took a different approach to get there. Google looks to be adding offline access through the open-source Gears project, a plug-in that augments a Web browser's abilities.

But Zimbra Desktop, while using browser interface technology called Ajax that can give Web browsers an elaborate interface, actually runs as a standalone application. It employs Java software to store data locally, and it's a hefty download--38MB for Windows, 34MB for Mac OS X, and 44MB for Linux.

Yahoo has formed a new group focusing on cloud computing, in which services available on the Internet substitute for local applications. But until the day when a reliable, fast Internet connection is available anywhere, offline access to applications is a significant feature.

Webmail is a compelling facet of cloud computing, letting people reach their e-mail from any number of computers or mobile devices. But from a user's point of view, Zimbra Desktop's approach--a downloadable application that doesn't run in a browser--is actually more like traditional e-mail client software such as Microsoft Outlook or Mozilla Thunderbird.

Zimbra Desktop gives access to basic word-processing abilities, with documents stored online.
Zimbra Desktop gives access to basic word-processing abilities, with documents stored online. (Click to enlarge.) CNET News

"We've aimed to blur the line between an Ajax Web-client and a conventional desktop application, and this release is a leap towards reaching that goal," Zimbra's Mike Morse said in a blog posting Thursday.

Web e-mail comes full circle
Existing Zimbra customers can use the e-mail application through a regular browser, letting them access their e-mail from a machine that doesn't have Zimbra Desktop installed. But the Web client version doesn't offer offline access, said John Robb, Zimbra's vice president of product marketing.

So why use Zimbra Desktop when regular e-mail client software has provided offline access to e-mail for well over a decade?

"The exciting thing is you're getting the Zimbra features that haven't been available to people without the Zimbra server," Robb said, specifically mentioning conversations, tagging, small applications called Zimlets, and rich searching features such as the ability find all messages from a particular person and with a PDF attached.

Also, Yahoo Mail customers can't use the Zimbra browser-based interface yet, so they won't get access to Zimbra features when borrowing friends' computers or using airport kiosks.

Yahoo's Zimbra and Yahoo Mail programmers now are working more closely together, though, and the two projects will be converging somewhat.

"You should see a lot of synergy between the Yahoo Mail team and the Zimbra team. This is a first example," Robb said. "You'll see Zimbra technology appearing in many parts of the Yahoo Mail experience, and things from Yahoo Mail will come over to the Zimbra side."

After many months of quiet integration, Zimbra's ascent within Yahoo has been apparent. As part of a major reorganization in June, Zimbra leader Scott Dietzen was named to run all of Yahoo's messaging and communication work.

The software can be used to connect to Yahoo Mail and also to other accounts such as AOL or Gmail that support remote access via POP (Post Office Protocol) or the newer IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol).

Test-driving Zimbra Desktop
I had no trouble installing, configuring, and running Zimbra Desktop to send and receive e-mail. As with Yahoo's Webmail interface, it mirrors Microsoft Outlook's look and keyboard shortcuts.

However, it's not perfect. It didn't seem connected to my Yahoo address book for contacts or calendar for events.

Zimbra Desktop can handle multiple accounts; I had no trouble setting up access to my Gmail account.

Unless you instruct it otherwise, Zimbra Desktop will synchronize your in-box but not folders where you may have filed message. You can manually sync folders when you click on them, but the process worked erratically for me.

One feature I liked, similar to Gmail's conversation view, shows a small triangle next to e-mail messages that are part of a back-and-forth exchange. Clicking on the triangle expands the e-mail header list so you can see all the messages of the exchange.

Another feature I was glad to see is tags, which, similar to Gmail labels, let you describe e-mail messages in a more useful way than filing them into folders. Folders are better than nothing, but I hate having to decide which folder to use for a message that belongs to more than category--travel, photography, and family, to pick one example.

Zimbra's tags and Gmail's labels didn't synchronize, though. And tags are specific to an e-mail account, so clicking on a tag will show only a subset of messages within one

Zimbra Desktop's productivity suite elements are workable but nothing to write home about. Unlike Google Docs, Microsoft Office files can't be opened, and there's no presentation software. The spreadsheet is extremely spartan, and runs awkwardly inside the word-processing application.

Zimbra Desktop shows an icon in Windows' system tray, but not as an application in the Taskbar. I had one significant problem: When I was trying out a spreadsheet and minimized all my applications, not even the system tray icon was visible. Manually terminating the process didn't work either; an error message indicates Zimbra Desktop is still running somewhere on my system. Hello, reboot.

There's still work to be done getting Zimbra to run as a standalone application. This is the error message that I got after complications minimizing the application.
There's still work to be done getting Zimbra to run as a standalone application. This is the error message that I got after complications minimizing the application.

Robb confirmed that address book and calendar synchronization don't yet work. "We believe those are mandatory features to make it generally available," he said.

Other top priorities are making the documents better and endowing Zimbra Desktop with the instant-messaging feature available in the browser-based version, Robb said.

And right now Zimbra customers only can run the software by installing it on their own servers. Yahoo is working on a hosted version that Yahoo itself will run, he said, that will launch in coming quarters.