Fail Client: How Linux Fails At The Corporate Desktop

fail-client

My work takes me in and out of busy offices all day long.  I see Macs, I see PCs, I see servers and printers.  I see PCs running Windows which is no surprise, but what I never see are PCs running Linux.  “Why is this?” I always ask myself.  I mean, the benefits of open source far outweigh the risks and from an administrative viewpoint, the OS is a lot easier to manage.  So what is it that is holding Linux back?  It’s not spreadsheets and documents –word files and excel files can be easily handled in LibreOffice– nor is it Access/database related as you can get KEXI running in no time.  No, I will tell you what is holding Linux back and the answer is simple. Outlook.

The Evil Empire

The power-users and developers who occupy a sizeable chunk of real estate in the Linux world love, and I mean love to hate Microsoft Outlook and Exchange among the vast sea of proprietary software which Microsoft hawks to the public.  And why not?  It’s massive, slow, unreliable and almost impossible to secure –but then again what system isn’t?–  So why do so many choose that as their in-office email solution of choice when there are other options available?  I’ll tell you why; a unified interface and options galore.  Not to mention Outlook/Exchange is one of only three email server/clients that is currently supported by RIM’s Blackberry Enterprise Server.  The other two being GroupWise and Lotus Domino.  With this comes wireless PIMsync which means that your desktop and blackberry stay current.  This is also the reason that RIM has not filed for bankruptcy in the U.S.

What Makes Outlook So Special?

While I generally dislike all things Microsoft –for all of the application’s problems and faults– Outlook remains a very easy-to-use and powerful piece of software for its end-users.  So make no mistake, it is its native features that are packed in which are the primary factor for the applications continued success.  Outlook’s glory lies in it’s simplicity.  You have access to the 4 major functions that everyone needs outside of sending and receiving email.

  • Contact management
  • Tasks
  • Memos
  • Calendar management

While all of these are important, it’s the last two where Outlook always seems to shine.  Almost everyone I know uses the memo and calendar features in my work environment and I myself couldn’t imagine life without all of my work memos syncing with my Blackberry almost instantly. The same goes for your calendar and tasks.  The fact that I can do all of this in one application is truly amazing considering that no-one else seems to be doing this at Microsoft‘s level in regards to syncing and its integration into the application –which itself is a frightening statement.  Still, I can schedule appointments, invite attendees to said appointment, setup tasks and flag emails.  In addition to that are a host of other useful features which I will not get into here.  But know that for what it does and what it’s designed to do, it does it very well.  I myself do all of this through a virtual machine running Windows 7 (which I am not a fan of),  but hey, I gotta do what I gotta do.  I am just glad no one is trying to force me into using Windows as my host OS.

But I Don’t Wanna Run a VM

Linux has about 20 email clients that I can think of but we will only be talking about the two that function the best with the most features and least amount of reported bugs.  Those two are Thunderbird and Evolution.  While both of these are awesome mail clients, respectively, they are sorely lacking when it comes to features.  Most importantly, up-to-date server integration for Exchange.  I run both Evolution and Thunderbird at work with exchange on the backend and it is anything but a pleasant.

For instance, if I have either of those clients open and mail is coming into them they will show up as being read on my BlackBerry and Outlook while still showing as unread in Thunderbird and Evolution.  One could see how this would be a problem if I were to step away from my desk and forget to close those applications, I wouldn’t be getting notified of new messages on my Blackberry.  That would be very bad. Another thing that is missing from these clients are an effective means to keep memos and schedule calendar events.  Sure, Evolution can schedule events with its calendar, however you can only have one organizer of said event.  Meaning only one person can schedule things at a time, which may not be a good thing if your corporation is  multi-national or has many locations nationally.  Evolution also does not support native encryption –among other nuances.

Thunderbird is not much better when it comes to any of this stuff.  Actually, Thunderbird is worse.  It is an awesome mail client for the web, as both are but when it comes to the enterprise and Exchange, they just don’t stack up feature wise.  This has to change if Linux wants to become a player in the desktop arena as it is today.  Then, once everyone converts we can start to push a more native, Unix-based mail system to replace Exchange once the time comes to upgrade and replace those servers as they age.

For Linux To Win The Desktop

A viable enterprise email client will be needed that can do all of the things and possibly more than can be done with Outlook.  Without this, you will likely never see Linux rise to its full potential and gain market share in the enterprise, even if someone decided to develop a client that could do these things and charge a slight fee for it.  The potential gains would be substantial, but that would require Microsoft’s partial cooperation when it comes down to getting everything to sync properly with Exchange –but we all know how that will go.  Look to Outlook for Mac and Entourage to get a good idea of how they will strip features from anyone not running Windows.  If you’re thinking like me –which you must be by now– you know the way is a feature rich Outlook clone frontend running on a sendmail or another open project for the backend.  Once you can push something like that and tell people it’s free to install after showing them a demo they will rush to save money while at the same time maintaining the same level of functionality.


Darryl Barnes

Darryl Barnes is an IT professional with more than 15 years experience with both open source and proprietary solutions. With a key focus on Android development, Linux, BSD and Perl scripting.

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  • robert pogson

    When World + Dog are switching to web-based applications, the need for Outlook and Exchange disappear. Those applications were invented because that other OS was not a truly networked multi-user OS. GNU/Linux is. Those applications are essentially databases of messages and events, something everyone does on the web with no problem at all. Search the database for events and order by date and you have a calendar. Search the database for messages with whatever constraints you want and you have the ultimate messaging system. Outlook and Exchange are unnecessary when people use servers for what they do best. That only happens when people run GNU/Linux on the servers instead of M$’s cripple-ware. When people realize that M$ sold them cripple-ware only to charge extra for features they left out, they will appreciate that FLOSS helps them get the most from their investment in hardware.

    • Dan Garrett

      FWIW I have to agree with most of Mr. Barnes’ points. At different points in time I’ve work as a consultant with most of the global energy companies. To call Outlook & Exchange ubiquitous in those industries & related vertical companies is an understatement. And the company I work for provides technical hundreds of other global companies who are likewise enmeshed with Outlook & Exchange. Yes, there are dozens of technically superior and substantially less costly systems. But never underestimate the inexplicable power of popularity. For example, over a century of superior alternatives hasn’t changed that fact that Budweiser is the most popular beer in the world and it continues to grow.

  • http://profiles.google.com/matiasgerlich Matias Gerlich

    Even if there were a open source better choice for Outlook companies would still continue to use old, crap Microsoft ecosystem. Why? Because 98% of people are just scary and easily manipulated bunch of surrenders who are thinking: “they can’t be free lunch”. The main reason for failing corporate Linux-desktop it there between the left ear and right ear of human being.

    • http://www.digifail.com/ Tom Nardi

      I’ve seen that argument too many times to even count.

      We’re talking about people who do nothing but rescale and maybe brighten up images in pirated PhotoShop telling me that Linux isn’t a viable choice for them because there is no native PS.

      • Darryl Barnes

        I agree Tom Nardi, they act as though GIMP doesn’t exist.

  • Dohjunkmail

    I agree that not having an email client that seamlessly integrates with Microsoft Exchange is a big road block in the enterprise when it comes to using Linux on workstations. Getting this would be a huge step toward more Linux workstations in the enterprise scene.

    I disagree that LibreOffice satisfies the need for the rest of the office suite requirements. LibreOffice is great if you just want to open a Microsoft Word file to read it. But if you need to alter that document in any way, you will be sorely disappointed (unless your documents are very simple). Nine times out of ten, altering a complicated Word file will alter the formatting of the original. This makes interoperability impossible for most companies. It’s useful if you want to migrate from Word to LibreOffice, but you can’t use both to reliably write to the same documents.

    The other really big one is PowerPoint. LibreOffice can make great slide presentations on par with PowerPoint, and can also read in PowerPoint slides. But as with Word files, it will often trash the formatting.

    Ideally, a company could just migrate everything to LibreOffice and their needs would be satisfied. Unfortunately documents do not always originate from within the company. There is always some level of document exchange that goes on between companies, customers, etc… And THE standard format for that exchange is (unfortunately) Microsoft’s. For most companies, migrating to Linux means disregarding the inability to exchange documents with customers/partners etc…

    • Antonius Dench

      Why people continue to spout this nonsense about formatting issues between Office and LibreOffice, I cannot fathom. They are no worse than the formatting issues between Office 2010 and Office XP. If Microsoft can’t even get it right with their own products, why expect any third party who has to deal with incomplete or just plain wrong specs for the DOC and DOCX formats to get it right? Microsoft, either deliberately (my opinion) or through stupidity, introduces the formatting issues themselves. I believe deliberately because if you can effectively read the documents created on the latest and greatest version of Office on earlier versions, then why would I ever upgrade? There has been nothing compelling in any version of Office since Office 2003 that would make me want to pay for an upgrade. In fact, if the document exchange between the versions of Office were perfectly compatible, then I would be completely against upgrading because not only would I be saving on upgrade costs, but retraining costs as well.

      I exchange documents all the time with external entities who have no clue that I used LibreOffice to create my documents or to work on theirs, so claiming that you sacrifice the ability to share documents outside of your organization is just FUD, plain and simple.

    • http://twitter.com/aeiluindae Aeiluindae

      Here’s the thing. Word doesn’t even edit Word documents properly half the time. The same document will look different on a Word 2011 on a Mac, Word 2010 on Windows, and Word 2007 will break stuff entirely if you’re not careful (going the other way doesn’t work either, because backwards compatibility is iffy at times, too). It’s unreasonable to expect LibreOffice or OpenOffice to get it right if Microsoft can’t even maintain perfect compatibility between their Mac and Windows versions, much less decent backward compatibility.

  • up41

    Just want to add one more thing that hold office environment back in MS is the finance software. I do not know the big corporation but for SME, there are very very few accounting software running on Linux. Even there is any, it is not well supported. The major SME accounting software houses like Sage / Quickbook are all window base. Few owners nor accountants want to risk their financial data on software with no formal supports.

  • Guestes

    KDE Kontact

  • http://twitter.com/ralgozino Ramiro Algozino

    I’ve been investigating VMware Zimbra, It seems to be a very good alternative to the Exchange ecosystem. I want to give it a try and test it as soon as I can.

  • An

    kerio mail is nice

  • Trevor

    I prefer Thunderbird to Evolution, hands down, and use it happily with MS-Exchange at my employer. For email I connect using IMAP, I use the Lightning and Calendar Tweaks AddOns for Calendar which syncs to MS-Exchange using DavMail. DavMail also offers access to the LDAP Address Book. Finally, I use the FireTray AddOn for new email notifications. I can’t speak about Notes or syncing to Blackberry as I use neither. However, Thunderbird is sleaker and prettier than Evolution by far… in my opinion.

  • S Luscombe

    Prior to our organisation moving over to a hosted exchange solution

  • S Luscombe

    Sorry about the below post, I didn’t realise the system would post straight away!

    Anyway, as I was saying, prior to our organisation moving over to a hosted exchange solution we used Zimbra. It worked perfectly fine with Outlook on the e-mail side of things, albeit a few snags such as receipts and the like. Keep in mind though that the version we had would be quite old now (circa 2008-2009) so I would imagine things have come along since then.

    We have a healthy mix of Linux, Windows and Mac and for me the major problem usually comes down to managing authentication and permissions. We have an AD domain which I use for authentication and I got it linked through to Linux without too many issues but generally I get problems with permissions via Services for NFS/Samba.

  • Christian Ledermann

    You should have a look at http://www.kolab.org/ and the clients it supports: http://www.kolab.org/content/kolab-clients

  • Wendell Anderson

    Darryl Barnes obviously has little or no knowledge or expertise on “Enterprise class” e-mail clients/groupware outside of Microsoft Outlook, as he would have considered for example KDE KMail and it’s Kontact suite in his article as a viable and in most cases superior alternative to Outlook.

    There are no basic features or functionality of Outlook not present in the modern KMail, which can function as a client to Kolab backend, as well as several other back end Groupware/Collaboration servers using Open, International standards like CardDAV, WebDAV, iCAL and integrates well with Zimbra, Zarafa, Sogo, Group-Office, G-Mail and many other servers.

    Granted there are many custom configurations for Outlook that keep the large corporations tied inextricably to Microsoft, but that is the burden of these companies, not of Linux or supporting Groupware clients.

    Hundreds of millions of dollars wasted, combined with monumental inefficiency is the costs to mostly USA entities tied to Outlook/Microsoft, which Europe, South America, South Africa much of Asia are avoiding – and moving past USA in business technology innovation and efficiency.

    • Darryl Barnes

      Actually I have expertise with GroupWise, Domino, sendmail and four or five other client/server solutions. Has it ever occurred to you that I wanted this argument to take place? You’re argument assumes that I do not know this when I do and have pushed for open solutions with many clients. But if you did something like this on a network of 30,000 users (which is slightly less then the amount of users on my domain) the results would not be good as most people in this country HATE CHANGE.

      For starters no one in a corporation that size is going to fire their entire IT team in this to migrate everything over to an open standard which most of the the propitiatory system guys have no idea how to implement at the moment. This article speaks on getting Linux on desktops right now with existing servers on the backend and Kmail is not a viable alternative and it cannot do everything that outlook can. Can I import a .pst file with personal information old emails and such directly from a location and into kmail? I think not.. so when you do migrate people over from exchange. How do you plan on getting them their old data in an efficient manner? I know people who have outlook personal folders that date back to 1997. And yes they use the data in them. How do you plan on importing that into kmail?

      If Linux wants to make a splash they need to get on desktops in offices so people can get to understand it at work and then they will look to buy a pc pre loaded with Linux for their home machines. Everything you mentioned makes sense to you and I but not to the avg consumer and the avg corporation (the avg person and business that has been around longer than 10-15 years knows outlook and the guys who get their email to them know exchange and use it) I hate exchange with a passion. That does not mean that I don’t see what it does. And yes it is totally up to linux to support these clients if they want to appear as a desktop in an organization as a desktop of choice right now.

  • http://www.facebook.com/krack.deeler Krack Deeler

    Who isn’t moving away form outlook/exchange/lotus to a cloud based email solution that supports BB? Answer: nobody. Problem solved but then there are other reasons why Corp. Linux desktops are not more prevalent.

  • Ken Ash

    Hmm, All because of one piece of software. Now if it were just that simple. I don’t think so and you know it as well.

    • http://profiles.google.com/5up.mushroom 5up Mushroom

      Right on. This is not a problem due to a single piece of software. We use SAP where I work, and SAP client on Linux, especially its BI tools, is virtually non-existent. Windows is in corporate, not because we are locked in by Microsoft or RIM, but because that’s where the support is. Let alone, switching users over to Libre Office or similar would be an absolute nightmare. They look the same, but the similarities end there, and most folks that work in corporateland are not computer savvy enough to make a fast enough switch to warrant implementing Linux. This is coming from a person that uses Linux at home as the primary OS.

      • Wendell Anderson

        In the last few years, it seem that the only people having problems moving – for example from Microsoft Office to LibreOffice/open Office are those primarily in USA corporations that have close ties to Microsoft. In several European and South American countries, such migrations are considerably less troublesome than you intimate, and usually less difficult than upgrades from one version of Microsoft Office to next.

        Two recent migrations to Linux and non-Microsoft applications are (a) the City of Munich, Germany and (b) the Government of Brazil.

        Both expressed tremendous satisfaction with the ease of migration and very small learning curve, and immediately noticed significant improvements in reliability, performance and security.

        Anyone can find innocuous reasons and make excuses for sticking to Microsoft “status quo”, no matter how truly false and lame their arguments.

        • Darryl Barnes

          “Two recent migrations to Linux and non-Microsoft applications are (a) the City of Munich, Germany and (b) the Government of Brazil.”

          I wrote another powerbase article on something similar a few weeks back. But it was speaking on the french governments migration to Ubuntu.

          remember we’re talking about forward thinking NON AMERICAN governments and businesses. I agree though.

        • http://profiles.google.com/5up.mushroom 5up Mushroom

          The problem with converting from Microsoft office to Libre/open office in the corporate environment isn’t the software front end. Converting excel to libre is straight forward and formulas generally map nicely. The problem is that there are copious applications that have been built on top of Excel and Access using VBA. It would take an army of IT folks to port these applications into either Libre, or a more appropriate enterprise-wide solution.

      • Darryl Barnes

        What you guys fail to realize is I am the only user on a network that consists of over 30,000 users that runs linux on an active directory domain. If these people lost access to personal folders (.pst files) they would flip out. I wish that everything was open source. But when I speak to all of my clients their biggest concern is the preservation of archived email, access to them when they want them. and a .pst file does that wonderfully. show me a linux client that can handle or convert a .pst without totally breaking the file then I will be a happy camper. I’ve been using Linux since I was 13 years old. and I am now 30… The only thing I see holding it back in big business is Outlook with M$ word being a close second. I wish it were not true but it is, and word only because of formatting that it does. it can still do somethings that Libre Office and open office can’t do. Look at all of this from the perspective of a avg consumer that has no idea how to use a PC with the exception of maybe 3 applications and that persons employer who may have had the same system going for 10 or more years.

        I actually agree with all of you and I wish that M$ would die tmw…..

        • S Luscombe

          “show me a linux client that can handle or convert a .pst without totally breaking the file then I will be a happy camper”

          I’ve personally converted a couple of PST files to MBOX format with a command line tool (libpst I believe) and imported them into Mac Mail and Thunderbird with zero problems.

          In fact when the university I work for migrated over to MS Live I had to get a hodge-podge of setups to talk nicely and get everyones archived mail up into the cloud. It’s all doable with the right scripts.

          • Darryl Barnes

            Still that’s more steps than a non admin/new user would like.. I Could think of a few tools that would do that. All I am saying is it’s not native. Outlook for mac has it’s own issues where it cannot create a .pst but can import one. These clients aren’t full featured which was my original point. I agree totally that it’s doable but there needs to be a streamlined way to handle this. And for some companies the cloud public cloud is not an option for various legal reasons. We need to not look at this from an Admin perspective but from the perspective of a skeptical and scared sh!tless end user that has known nothing except outlook.

  • http://nwlinux.com Mark Moore

    I run Lubuntu Linux as my primary system at work. My main issue is with our custom Access db – linked to MySQL. Otherwise, I use OWA through Chrome and all is well in the world. I run XP and W7 for client issues that I run in to. Otherwise, Linux is awesome.

  • Henrique Marks

    Your reasons are so 2001 or 2002 for me that i won’t comment too much.

    But i will give something to think about: tens of thousands of IT personel, Managers and “soldiers” (the small guys, or the ones who do the work), who got a “windows diploma” in the last 15 years.

    I guess 1 or 2% now something useful about Linux, Servers and alternatives.

    This is the correct analysis: its all about people.

  • deep_dish

    In terms of products, Microsoft are best at gaming platforms – the only thing they do better than that is market manipulation and customer lock in.
    The more fragmented the marketplace becomes, the more likely the herd is to stay with what it knows.

    Linux was not created in order to replace Microsoft – it was created so that computer scientists could continue to share work and source code – which the Corporations were locking down and denying access to.
    Fast forward to today and whilst Linux has indeed grown into something wonderful, the main motivation is still not “to replace Windows”.
    Even if it could “replace Windows”, you’re talking about millions of people, coming to Linux, full of their own conceits, hangups and bad habits, many of whom would be screaming for the ease of use they believed they had from Microsoft and “what do you mean the highest level of the file tree is called ‘/’?”.

    The need, that some people have, to see “linux is superior to Windows” proved by “bums on seats” is unhealthy and is leading many distros to go “Windows chasing” – making their releases more and more like Windows and less and less like the toolset that Linux began life as. Linux is supposed to put you in the driving seat, not in the passenger seat of a bus that’s been painted a different colour from the last bus you were a passenger on.

    Let the masses have Windows – they deserve it. They are made for each other. 99% of the world is never going to say “wow, this OS is so lean and so fast”, they will only ever say things like “wow, these icons are cool” or “wow, I can access facebook in just one click”. Expecting people like that to dig Linux is a fool’s game.

    • robert pogson

      deep_dish wrote: “Expecting people like that to dig Linux is a fool’s game.”
      In fact ordinary people do appreciate GNU/Linux because it is so fast and flexible. Ordinary people do get an opportunity to read M$’s EULA and they appreciate the simplicity of a licence giving permission to use and to copy the code. Ordinary people also appreciate the speed of GNU/Linux and the freedom from re-re-reboots and malware and slowing down. They also appreciate the price, especially now when computers are small and cheap. There are more people who can afford a ~$100 box than a ~$300 box.

      Robert Pogson
      Have server, will travel…

      • http://www.digifail.com/ Tom Nardi

        Did you just say “ordinary people” read the EULA? Surely you jest.

  • KevinPhair

    I think you’re making the mistake of coming at this from the angle of someone who’s bought into the Microsoft ecosystem and can’t consider moving out of it. Personally I find the article ironic since I consider Outlook one of the most blatant abuser of my work time and would love for our corporate solution to move to Gmail and Google calendar (the only google apps worth using) so that I can actually be productive in email, instead of constantly having to fight against an inefficient and unintuitive messaging and scheduling system.

    Maybe you should check up the definition of “propitiatory” too…

  • Ron

    MS Access. It’s unstable and has a weird security setup. It uses its own weird SQL dialect. However, for rapid development of network or desktop apps, there’s really nothing in the OSS world to touch it.

  • Cor van den Berghe

    Zarafa / Webapp

  • Cor van den Berghe

    I forgot Z-Push for delivery to your mobile device.

  • Paul

    I’m using the Groupwise client on my Linux desktop like a charm.
    Synchronisation to a mobile device is no problem. Approx. 30 sec. delay both ways.
    Webinterface is working good. The new version has a special ios version.
    I think, and I’m a bit in favor of the Groupwise product, the calaender function of this product is better.

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  • Mbortolon

    you are so right, and outlook is the most missing software in my ubuntu world, spezial the calendar function is a pain in the ass in Evolution

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