Gmail vs. Zimbra Desktop 2.0

Now under VMware's wing, Zimbra has released Zimbra Desktop 2.0 productivity client. Zimbra Desktop 2.0's main feature is email, so we decided to see how it stacks up against Gmail. The verdict? Google probably isn't too worried.

In the battle of Web-based clients, who’s going to take the crown? Gmail or the newly released Zimbra Desktop 2.0? After a week of comparison, the findings are in and there’s a clear winner. With 2.0, Zimbra adds support for social networks, Zimlets, and more — but are they enough to unseat Gmail?

I’ve always liked the concept of Zimbra Desktop, but in practice it’s just never done it for me. With the release of Zimbra Desktop 2.0 on the 12th, I thought I’d give it a go. Rightly or wrongly, I see Gmail as the interface to beat. It’s a good mix of features and simplicity that other mail clients have a hard time matching.

Since Zimbra Desktop supports IMAP, I went ahead and configured it to connect to my Gmail account and put it through its paces. The verdict? It has some improving to do.

Looking at Zimbra 2.0

Zimbra Desktop is a Prism-based application for Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows. It’s basically a Webmail client contained within the browser, and compatible with just about any email source. The installer is simple to use, but highlights a drawback for Zimbra Desktop versus Gmail or another Webmail client (including Zimbra Webmail for those running the full Zimbra suite): You need to install Zimbra Desktop on each machine. If you have a laptop and a desktop machine, you’re having to install and maintain two Zimbra clients versus just logging into your Webmail.

This release adds support for Twitter, Facebook, and Digg. The interface is slightly reminiscent of TweetDeck, you can search through recent tweets, and so on. The social clients are integrated into Zimbra Desktop’s interface, but not really into the other functions. Yes, you can quickly send a Tweet from the Mail tab, but other than that, it’s really not that compelling. It’s not really any more useful than just using Twitter in a Web browser.

This release also adds a three-pane view, and a tabbed composing interface — so if you hit “compose,” or reply to a message you get a separate tab. I do like the tabbed interface, but I’m not quite sure why it’s so limited. The conversation view is similar to Gmail’s, but slightly cleaner. But you can’t open multiple conversation tabs, which pretty much leaves the Zimbra interface as limited as Gmail’s.

Several times when testing Zimbra Desktop, the interface would simply flake out. I’d get a ‘cannot connect to server’ error, which didn’t make it clear whether it couldn’t connect to Gmail or if it couldn’t connect to some server that is run by Zimbra itself. I only tested Zimbra Desktop on Linux, so I do have to wonder if this might be a case of the Linux version not getting sufficient testing.

Zimbra Desktop is a bit more full-featured than Gmail, full stop. It includes a calendaring application, tasks, the social networking features, and “Zimlets” which are basically widgets. Of course, Gmail integrates OK with Google Calendar, and you can run a task widget in Gmail too — though it’s decidedly inferior to Zimbra’s.

So Zimbra is a bit more of a one-stop shop than Gmail. The widgets, er Zimlets, are OK — but I’ve never been persuaded to use a platform because of its widgets. Zimbra is no exception here.

The actual mail interface is less snappy and less easy to use than Gmail. The keyboard shortcuts are less comprehensive, and it doesn’t have the same kind of search features you get with Google. It’s a decent Webmail interface, but I don’t think it quite measures up to Gmail.

Another major feature for Zimbra is that it allows you to use pretty much any mail service. So you can tie Zimbra Desktop to an IMAP server that you control, and all your mail belongs to you. Totally. For some folks, this feature alone is going to make Zimbra (or another email client) far more desirable than Gmail. While I am sometimes uneasy with Google’s ever-increasing collection of data, I’m not personally concerned that someone at Google is reading my email. And Google’s Gmail reliability has improved to the point that I haven’t had a problem reaching my mail in several months.

Zimbra Loses

Zimbra Desktop has some strong points, but if you’re considering moving away from Gmail, Zimbra may not be the right way to go. Zimbra has had an interesting few years, being bought by Yahoo and then by VMware. I suspect that it’s in the right hands now, and the next release is likely to be much more interesting.

For now, though, I’d either choose a “fat” desktop client for email, or stick with a Webmail client like Gmail. Zimbra Desktop is in many ways the worst of both worlds. It’s not particularly fast, nor quite as flexible as something like Thunderbird — and it lacks the speed and simplicity of Gmail.

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