The Kolab Story

I’ve been woefully aware that while I did write about having chosen Kolab as my next challenge, I have consequently failed to communicate the most exciting part of why this became my challenge. So let me try to tell you the Kolab Story.

Background

To understand the Kolab Story it is unfortunately essential to first understand what the situation is, and how others are seeking to address it. For the very largest part of this planet, Microsoft Windows is still the dominating desktop operating system.

While other systems, in particular GNU/Linux, have made huge improvements and are by now more or less the equal where usability is concerned, even the combination with the genuine advantages such as maintainability, efficiency, security, independence, control, investment security have not been enough to change that situation fundamentally, or at least not yet.

The reasons for this are widely known to most people in the field. There are of course all the practices that have been or should be subject to antitrust investigations, such as standards abuse, tying, or pressure on OEMs to favor Windows, which has led to effects such as the one where getting a computer without Windows license will be more expensive than getting the same hardware with Windows installed. So one of the primary reasons for the dominance of Windows, namely that when you buy a new computer, you get Windows, is still as strong as it was a decade ago. And Microsoft does not seem willing to let this one go either, on any platform, as this article demonstrates.

Due to decades of these practices, many software vendors have primarily focused on the Microsoft platform, fulfilling the strategy set by Microsoft around the late 80s/early 90s. The result are thousands of legacy applications around the world which are critical to a company’s success. Virtually all migration projects to Free Software on the desktop that I know of were struggling with that legacy. This is often combined with proprietary integration between server and client based upon undocumented and/or patented technologies not available to Free Software.

As a result, some migrations have their breaking points in the file server, which is why Samba 4 and the antitrust work that at least partially preceded it is so important; the office application, which is why it is important that OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice continue to flourish; or the groupware.

Groupware, or Personal Information Management (PIM), is a rather vague term. At its core it is usually understood to encompass email, calendar, address book and tasks. Its functionality was arguably the primary driver for the rise of smart phones and continues to be their primary function for many users. On the desktop or notebook it is typically Microsoft Outlook, with Microsoft Exchange on the server.

This is the primary offering of most competing groupware offerings, including those that market themselves as Free Software/Open Source, although rather often they turn out to be Open Core. But even where the label is justified, they primarily focus on the three core offerings of Microsoft Exchange: Microsoft Outlook on the client, web access, and synchronization to the mobile phone.

They typically deliver this cheaper than Microsoft Exchange, which is good for stained IT budgets. Microsoft is however known to dump its price whenever it is strategically useful. But there is another, bigger problem. Microsoft Oulook is focused on the Windows platform. And while the web clients give some level of platform independence even for Microsoft Exchange itself, there are many scenarios where web clients are just not good enough.

So the platform lock-in is in no way mitigated. It may even be increased, as there is yet another data source to migrate if the platform is to be replaced.

So if the goal is to regain some freedom of IT strategy and purchasing decisions, many of the alternatives are almost as unhelpful as remaining with Microsoft Exchange itself.

Enter Kolab.

Five Platforms. One Groupware.

Imagine you had a client that you could deploy on Windows which gives you the same range of functionality as Microsoft Outlook, but which is also available on other platforms, such as Mac OS X or GNU/Linux. This is precisely what the Kolab Smart Client based on KDE Kontact provides.

As part of the KDE PIM community, many of the protagonists of the Kolab ecosystem have been working on this new client which became possible due to the re-licensing of the Qt Toolkit. It is fully Free Software, and the entire code base is made available through KDE, so all users will eventually get to benefit from this work. But because KDE is not primarily business focused, because most volunteers work on KDE because they no longer want to use Windows, and because KDE has its own release cycles and a focus on development rather than deployment, there are always delays in the availability of these components on Windows. But even on GNU/Linux some users provide the feedback that they do not consider this “business ready and stable” for their purposes.

That is why one of the reasons why the partner network of companies around Kolab Systems along with its development partners KDAB and Intevation exist. We have the people, the experience and the business background to decelerate the rapid pace of development for our customers towards more business friendly release cycles, occasionally catching up to the exciting developments within the KDE community.

Naturally there are many people for who the community packaged versions are all they want and need, and we do what we can to help extend that, but if you want warranties, dependable time lines, guaranteed and defined support levels and the proverbial “one throat to choke”, the Kolab Enterprise Community and Kolab Systems give you just that.

But those are just three platforms. With Kontact Touch (if you’re curious, check out the screenshots), Kolab can also truly go mobile as a native application. Available already for the N900, Meego and Windows Mobile 6.5, the Kolab Touch Client can go pretty much anywhere Qt goes. As of recently, that includes Android.  It also includes the tablet PCs, sub-notebooks and other devices with touch screen. So five is actually something of an understatement.

And yes. If you want to deploy this kind of technology in your company, you can do that now. For reasons of scaling and initial stabilization branching, this option really only makes sense for entities of 1’000 users and above right now. But it will become more widely and generally available as more and more entities deploy this technology.

Meanwhile the stable version based on the previous technological generation but with some visual improvements to fit modern desktops remains available for GNU/Linux and can be deployed anywhere, and via terminal server can address some of the use cases with Windows on the client.

Although naturally sometimes you really need Outlook. In some scenarios it is inevitable. So you can of course get it via one of three connectors, of which one was recently certified against six different suites of Microsoft Windows and Outlook. As all data will then be stored on a Kolab server, migration of the client is much simplified in comparison to migrating from Microsoft Exchange directly.

Offline capability

And yes. All these clients have full offline capability, keeping the user fully productive even when the network is not. In a world where “always on” has been promised for a long time now, that may not sound like a big deal. In our experience, it is.

Because while the promise of “always on” may come true sometime, somewhere, the reality of users today involves flaky connections on trains, interrupted connections on airplanes, overpriced roaming charges and connections in hotels, and overloaded networks at conferences or public events. Infrastructure fails, and in our view your groupware should be able to compensate for that.

From this perspective, it is also not important whether the server actually goes down for a minute or two for productivity in your company. So in many scenarios your requirements towards high availability of the server are in fact reduced by the offline capabilities of the client.

Web client

This is obviously not the case for the web client itself, which typically runs on the Kolab Server itself, but can also be put on another server, potentially in a DMZ. The currently shipped client is based upon the Horde framework, other options are likely to become available within the year.

The web client is typically used as the backup option because the native clients are generally so much more powerful. And anyone who has ever browsed the Android store to see comments like “This just adds a short cut to the web page. Uninstall.” should be aware that we see a transformation of the web towards more data-centric protocols interpreted in the best way for the form factor at hand by local applications, whether they are deployed through HTML5 or otherwise.

Mobile synchronization

That is why Over-The-Air (OTA) mobile synchronization is so important, it makes the data available on the smart phone without network delays and in the most useful way for the user. So thanks to the integration project we did with our development partner Libertech, version 2.3 of the Kolab Server comes with built-in ActiveSync support which is routinely tested against Meego, Android, iOS, Symbian, Windows Mobile, and BlackBerry (with connector).

…and much more

And this is only a part of what is routinely deployed with support, e.g. the client also comes with strong cryptography and signatures for email (both S/MIME or OpenPGP) on any of the platforms mentioned above. But trying to cover it all would be too much, so a second part to this article is probably in order one or the other days.

Meanwhile there are also plenty of community projects for other Kolab components and connectors, such as the Mozilla SyncKolab extension for Thunderbird & Lightning, the native Android plug-in or a Free Software Outlook plugin. And users of Evolution can also give the new Kolab plug-in a spin. Feedback of your experience with any of these would be greatly appreciated on kolab-users@kolab.org.

Because Kolab is so highly modular and built upon standard components we all know, it can be integrated into virtually any pre-existing environment and hooked up with a great number of other technologies. Over the years, our partners have developed and deployed customer solutions with a great number of different additional modules and components.

So while this is only part of the picture, maybe it helps you understand why all the great things Kolab can do and become for me is something I got truly passionate and excited about.

What the Free Software community has in the Kolab Groupware Solution is technology that can be a game changer on desktop and server. So I hope that at least some of you will participate and become part of this change – as a user, developer, contributor, advocate or otherwise.

More information, as always, is available at http://wiki.kolab.org and http://www.kolab.org, which a team of volunteers is currently looking at rebuilding. Your help is welcome. :)

And if you want to talk business, come and join us at CeBIT!

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