Zimbra: Mashing Up The Office

Ed. Note:   First person narration in this post is from the author (not me). As most know I am crazy about mashups. The active use of mashups by an application suite (in this case, Zimbra, a set of office tools) is the cat’s meow. Let me know if you’re as jazzed as I about the possibilities.


From Read/Write Web
September 6, 2006
adapted
from previous reviews and an interview on ZDNet


Over the next couple of months on Read/WriteWeb, I’ll be profiling the main Web Office suite candidates – such as Zoho, ThinkFree, gOffice, Zimbra, JotSpot, Goowy and Morfik. Plus of course Microsoft’s Office Live and Google’s current jigsaw puzzle of Web Office apps. Today I’m starting with Zimbra.

zimbraZimbra is an open source Web Office vendor. It started off in 2005 as an email/calendar collaboration toolset, big on mashup functionality and Web 2.0 hype. Zimbra has since added word processor and spreadsheet to its product range, meaning it now closely resembles a Web Office suite.

Zimbra Collaboration Suite (ZCS) 4.0 was launched last month, featuring Zimbra Documents – a WYSIWYG tool for creating, sharing, and publishing word and spreadsheet documents online. Other features in ZCS 4.0 include synch to mobile devices, VoIP integration, user access controls. The ZCS 4.0 Open Source Edition of Zimbra is free, and the commercially-supported Network Edition is $28/mailbox/year.

Product Review

The product is made up of a browser-based Ajax client and a "collaboration server". Alternatively you can just use the Zimbra server and pair it with another email client such as Outlook or Thunderbird.

You can do a hosted demo on their website, to get the feel of the product. If you decide to go ahead with it, Zimbra is available as an open source download or a hosted edition (both are browser-based).

The email part of Zimbra uses the same kind of interface as Outlook, but its functionality is more along the lines of Gmail. For example it has a ‘conversation’ view that organizes emails by conversation topic rather than a folder view.

 Zimbra uses AJAX extensively, to make their web email app look and feel like a desktop one. For example it uses mouseovers to show metadata for items and words. This seems like a nice value-add, but it would mean changing my own usage habits with email. – because generally I don’t think of it as a browsing experience. But this is a plus in my book, because it shows Zimbra is challenging the old Outlook-based email paradigm (which most other web email systems, with the exception of Gmail, still follow). Drag and drop is another AJAX touch – users can move their email messages from folder to folder this way.

Drag and Drop
The Zimbra Mashup Experience

The real power of Zimbra is its APIs, which together with Zimbra’s open source status makes this a potentially powerful development platform. The APIs enable developers to access messaging functions inside the Zimbra application, meaning external apps can hook into Zimbra’s functionality. The example used in the demo is a travel application using Zimbra’s APIs to "automatically create a calendar event for the person traveling". In addition to the inward API hooks, Zimbra also has interfaces for making outbound web service requests. Here’s the example used in the demo:

"…the Zimbra application could recognize a shipment tracking number such as 792806493888 [a Fedex Tracking Number] in a message, make a web service call to the shipping vendor based on that number, and then provide more details about the shipment to the recipient of the message based on information obtained from the web service call."

You can even set it up to interact with another web service, from within the Zimbra system.

Zimbra Mashup

Another example is clicking on a link within an email and up pops a Yahoo! Map, or a link when clicked opens a Skype call. Plus Zimbra has mini web apps embedded within its system, called "Zimlets" – for example an Amazon search box. The buzz phrase for all this is "enterprise mashups" and it’s the kind of functionality that got the attendees of the last Web 2.0 Conference very excited back in October.

Zimbra Maps mashup

The APIs and web services possibilities that Zimbra offers seem like a potentially thriving platform. So I guess the question is: are they being used?
Zimbra Documents

The addition of documents and spreadsheets to Zimbra’s arsenal made them a worthy contender among the small ‘Web Office’ startups. Another exciting aspect of Zimbra Documents is that it uses ALE (AJAX Linking and Embedding), which provides the ability to embed rich content into an editable document that users can share, publish, and edit – within a Web browser.

Performance issues?

There have been question marks about the performance of Zimbra in the browser, in particular that the UI could be very slow. In May I asked CEO Satish Dharmaraj about this. He acknowledged there have been issues with IE browsers, in particular IE6. But Satish said that Zimbra performs significantly better in Firefox and a lot of its UI problems in IE6 were due to Zimbra "pushing the envelope of Ajax". Apparently IE7 will address these issues, so Satish was confident (when I last spoke to him) that Zimbra will not run into such problems in the new Microsoft browser.
Summary

Zimbra is packed full of features, such as the mashups and things like "Search Builder" and an RSS reader. It’s an all-round impressive product. I’m not sure how much it’s being used by external partners as a mashup platform though. But when I spoke to Satish, he told me they have enterprise clients that are happily using Zimbra to completely manage their communications online and collaborate. Zimbra is a small (20 people), well funded startup ($31 million)  – so it’s still young and growing. One to watch in the Enterprise space.

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