First Look: Yahoo Zimbra Desktop Beta 3

Apple has tried recently with its MobileMe offering, which costs $99 a year with promises of providing "Exchange for the rest of us," but which came up short with botched attempts at offering sync capabilities, among other things.

Now Yahoo Zimbra Desktop is announcing Beta 3 of its offering, with enough new features and changes to make for nice eye candy and some useful improvements. However, it's not quite enough to make anybody think of giving up what they use now. Close, but not quite.

We took a quick look at Yahoo Zimbra Desktop Beta 3. After downloading and installing, the software allows you to import your Yahoo, Gmail, AOL or other IMAP or POP email accounts into the Zimbra client. It's an easy and smooth process to move your email over - - for the most part. It took more than 30 minutes to import our Yahoo mail archives into the Zimbra client. Trying to click into the Yahoo account during that sync just froze the application dead in its tracks. Importing Gmail into Zimbra took just a few seconds.

But importing Google Calendar into the Zimbra calendar is also a clunky experience; you have to first log into your Google calendar, click into settings, download an .ics file for the calendar to a hard drive, and then manually import it into Zimbra. With all the money that Yahoo paid for Zimbra, and the effort going into marketing, it would have been nice to see an easy-to-find, one-click import for calendaring.

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We were successful, though, at sort of daisy-chaining our Outlook calendar to Google calendar through Google's sync software, and then importing it all into Zimbra.

The good news to many about Zimbra Desktop Beta 3 is that it provides IMAP access through Zimbra to Yahoo's free email accounts; POP access for Yahoo mail had previously only been available to paying customers.

Zimbra also lets you tag email and calendar items for easy search-and-find; and it provides a framework for creating "Zimlets," applets that allow mashups combining data from contact or calendaring information, for example, with maps or other data. (The library of existing Zimlets that you can import into the Zimbra Desktop is a small one, though.)

One of the better features of the Zimbra desktop is its use of tagging for both calendar and email items. With a few clicks, Zimbra allows you to tag a calendar or email item to a specific topic -- which is then marked by a color-coded "tag" icon for easy viewing and organization. For example, you can tag all email and calendar items having to do with a project deadline under the same category, with, say, a red tag icon, to quickly find all correspondence and calandar data on that topic.

A shortcoming of the Zimbra desktop, though, is its lack of easy, intuitive mobile integration even though mobility is an active part of Zimbra's collaboration offerings. In fact, mobility didn't even rate a mention in Yahoo's Zimbra Desktop Beta 3 announcement Thursday. To wit: while Zimbra says its desktop is iPhone compatible, and its wiki provides instructions on how to integrate with the Apple device, we couldn't quickly get the iPhone to recognize the incoming or outgoing mail servers on the test account provided by Zimbra. We'll keep trying.

And, with hope, through this round of beta testing, Zimbra will keep trying, too -- to provide the mobility, ease-of-use, and desktop-to-the-cloud promise that seems to keep eluding the would-be Microsoft killers.