My Linux killer app: Novell Evolution

As I’ve been using Linux I’ve explored many varieties of software and many desktop environments to see which one had the best fit for me. I eventually began to see that the GNOME desktop environment was becoming the dominant player, and would probably represent the mainstream future of open source desktops.

GNOME is a great environment to work in. Uncluttered and orderly, it presents the most common tasks available to the user and keeps the less common ones hidden but accessible. This makes working with the computer a nice, smooth process that proceeds with as little interruption and background noise as possible. One of the flagship applications of the GNOME desktop, and indeed because of its uniqueness, the Linux/UNIX desktop, is Novell Evolution.

Novell Evolution is a personal information manager. If you’re familiar with Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes, you’ll be right at home with Evolution. It allows the user to check their e-mail, maintain a calendar of events and an address book containing e-mail addresses, phone numbers and other contact information one sees fit to store. It even plugs into the rest of the desktop, so that one can use the Evolution address book within other applications to contact members with entries in it – such as being able to speak to friends through the Instant Messaging application once added to the Evolution address book.

One of the most compelling features of Novell Evolution is its flexibility. It can connect to numerous types of mail servers offered by many different office environments and Internet providers. It even enables Linux users to connect to Microsoft’s ‘Exchange’ server, a server designed to store one’s address book, calendar events and e-mails on a remote machine which can be accessed from anywhere – another computer, a phone, a PDA, you name it.

And so, Evolution is a crown jewel in the open source world, offering unique functionality not seen in any other freely available application. But there’s only one problem.

It never works.

Throughout Novell Evolution’s history, it has matured a great deal. Before version 2.0, the client was unable to properly handle the placement of IMAP folders on the mail server, causing a user’s e-mail to disappear and become inaccessible if Evolution was used even once to check it. As Evolution has matured it has become more and more usable, but glaring and lingering issues are always present in the releases its developers unleash on the world. Most prominently, the Evolution Exchange compatibility plugin never functions properly with each new release. An average of four months passes between the release of a new version of Evolution and the recovery of one’s ability to check their Exchange mail / calendar / address book with it.

Other releases of Evolution have not shipped with the ability to log into the mailserver (somehow passing the login credentials was not considered a required feature of a mail client). Random crashes and lockups requiring a forced restart of the program abound. Repeated entries on Novell Evolution’s bug reports page go unanswered and unsolved by an apparently uncaring development team. Anyone looking to Novell Evolution for office use will be sorely disappointed to find an application with an impressive feature list, and and equally impressive list of failings.

Most surprising is that within the last three years many of the developers and maintainers of Evolution were employed by Novell corporation, and the product was branded a Novell product. Novell corporation touts Evolution as a selling point of their Novell Linux Desktop, a Linux based operating system designed around SUSE Linux, which they also bought. While this high praise and promotion issues forth from Novell, no priority appears to be given to the functionality of the program itself.

Evolution itself isn’t a terrible program. It’s the developers and maintainers that currently have stewardship over it who are causing the problem.

Documentation on the use and configuration of the program is poor, especially in the area of connecting to Microsoft Exchange. This very documentation presumes the user is running Evolution on Novell’s own version of Linux, an assumption which has frightening implications regarding Novell’s attitudes about Linux (can you say “cash grab”?). Information on the Evolution homepage is sparse. The developers fail to proactively fix bugs as reported and do not do sufficient testing of the application in as many use scenarios as possible, leading to a program which is fragile and may not work as expected from one version to the next, and is not even predictably functional from one distribution of Linux to the next.

I asked myself what the Evolution development team’s response to this blog entry would be, and the obvious response they’d have is “contribute fixes and documentation updates, and be sure to file bugs whenever you find a problem”. This is due to their systemic lack of awareness that the program is designed for a wide and non-technical audience, and that it’s their own failure to adopt proper development / quality assurance methodologies that cause these problems.

Do I think Novell will step in and clean up their acts? Given Novell’s history of poor end-user software design, I don’t have very many hopes in this regard. Red Hat has the best chance of getting fed up and fixing the problems that exist in Evolution (they have, as yet, not), but Novell has taken such steps to brand Evolution as a Novell product that Red Hat may not be interested in fixing an application largely developed by a corporate competitor.

To recap: Novell Evolution looks great, and in theory it would work great if it weren’t maintained by pinheads. I just want to check my e-mail.