Ximian Evolution 1.0 links Linux to Exchange

Parts not open source

Ximian today officially releases its long awaited 1.0 version of Evolution, a sophisticated mail client/address book/calendaring package. Evolution has been in production for more than two years and consists of more than 750,000 lines of code. In a second announcement, Ximian announced an Evolution plug-in called Ximian Connector Exchange 2000. Ximian Connector allows Evolution users to seamlessly interact with Microsoft Exchange 2000 servers.

Codenamed Lucy after the so called "missing link" between man and ape discovered in southern Africa in 1974, Ximian Connector will be available early next year. It will be followed by a second version compatible with Exchange 5.5.

While Evolution is much larger piece of work than Ximian Connector in terms of lines of code, and time and effort to develop, it may be that Connector is the more important of the two to Ximian's future. Unlike Evolution, which is free software licensed under the terms of the GPL, Connector is a proprietary add-on. This mix of proprietary and open source represents a new business model for Ximian. And it's sure to cause some controversy in the Linux/Open Source communities.

I had a chance to spend a few minutes on the phone with Nat Friedman, Ximian co-founder and VP of product development, last Friday to discuss the announcements. Friedman had the kind of elation in his voice that comes at the end of a very long, very large development process. He told me that Evolution 1.0 has been through about 20 preview releases. About 10,000 people a day are downloading the nightly snapshot, and Friedman estimates that there are already about 100,000 people using Evolution.

Friedman recounted Ximian's goals when the team first began work on Evolution. They saw that none of the existing Linux mail clients could really step up to provide the full functionality and interoperability required for acceptance on a corporate desktop. They wanted to deliver a product which would increase the Linux presence on that desktop. "We saw a major opportunity for Linux to penetrate the corporate environment if the appropriate corporate tools were available," he said.

Evolution 1.0 will be available for download today for free, from the Ximian site. It will also be part of the two boxed versions of Ximian Desktop, which sells for $29.95 in the Standard Edition and $49.95 in the Professional Edition. It debuts with support for Red Hat versions 6.2 to 7.2, Mandrake versions 7.0 to 8.0, SuSE 6.4 to 7.2, Debian 2.2, and TurboLinux 6.0. Also supported are YellowDog 1.2 and 2.0, LinuxPPC 2000, and Solaris 8. More versions will be supported in the near future, with Mandrake 8.1 coming as early as two weeks.

As you go over the feature list for Evolution, it becomes clear that it is intended to become the Outlook/Outlook Express for Linux and Unix. Except in regard to security, of course. Although I've asked Friedman the question before, with the BADTRANS worm circulating the wild world of Windows recently, I asked again if Evolution would be as vulnerable to such things as Outlook and Outlook Express are. The answer was no. He explained that "we do not provide the facility for executing code that you receive in the mail." Friedman added that Ximian "treats all the data that comes off the network as hostile, and we audit the code which is network facing".

Turning to the subject of Ximian Connector, I asked if Ximian expected flamage from the community for selling a proprietary software package. "We expect less than we would have expected a while ago. I think that people understand that businesses have to survive. And the people know that the bloody carcasses of Open Source companies line the horizon right now."

Selling proprietary software is a major step for Ximian, and Friedman explained it is not a decision lightly made. Then he gave four reasons why they decided on this course:

  • It doesn't hurt the Open Source community.
  • Evolution, the core product, is completely open and GPLed.
  • Ximian has contributed more than two million lines of Open Source code.
  • The only customers who will buy Ximian Connector have already decided on a proprietary environment.

But the bottom line came when I asked if it had to be proprietary because of the inclusion of proprietary Microsoft protocols or API. No, he said. "It is proprietary is because [Ximian] intends to make money from it." He added that "it is an opportunity for us to make money. This is business activity which will support us". He projects that sales of Ximian Connector will completely underwrite the Open Source development of Evolution.

Although Friedman says Ximian does expect some criticism and debate over the plan, he is completely comfortable with the model. He told me that "I really like the model of having this core enormous piece of software which is totally free, and then filling out little pieces on the side for corporations." And he has a question ready for all those who react ideologically against it: Would they rather Evolution not exist at all?

Ximian Connector will sell for $69 a seat. Its value proposition is that it can replace an entire Windows machine. In many large corporations, there might be 50,000 Windows users and 5000 Linux/Unix users. But corporate standards might dictate the use of Microsoft Exchange for mail and calendaring. Where that's the case, a second PC has to be put on the desk of the Linux/Unix users simply to comply. Ximian Connector, Friedman says, "solves the two desktop problem" because now all the needs can be met on a single Linux or Unix box. ®

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