The Future of the Zimbra Offline Experience

By | April 10, 2013

One of the major changes coming up in a future version of Zimbra is a rethinking of the offline experience – how do you use Zimbra when you’re not connected to a network, or when your connection cuts in and out during the day? As we all become more mobile, this is an important concern.

Today, Zimbra Desktop is the way to use Zimbra when offline – and it’s done a good job at providing consistency between the online and offline experience. But we think we can deliver a faster, smoother and more efficient offline experience by re-architecting Zimbra Desktop from the ground up.

This change describes the work that we are doing for supporting the offline experience – to be available in a future version of Zimbra.

On a side note: Nothing discussed here affects third-party client support – such as Microsoft Outlook or Apple Mail, iCal and Address Book and standards-based clients (POP, IMAP, iCal, CalDAV, etc.)

Background
The concept behind the Zimbra Desktop was to create a consistent experience whether you’re offline or online.  The look and feel should be the same.  This is in contrast to environments where the browser-based interface is really different than the local email client – say, using Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Web Access.

In the current Zimbra Desktop, we’ve done this by building the entire stack on the desktop  – web server, application code, database capabilities.

The technologies available have evolved. For example:

The client devices have changed and expanded to include a growing number of mobile phones and tablets. Native client frameworks can do functions such as storing, synching and accessing local data very efficiently.

  • Although still under development, HTML5 is maturing and offers a new set of offline capabilities. It will eventually subsume earlier versions of HTML.

So our team started evaluating ways to use these technologies to make the Zimbra Desktop better – without re-engineering core capabilities already available elsewhere.

The New Zimbra Offline Architecture
We’re excited about the possibilities of using HTML5 to support a seamless, browser-based offline experience. But we’re also looking at ways that the native client platforms can supplement the browser environment, for example:

  • Notifying you of new email or appointments when the browser isn’t open
  • Storing and indexing data for local search and access
  • Synchronizing data with the Zimbra server

We’re moving towards a hybrid architecture that will combine the best of both worlds  – browser-based simplicity with native capabilities for functions such as notifications, storage and indexing.

The team is still sorting out several key design issues, such as: how will we handle viewing attachments when offline? How much storage is the right amount? How do we figure which emails and attachments to store locally? Most importantly, which features do we need?

End user requirements: consistency
The most important requirement is to deliver a consistent experience, whether you’re online or offline.  Clearly, the offline environment cannot support everything you have online – the amount of data needed would be prohibitive. And we need to balance functionality with performance.

Consider a case:  you’re commuting on a train and the WiFi connection cuts in and out while you’re working. Our objective is that the transition should be seamless. At a minimum, offline capabilities should include:

  • Reading emails and working with your calendar
  • Viewing attachments
  • Composing emails (with autocomplete for addressing them)
  • Automatic synchronization when you reconnect

Administrative requirements: security and control
For administrators, the offline experience brings the challenge of data residing on devices outside of their control.  So we’re thinking hard about their requirements for the offline experience as well, which may include:

  • Remote wipe
  • Policy-based controls on attachments
  • Data retention policies applies to data on the remote devices

Your thoughts?
In a future version of Zimbra, we’ll switch from the current Zimbra Desktop to the new offline experience.  Look for more information as we come closer to future Zimbra releases. In the meantime, we’d welcome your feedback in comments here.  Please provide comments here, on our Twitter feed, Facebook page or start a thread in our Zimbra forums.


Comments

  • This looks promising!

    About the question how much offline storage is the right amount, I think it should be a user configuration setting (maybe in size, or maybe in time). Some users are completely fine with f.e. 30 days, but others probably work mostly offline and need their complete archive while being offline.

    Commented on April 10, 2013 at 12:00 pm
  • I can’t wait! I’d love to see if you can find a way to handle the offline portion of additional pop accounts that a user might have. I long for the ability to get all my email on my laptop using Zimbra Desktop and have it all sync back to a Zimbra server somewhere. Outlook used to do this by allowing to add an additional POP account to your already set up Exchange account and setting the destination for the POP account to the inbox of the Exchange Account. This allowed me to deploy Exchange in small companies so that they could reap the benefits of collaboration without before being ready to take on take the responsibilities of managing a public email server. This would be a great way to get small businesses hooked on Zimbra. When they’re ready to take it to the next level, they would likely stick with what they know.

    Commented on April 10, 2013 at 6:51 pm
  • Will the Outlook require some sort of a connector for complete sync. I am not sure how EWS works, can you please elaborate?

    Commented on April 11, 2013 at 3:01 am
  • Many users (lawyers, those in business meetings, politicians etc..) require FULL offline access to all their mails (as well as tasks, calender, and contacts). Yes, there are other apps that can sync, but they don’t all sync very well (especially not contacts and documents and tasks).

    Further, Zimbra Desktop also provided a way for users to install their own apps (zimlets), if Desktop is dropped, user ability to install zimlets should be considered for individual users (for example those using Zimbra service providers, or corporate servers).

    Commented on April 16, 2013 at 1:17 pm
  • I’ll be very happy when the Zimbra Browser-based can be open when we are offline, like gmail. This is the future!

    Commented on April 18, 2013 at 1:35 am
  • I rarely use any of my Zimbra accounts while offline. I do use them, however, on a computer with a hard disk, a monitor, a mouse and a keyboard. Most of the limitations I have seen in Zimbra Desktop are the fact that it has been trying to be something other than a desktop application. Stop it. Webmail is annoying and only really useful when not at my computer and when my phone’s capabilities (storage, search, etc.) aren’t as extensive as I’d like. A real Android app would help with that by going to the server for whatever wasn’t local. Unfortunately, I have about 40 accounts on my desktop, but I only want 4 or 5 on my phone, so there will be limitations.

    Commented on May 6, 2013 at 11:31 am
  • Most of the limitations I have seen in Zimbra Desktop are the fact that it has been trying to be something other than a desktop application. Stop it. Webmail is annoying and only really useful when not at my computer and when my phone’s capabilities (storage, search, etc.) aren’t as extensive as I’d like. Doi ten nuoc|Dieu 4 hien phap

    Commented on May 13, 2013 at 6:48 pm
  • I find Zimbra to be potentially a very important piece of software. As someone who is staring an NGO, I am very painfully aware of the need to use open and secure tech on a shoelace budget. Zimbra is one of those pieces. At the moment, I am using only the desktop client as I coordinate 7 email accounts and gmail integration is superb. In the near future I’m planning of setting up the opensource Zimbra collab suite for the needs of the NGO, and the briefcase seems to be the perfect tool to replace the Dropbox.

    Now, I understand that html5 seems like the way to go, but any html5 solution I’ve used is half-baked and not suitable when it comes to offline. Offline gmail being the example. Before Zimbra desktop I used Google Gears and it was an ok way of doing things. But I need my complete email archive that is 7GB in size and growing fast.

    I don’t see anything other than Zimbra Desktop as it is now satisfying my needs, short of going exchange+outlook way. So, please, reconsider Zimbra desktop. There is a certain niche there that no one else is serving. The only thing that I would add is encrypted DB, and a password prompt when starting the application, or after long period of not being used.

    Commented on May 25, 2013 at 6:04 am
  • Very dissapointing announcment. While most other companies are recognizing HTML5 is NOT delivering and moving to native apps, you guys are moving to it? I’m just now looking at Zimbra as my Outlook replacement but this makes me reconsider.

    I would say this announcement means the end of Zimbra Desktop.

    Commented on June 16, 2013 at 8:49 am
  • I’m not sure I’m getting the “storage requirements” part of this. My users keep multiple gigabytes of archived email in offline files. Do you plan to still support this?

    Commented on June 28, 2013 at 6:59 am
  • I do not believe that eliminating the “Zimbra Desktop” for a HTML5 offline-mail-hybrid solution is a good idea.
    Many businesses, especially smaller branches of a company do not require “Microsoft Outlook/Office”, yet cannot function properly with just a “Web Client” especially with its current limitations – without extensive user training and system changes on local computers. How does an organization with 100-500 users all on different mail apps such as Outlook Express, Outlook, Live Mail, etc transition to Zimbra Web cleanly? With each system having a different Windows from XP to 7, Varying hardware and software conditions – some with corrupt Browsers requiring maintenance – it would be a nightmare to deal with if having no “Zimbra Desktop” for initial implementation – It is quite tricky to consider and very inefficient and inconsistent with a heavy burden placed on IT. We would like to see the Desktop Client’s features remain relevant.

    Zimbra Desktop, while not as functional or nice as the current Version 8 Web Client, The Desktop Client in itself is a direct replacement for any installed/defaulted Mail-App/Accesses across such an organization and provides for a much-richer implementation process with a lot less problems during implementation. Business email users expect to have a single point of access for their email that works across their operating systems email features, and all other applications therein. (For example: Send as attachment, Email Links)

    So it goes with Zimbra 8 Web-Only: there is no easy way for users to integrate their Windows Environment with the Web Mail Client – Without custom work being performed by a sysadmin on every system to “Hack” it into behaving properly when things like Website or Microsoft Excel/Word/PDF links are “Clicked”. To the users in these smaller offices across the country – They are used to e-Mail as an application functioning and interacting in the traditional sense as I have mentioned.

    Zimbra Desktop is a great solution because it works like an e-mail “App” would be expected to operate; especially in the eyes of technically-lacking users in a business environment such as this.

    Zimbra Desktop is a unique and important feature to have as it is in current form, There needs to be some link to the local machines for Zimbra to be fully accepted. I would prefer not to have users running Zimbra via Thunderbird or other 3rd party mail apps when Outlook is not available for the majority – Simply because of problems with web-client integration, offline experience and consistency. Not to mention, most users having inconsistent/varying Browsers as well – which would create an extra step before even implementing Zimbra if it were web-only.

    In another example: Past experience with Google; it has a Desktop Installer tool that puts a web experience/branding and shortcuts in a standalone-web-window and makes it identify or appear as an app and function as such to the Operating System/User – To users this is important – It is a minimum to be considered – There must be a clear link between the web client and the local users machine that is easy to use, administer and rollout.

    We presently have all these ‘best effort’ Zimbra Notify, Toaster, and other 3rd party gimmicks to provide some of this need presently. The end result being that: There is no tight integration available. For this enterprise, Zimbra is the best fit – Yet its not as simple as it should be. Many people love the idea and function of the present Zimbra Desktop Client and its consistent function – Unfortunately I must rollout an End of Life Outdated Client to all users as their “New Mail Software” because implementing the Web Client would require much more time to do properly with manual workarounds on each users machine for a trouble-free user experience as it should be in a business environment. Zimbra should be a business solution and it would be best if it continued to have the option to be used in such a “Thick” way, where needed.

    We appreciate it. ;)

    Please consider these scenarios and realize Zimbra Desktop is unique and it shines because it stands out versus the alternatives – It would be great if the new HTML5 client bridges together all of the things missing in a strictly-Web-only sense along with Desktop Integration and such.

    In Summary: A large reason why we want to choose Zimbra is due to the availability of such a Desktop Client to replace the inconsistencies seen across different branches and users as we unify the communication and computing experience of the organization at hand.

    Commented on July 20, 2013 at 1:02 pm
  • Regarding the HTML5 offline client…what about users who use Zimbra Desktop to archive older mail? (Zimbra Desktop Help>Managing Your Account Content>Archiving your e-mail messages) Will the offline client have the ability to see local folders that already exist? Will it have the ability to place items from the 30 day cache into local folders? Seems like having to put all Local Folder mail back on the server then re-sync to a new client such as Outlook or Thunderbird would be a tremendous burden for users who have archived a good amount of data via the described procedure in the Zimbra Desktop manual.

    Commented on September 18, 2013 at 1:15 pm
  • The beauty of Zimbra Desktop is that is IS the web version, without all the restrictions that browsers impose (such as local security on the users machine and offline storage size). True, it is not a native application, and will not be as slick, but there is much more to lose by starting from scratch with a native client.

    The current approach results in:

    90% of your development efforts will scale to BOTH the web version and the desktop.

    Code is platform independent.

    As HTML5 becomes more robust and consistent, your web platform will mature; over time you will be able to migrate more of the desktop functions to the web client (not just offline access).

    The embedded browser and framework in Zimbra Desktop is open source and will evolve without having to allocate any development resources to it.

    Why don’t you keep the Zimbra Desktop as a less restricted version of the web interface, and add features to it that can both run ‘inside’ as plugins and ‘outside’ in your other applications?

    Commented on October 10, 2013 at 8:21 pm
  • I like Zimbra Desktop because you can use Zimbra without setting up a full fledged email server. It makes it easy to give a windows user a taste of what Zimbra can do plus you can take it with you on a laptop. There are very few offline mail clients that provide the features of Zimbra Desktop. MS Exchange was an extension of MS Outlook and gave collaboration and sharing features to those who purchased Exchange. But the interface was the same for the user. It would be nice to see Zimbra-like functionality brought offline to the desktop that could easily be migrated over to a server as a small business grows. Many small businesses would benefit from Zimbra’s features but can’t justify the cost of hosting their own server in house.

    Commented on December 10, 2013 at 9:21 pm
  • We have used Zimbra desktop and hosted Zimbra enterprise accounts for the past couple of years, and been quite happy with the functionality it provides. I, for one, am very hopeful that a Zimbra desktop application will be part of the going-forward part of Zimbra. As mentioned by others, the web-based client is very nice, but it is a web-based client, and thereby suffers a number of inherent limitations, despite advance in web technologies and browser integration with the OS.

    The ability of users to have access to emails and contacts while off-line is very important, and thus far, the only full-featured, readily deployed mail clients capable of providing a seamless online and offline experience are Outlook and Zimbra desktop. The ability to flexibly manage offline storage is very important, too. The reality remains that many users wish, for ill or good, to archive large volumes of email, and I don’t see that going away anytime soon.

    If a Zimbra Desktop client with off-line access is lost, so does a great deal of the incentive for my organization to use Zimbra at all. Please don’t underestimate the value of having in Zimbra Desktop what I consider the only enterprise-viable alternative to Outlook. The Zimbra Desktop truly differentiates Zimbra from competing integrated solutions.

    As others here have said, don’t try to make the desktop into something it’s not. The desktop itself is a very important piece of the overall Zimbra offering, and still has an important place in the enterprise, despite all the web hoopla.

    Commented on January 5, 2014 at 9:59 am
  • We migrated to Zimbra over a year ago and started with version 8. As our company has grown we have been hiring more off-premise staff. Zimbra was part of that move, giving us highly functional email through the web interface. However, we are now looking to move much of our Enterprise file sharing to a web based platform to prevent the need for a large VPN infrastructure. In looking at Briefcase, the issues we see are significant lack of good workflow integration. Not being able to have a hybrid online/offline experience for our users. Not being able to manage permissions with AD is also an issue. It seems that ZD might alleviate some of this but it has to maintain an offline, local storage element of Briefcase to do this. There also needs to be a way to tie Briefcase into Windows Server storage structure. Ideally, files would be stored and maintained on a Windows File Server where all permissions are handled. This would allow for much more conventional backup and interaction with files at an administrative level.

    Commented on February 27, 2014 at 11:59 am