Webmail Roundup — Which is the best for your users?

Date June 11, 2007

Everyone uses webmail — it's perfect for on the go access, when you just can't wait to get home to retrieve that important message. There are a few free linux-based solutions out there. Here's a rundown of their features and what to consider when you set one up for your organization, family, friends, or business.

There are a few ingredients needed to set these up — they require a working IMAP server (or POP in some cases), a web server, and in some cases, MySQL for authentication and user data. It's advisable to have an STMP server as well as the requirements listed above, but not necessary, since PHP includes its own mailing function.

The Options

  • Squirrelmail
  • As the reigning champion, and probably the most widely used webmail client, it is mature and extensible. A bounty of third party plugins extend its features to the heart's content.

  • Roundcube
  • A relative newcomer, Roundcube aims to give users the eye candy they are used to with nice icons and AJAX functionality similar to that of Gmail.

  • Horde
  • More of a groupware suite, Horde combines messaging with group calendars and a contact manager. IMP, Horde's webmail component, is widely used and user friendly. Pick and choose the components you want, or install them as a single package.

I used Squirrelmail for a long time, and it's a solid offering. The looks aren't very impressive, so if you're looking for a flashy interface, this is not it. The functionality is definitely there, however. Squirrelmail is theme-able and does come with several selectable color variations, but beyond that is very “Web 1.0″.

Installation of Squirrelmail is simple — extract the package into a web-accessible directory and edit a couple of configuration files or follow the interactive configuration script. If all of the prerequisites are in place, you'll have a working installation in a jiffy.

There are many plugins for Squirrelmail, including a preview pane, an expanded contact manager, spell checkers, and more.

Squirrelmail is a solid offering and will meet most needs, but will not impress first time users for its tame appearance. It requires an IMAP server, an SMTP server, and a working Web server.

Lots of buzz has been hitting the online community about this relatively new webmail client. It uses nice icons and a flashy AJAX interface to get you access to your mail. As a newcomer, its features lack in comparison to the more mature offerings.

If sending, receiving, and listing of all your IMAP folders are all that you need, Roundcube will do it in style. As of the most recent RC-level release, there is no preview pane, you cannot mark an entire folder as read, and logins can be buggy. On the plus side of the features, Roundcube can be used as an interface to many IMAP servers by leaving the 'server' field blank in its configuration file. Supply your credentials and the address of the IMAP server you'd like to connect to, and Roundcube provides you with an interface to send and receive.

Since Roundcube is young, there aren't many third party add ons to be found. More features are planned, and you can find a patch to enable a preview pane feature. If you are looking for a simple and pleasing webmail interface, Roundcube is for you.

Roundcube requires IMAP, MySQL, and web servers to be configured and ready to go. IMAP and MySQL need not be installed on the same server, so Roundcube Email can be used as a front end to any provider you choose, your own included. Roundcube can use PHP's built in SMTP functions to send mail, though greater reliability can be had with a dedicated SMTP server.

Horde (IMP)
Horde has been a favorite for ISPs for a long time. Many service providers give users accounts to this webmail program, and it shows in its maturity. Horde is easy on the eyes and can be very feature rich with the entire collaboration suite installed.

IMP is the Internet Messaging Program module of the Horde Project, and what we'll concentrate on here. IMP is also the only one of our listed webmail clients that can handle POP as well as IMAP servers. This is great if you plan to access ISP mail that doesn't offer an IMAP protocol connection.

IMP gives you one feature that neither Squirrelmail or Roundcube give you out of the box: filters. Sending spam to a junk folder is easy with IMP, provided you have a method of spam detection like spamcop or spamassassin. This is probably the most-missed feature of the other clients. Squirrelmail allows for simple rules with a plugin, but can't touch IMP out of the box on this front.

IMP has in development a mobile browser webmail client and an AJAX style webclient as well, called MIMP and DIMP, respectively. Keep an eye on IMP and Horde for what looks to be the most robust offering of the three.

Horde/IMP requires a web server and an IMAP or POP server. It can also make use of any SQL server you have available. It can interface to any mail server you can provide login credentials for; they need not be installed on the same server.

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