Open source Kolab ready to take on Office 365, Google Apps

What's next for Kolab, the privacy-minded open source unified communication and collaboration system that you can install on your own server.

Roundcube webmail
Credit: Roundcube

Kolab, one of the most promising and important open source projects, offers two kinds of solutions: 1) Kolab Now, which is a groupware service with extra privacy protection thanks to Swiss law; 2) Self-hosted Kolab software which anyone can install on their own servers.

Kolab is now upping the ante by adding more services to its arsenal. The company just concluded its Kolab Summit in The Netherlands and came out with three major announcements.

I spoke with renowned free software developer Aaron Seigo who recently joined Kolab to discuss what's in store for the future.

Plugging into Microsoft Outlook

Let’s face is Microsoft’s Outlook is still a dominant player in the market and is being used by enterprise customers and governments alike. In 2014, Microsoft proposed to migrate their clients from MAPI to Active Sync as they felt it would offer them a more manageable solution, but this was met with strong market backlash and they reversed course. Additionally, Kolab customers with Outlook versions older than 2013 can't use Active Sync.

There is a better solution called MAPI (Mail Application Programming Interface) that was developed by Microsoft back in the '80s and early '90s. Unlike Active Sync, MAPI allows Kolab users to access all the features of Outlook.

But while MAPI makes customers’ lives easy, it’s very hard to maintain. It’s not a nice, modern protocol. Seigo told me that Microsoft decided to drop support for MAPI last year, but a lot of their large customers were using it with their own solutions on top of it so Microsoft couldn’t stop supporting it.

In the open source world, the implementation of MAPI is limited. There were only three projects using the protocol and two were tied to Open Source Groupware Zafara. They also decided to stop supporting it. That leaves Open Change as one of the most promising projects that Kolab can use. So they are working with Open Change to bring full support for MAPI to Kolab.

How it affects Kolab users: With MAPI, Kolab users will be able to connect to Outlook without installing anything directly to their installations. And, it just works. They get all the features that Outlook has.

Collaborative editing, chat and much more

The second big announcement was the arrival of synchronous communication to the Kolab stack. They already have great asynchronous support, which means email and calendar work well together. It will allow Kolab to add more services and offer more robust solutions to users. Seigo told me that they will be adding support for instant messaging, using XMPP, along with video chat support via WebRTC. They will also be introducing collaborative document editing. That’s something that Microsoft offers with Office 365 and Google provides to Google Apps customers.

Seigo gave an excellent example of what to expect. When someone in a company sets up a calendar entry for a meeting, the software will automatically create a chat room assigned for that meeting. When the time for the meeting arrives, it will show pop-up notifications to the participants, and the WebRTC chat would start.

Kolab wants to bring it all together and integrate with the stack in 2015.

$80,000 crowdfunding campaign for Roundcube

Roundcube is one of the most popular webmail clients and is used not only by major corporations but also millions of individuals. Kolab adopted Roundcube in 2011 and also started supporting it by paying two of its top developers.

As the web is changing, companies like Google are doing their own thing, moving away from standards. Kolab wants to ensure that Roundcube remains the standard for another 10 years so customers can use it without worry. But the code base is 10 years old and they want to refactor it to make it modern.

At the moment Roundcube relies heavily on plugins to extend features; it does a lot of rendering on the server side as well as client side. On top of that the UI is also old.

Seigo reported that Roundcube users have told them that “everything is working fine, it’s extremely stable and please don’t add anything to it.” But the fact is that refactoring code and making it modern will prepare Roundcube for the future.

That’s what Kolab is planning for the next version called Roundcube Next. In order to overhaul the code, change the plugin model to app model and provide it with a modern, one page UI Kolab has started a Indiegogo campaign to raise $80,000 in 60 days.

There are different perks for different backers and the two top perks worth $5000 and $10,000 gets the backer on the advisory board of Roundcube during the period of refactoring.

It’s a fixed campaign, which means they will get money only if they raise the whole $80k. The money will be used to hire two new developers who will work on refactoring the core. Seigo estimates it will be about six months of work. This money will also be used to hire a designer to create a fluid, one page UI for Roundcube.

When I asked Seigo why they needed the campaign, he said, “Kolab is already investing heavily in Roundcube and we realized we need this refactoring. There is a huge user-base out there and we want to find how to engage them. At the same time it will also tell us what’s the demand for it.”

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