September 5, 2002

Zoe: Web email client matures faster as Open Source project

-By Grant Gross -

When Kate Rhodes saw an early version of the Zoe email client, she thought it could be what she was looking for: a full-featured, easy-to-use Web-based email client written in Java. She wanted to help the project along, so she suggested that developer Raphael Szwarc open-source the code.
In late May, Szwarc released the source code under a modified Apple Public Source License -- replacing "Apple" with "Raphael Szwarc." Both Szwarc and Rhodes are happy with the change.

Zoe, which saw its 0.2.3 release this week after about seven months of development, is advertised as a "Web-based e-mail client with a built in SMTP server and Google-like search functionality that lives on your desktop." (The long explanation is here, and here's a screen shot.) Zoe works on Mac OS X and Windows NT, 2000 and XP, and Szwarc says he's making changes in the code to make it work better in Linux as well.

Szwarc plugs Zoe's instant search function and its ease of use as reasons for people to try the application. "Like the other Web-based email clients, it allows
users to access their email over the Web when they are away from their
computers," he says. "What sets Zoe apart from the other Web-based clients is that
you don't need a sysadmin, or anyone really experienced with configuring
server side applications to get your Web-based email running. You just
turn it on."

Project manager Rhodes, a Java and Perl programmer in her own right, says she was already impressed with the application she saw last spring, and the project has already gotten positive feedback from several other users.

"Zoe did almost everything I wanted, it was stable, and it installed easily," she says. "It was so close to perfect I had to write off to Raphael and encourage him to release it as Open Source so that I could help get it to the point where I would be happy using it as my sole email client. I made lots of feature requests, and after a number of emails offered my services to help manage Zoe if he ever did decide to
release it as an open source project."

She adds: "Basically, I thought Zoe was a great app that was so close to perfect I
had to see if I could help get it the rest of the way. I guess I managed
to convince him that releasing it was a worthwhile thing to do and that
I was capable of handling the tasks involved in doing so."

Szwarc was originally indifferent about open-sourcing the code, but he now sees the benefit. Besides satisfying his curiosity about Open Source, it "provided some
significant feedback about where people want to see the application
moving to," he says. The move to Open Source also helped attract another developer, Warner Onstine, who's porting Zoe from Apple's WebObjects to Tapestry and Jetty.

Rhodes believes that move, along with the opening of a project page on this summer, will attract more developers. "Open-sourcing Zoe has been really good," she says. "We're still seeing limited participation from the community, but I think this is due primarily to the fact that it requires WebObjects. Fortunately, getting rid of the reliance on WebObject is our top priority.

"It would be nice if we had more people actually coding, but it is understandable that we don't. Your average Java coder doesn't have a copy of WebObjects, doesn't want to spend the money to get one, and isn't particularly interested in it anyway. Without WebObjects, there isn't a lot you can really do in Zoe right now that will produce
visible results."

After the change from WebObjects, Rhodes believes Zoe will attract some interest from developers. "As Open Source projects go, I believe that Zoe has a leg up on most of
them in that it already works," she says. "It is hard to get developers interested
in working on a project that won't actually do anything for months, but
Zoe already works. It just needs more features.

The changes that
developers make to Zoe will show up immediately, not months from now the
various pieces finally start to come together.

"I doubt Zoe will get a huge number of
developers but I think that it is a useful enough tool, and far enough
along in its development to encourage many people to contribute small
enhancements, which will add up over time. Regardless of how many
developers join the Zoe team, Zoe will evolve at a faster pace as an Open
Source project than it would have with only Raphael working on it."


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