Few people are as passionate about their e-mail clients as they are about, say, browsers or phones. But that certainly doesn't mean all mail apps were created equal, as Canonical showed recently when it commissioned a comparison of the open source clients Thunderbird and Evolution. Here's a look at some of the findings.

The Thunderbird standalone e-mail client enjoys relatively wide popularity. Developed by Mozilla, it runs on pretty much every modern operating system out there, and has been around for nearly a decade.

In contrast, Evolution, a mail application for the GNOME desktop that ships with Ubuntu, is well-known only inside the Linux world. A build is now available for Windows (and in the past a more DIY solution was available via the win32-evolution project), but I'd be willing to bet quite a lot of money that the number of installations of Evolution on Windows is minuscule. (I will add, however, that I myself ran Evolution on a Windows machine back in the heady days of 2008, with mixed results.)

Thunderbird vs. Evolution

As Charline Poirier of Canonical wrote, the company earlier this summer commissioned an external usability analysis of Thunderbird and Evolution. The resulting report found a number of strengths in both clients, as well as places for improvement. On the whole, however, Evolution turned up somewhat more difficulties deemed "severe," including trouble setting up accounts and navigating the main mail interface.

Canonical's motivation for undertaking the study isn't clear, but I'm left to presume that it's considering replacing Evolution with Thunderbird as the default mail client in upcoming Ubuntu releases. If that happens, it would be significant in signaling yet a further step away from the GNOME community. The decision to switch from the GNOME desktop to Canonical's in-house Unity interface in Ubuntu 11.04 was the first major break between GNOME and Canonical. (Lest I be accused of spreading FUD, I will point out that traditional GNOME remains available as a choice at login time for Ubuntu 11.04 users, but by default their systems run Unity.)

Is Offline E-Mail Obsolete?

I also wonder, however, how much offline e-mail clients actually matter in the age of the cloud. According to one survey, the only standalone mail application with major market share is Outlook, a dominance that likely stems from Outlook's tight integration into Microsoft's solutions for business customers. After Outlook, Web-based clients top the list.

Thunderbird, despite its position as the preeminent open source e-mail client, retains only 2.4 percent of the market, according to the survey. Evolution isn't mentioned, falling only into the "Others" category, with 8 percent market share.

Granted, the survey may or may not be accurate and objective, and the preferences of Linux users could diverge significantly from those of Internauts as a whole. But writing from anecdotal experience, as someone who hasn't seriously used an offline e-mail client in either a personal or professional capacity in several years, I have deep doubts over whether many people running Ubuntu care very much whether it ships with Thunderbird or Evolution.

I'd rather see Canonical focus on building an even better cloud-centric experience for Ubuntu users than pumping resources into applications that are more difficult to deploy across different platforms. I wouldn't even mind if Ubuntu came with no preinstalled offline mail client. After all, it's easy enough to download one in the Software Center if desired.