| October 27, 2009 3:43 am

I have a serious love-hate relationship with Linux.  I love the fact that it’s free and open source.  I love the fact that it can breathe new life into old hardware.  I love the fact that it’s easy to extend.  I love the fact that it has a vibrant and passionate user community.

What I do not love is that many open source programs are incomplete.  They can do most everything that you need, but never get around to adding the one or two features that prevent them from being finished, polished and exceptional.  I’ve ranted about this before, back when I was trying to find the perfect backup program.

Well … I’m at it again; except this time, I’m looking for the perfect email program.

Apple figured out a long time ago that it's better to have all your emails int he same place, regardless of what account they may belong to For a long time, I thought that I had found it in Thunderbird 3.  Thunderbird is powerful, highly configurable and easy to use.  Moreover, alpha and beta builds hint at changes that will make it even better.  The most obvious of these is a universal Inbox.  This is one area where I should give Apple some credit.  They figured out a long time ago that it’s better to have all your emails in the same place, regardless of what account they may belong to.  It makes things easier if the communication from your your work account, home account, webmaster account, software development account, or hobby account all live in the same place.  You just read the email and respond, the program makes sure that it gets routed along the proper pipes.

This makes it really easy to apply selective filters.  On my home computer, I only subscribe to those email accounts for home related things.  On the work computer, I subscribe to work related accounts.  On my laptop, I have all of them.

But most people use their email client for much more than just sending messages.  About ten years ago, Microsoft showed that calendar and tasks should also be part of the email application.  It’s more convenient when the tools that you use to organize your life are in the same place as those you use to communicate.  After all, who wants to use three or  four apps when you can use one?

Yet, on both these fronts, open source has been pretty slow to catch up.  The integrated inbox just appeared in Thunderbird.  And while there is a calendar component, it’s pretty limited.  It does alright with a local calendar, but a calendar chained to a single computer is mostly worthless.  Thunderbird can’t connect to an Exchange server, where your business calendar is likely to live.  It can’t talk to the family’s calendar, which might be kept on a consumer service like Yahoo or Google.  And while it has experimental support for CalDav, that’s the problem, the support is still experimental.  I’ve found that tasks or appointments don’t update reliably, and it only works when you are connected to an internet connection.

Evolution - Gnome Integration.  You can review your appointments and tasks without having to open the programPerhaps worst of all, Thunderbird can’t talk to your cell phone.  If you’re anything like me, my cell phone is my second memory.  If I don’t have it written down and in front of me, I’m going to miss it or fail to do it.   As a result, a robust cell phone sync is a must.  Taken together, these limitations and rough edges are just too much.  I need an alternative, even though I love what Thunderbird does for my email.

This is where the venerable Gnome Evolution steps in.  In contrast to Thunderbird, which is promoted as an email application, Evolution is a collaboration app.  That is to say, it takes calendar, contacts, tasks and notes seriously.  CalDav?  Got it covered.  Google?  Ditto.  Yahoo calendar?  Yep.  Microsoft Exchange?  You bet.

They have also given some serious thought to integration and user experience.  Evolution is deeply integrated with the Gnome desktop.  The desktop drop down calendar shows your appointments.  Email and notifications are integrated into the dashboard.  You don’t even need to have the application open! 

But Evolution crashes and burns as an email client.  It lacks all of the subtle tricks that Thunderbird, Mail.app and Microsoft Outlook use to keep organized.  As just one example, the folder list is overwhelming and it’s hard to know when you’ve received new mail.  Thunderbird and Mail.app solve these problems through their unified inbox.  Microsoft Outlook solves it by having a “favorites” area where you can create shortcuts to folders that you ca re about.  When you receive a new email message, this shortcut is bolded.  It’s not quite as effective as the universal inbox, but at least it’s something.  Evolution has nothing.

Outlook makes it easy to scan you inboxes through a As a result, even though I’ve loved the calendaring and integration with the desktop, I was terribly afraid I would have to dump yet another application because it offered a substandard experience.  Luckily, I found a workaround. 

There is a pretty simple way to create a unified inbox in Evolution.  It was so easy, in fact, that I was surprised that the Evolution developers haven’t taken the time to make it a standard part of the program.

The magic happens through the search folders.  In a nutshell, you create a search folder that looks through all of your account inboxes for either read or unread email messages.  Presto, a unified inbox!

Start by right clicking on the “Search Folders” entry in the folders list, then select “New Folder.”  It will load a dialog similar to the one seen below.  You will need to add two conditions.  Set the first condition to “Status Is Read” and the second to “Status Is Not Read” as shown in the screenshot below.  When done, press the “Ok” button.

Evolution - Unified Inbox Settings

The same thing can be done for your drafts, or outbox folders.  Pretty slick, huh?    What I find incredible is that such a simple hack makes such a huge difference in usability.  Instead of separately monitoring six different email account settings, I can check just a single folder for new things.  It transforms Evolution from a pain in the ass to a pretty decent little email client.

Do you have your own Evolution hacks?  If so, let’s hear about them in the comments.


3 Responses to “Create a Unified Inbox in Gnome Evolution”

Ryan wrote a comment on October 27, 2009

That sounds interesting. Does your Unified Inbox solution for Evolution do the Right Thing when replying to mails? That is, if I filter two different accounts into my unified inbox, then will it always reply to messages with the same account as the message was sent to?

Also, can I change that when I compose the message (for example if someone sent a message to the wrong account)?

On an unrelated note, do you think that the integration of Evolution outweighs the loss of all the available extensions for Thunderbird?

Rob Oakes wrote a comment on October 27, 2009

@Ryan: Thanks for the excellent questions.

“Does your Unified Inbox solution do the Right Thing when replying to mails?”

Yes. It does. It will be sent from the same account where it arrived. For example, I use an MSN account for most of my personal correspondence. When I reply to an email from this account, the reply will be routed through MSN servers. The same goes for my University or consulting account.

“Can I change that when I compose the message?”

Yes, you can. Like Thunderbird, there is an option to change which account the message will be sent from.

“Do you think that the integration of Evolution outweighs the loss of all available extensions for Thunderbird?”

This I’m still torn on. To be honest, there are only a few extensions which I use frequently: Sunbird for calendaring, and Enigmail for encrypted and signed communications. The calendar and task support available in Evolution is far superior to anything I’ve seen for Thunderbird. As far as Enigmail goes, I know that Evolution has support for encryption built-in, but I haven’t spent much time playing with it.

This is still a preliminary experiment for me. I decided to try Evolution out after upgrading to Ubuntu 9.10. Something about the upgrade broke my Thunderbird profile, and it seemed like a good chance to try it out. So far, I’ve been really happy. We’ll see how it handles things on a long term basis. I get a lot of email and I’ve heard that Evolution can get bogged down with a lot of messages.

Barney Simcole wrote a comment on April 6, 2011

Thank you for this solution. I just found this article on 2011-04-06.

I ALSO have been blown away by the product (free or not) which is Evolution email, and as of six months ago have REALLY wanted a unified folder (GMail calls it “All Mail” on each separate account).

Anyway, the ONLY disappointment (before I found out how to create a “Unified All Mail” using your instructions) that I have had is Evolution’s intermittent support of a “Duplicate Removal” plugin, at least for the “current” version of Evolution available from Ubuntu’s repository”.

The plug-in to “remove duplicate emails” _wasn’t_ supported under “gutsy” repos but you could add the add-in, _was_ supported from “hardy” to “lucid” repos in the “Evolution plugin package” distributed with Evolution… and then was removed from the “Evolution plugin package” included with the version of Evolution in the “maverick” repos (which is where I currently am), and somehow the “duplicate” plugin was disallowed from being installed in Evo 2.30.3. Apparently, Evolution added the plugin back to the Evo Plugin pack for a later version, but Ubuntu hasn’t added a later version of Evo to their “maverick” repos.

From what I gather, Evo 2.91 (or whatever the current stable version is) does contain “remove duplicates” in the “EPlugins” distributed with Evo… but I cannot find ANY instructions online to install/build/compile Evo 2.91 on Ubuntu. Even the “build script” that I found that “git”s the latest source and builds Evo doesn’t complete for me.

Yet, your article on a Unified Inbox… which allowed me to create a Unified All Mail search… is highhly appreciated. Thank you.

Thank you.

Care to comment?