Email, Open Standards, and Australia: Developer Finds Balance on the Road

Contrary to what Monty Python might have us believe, Australia isn't a place where everyone's a philosopher named Bruce. Nor is it simply a place where toilets flush backwards, as we learned from The Simpsons. For Ben Duncan, founder and CEO of AtMail, Australia has become a whiteboard for developing the newest innovations for AtMail's messaging systems.

Back in January, Duncan began a road trip across Australia in a Land Rover kitted out with a complete mobile office, including an Atmail Email Server and satellite broadband to keep him connected. I spoke with Duncan last week to see how the adventure was going and find out what's new for AtMail.

"It's really nice to be kind of in nature," Duncan said. "And I think with Australia especially, we have such a vast country with so few people, and it's really great to actually get out there and explore it—but also at the same time to be supported by work. And it's actually really nice because I find whenever I was at the office, I'd always be online. So when you're doing new development or trying to be creative, you're always distracted by your emails or your IM or just a myriad of things."

"But while on the trip, we use a mobile connection, and it doesn't always work all the places, especially remotely. So having that offline time actually for me is the most creative for doing things, especially programming," Duncan said. "It's quite nice to just have that online/offline balance."

Duncan pointed out, however, that he's had few connectivity problems overall, which he credited to being on Australia's Next G network. "It's really fascinating because it basically works everywhere as long as you're not in a valley," he said. The only other technological problem has been with his power supply, which is charged by solar panels on the Rover's roof, and that's been a problem only during cloudy weather.

So, what developments have come out of the trip so far? Well, earlier this month, AtMail announced the beta for the Atmail 6.0 platform. As Duncan said, "Basically it's a complete rewrite of the software using the PHP Zend framework and also leveraging all the goodness of the JavaScript jQuery toolkit. Our aim with the next email version is just to embrace more of the open standards—calendaring, address book, and synchronization."

A big focus for Atmail 6.0 has been on the web mail UI. "In our experiences running Atmail for the past ten years, we're noticing a trend that more and more companies are just using web mail," Duncan said. "I kind of envision a future where the dominance of Microsoft Outlook on the desktop will lessen and be replaced primarily with web mail interfaces that can provide the same \[functionality\] if not better."

In addition to—or perhaps related to—the open-standards approach to development, Atmail 6.0 will be "browser friendly" for Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, and Chrome. It also features push support for email, contacts, and calendars, and other technical enhancements to benefit performance and usability.

But Atmail Email Server isn't the only thing getting some development time during Duncan's outback Odyssey. AtMail has also released ArchiveVault, an email archiving solution, both as an appliance and as software you can install on your own server. ArchiveVault is mail server–independent, so it's worth looking into even if you're already committed to Microsoft Exchange Server or another messaging infrastructure. The appliance runs on 64-bit CentOS Linux, uses a 64-bit Intel quad-core processor, and is easily managed through a web-based admin console or through command-line access.

Duncan's road trip has so far covered the east coast of Australia as well as Tasmania. But, as Duncan said, "I'm looking forward to heading back more into central Australia. I actually quite like that desert environment. That should be a bit challenging." You can follow Duncan on his blog or his Twitter feed. If you do, you'll see that it's not all coding—there's a good deal of sightseeing and activism on this trip as well.

Perhaps what is most impressive about his journey is that it's working. While far from his company's offices, he's still in the thick of the daily work life. "I'm doing quite a bit of development in the mobile office, which is great," Duncan said. "I quite enjoy getting my hands dirty and doing a bit of development and enjoying that project lead, as well as kind of envisioning what I'd like to see and trying to communicate that to the team as well."

"I'm surprised more people don't do this, actually, if they've got the technology."

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