OpenLDAP, Thunderbird and roving address books

IMAP is great. It lets you keep your mail synchronised between any number of machines, including webmail, and everything works just fine. The only snag is that your address book isn’t included. I’d always assumed this was what LDAP was for: a centralised directory of names, and other things, with the useful bit being the address book. Thunderbird, is my current favourite mail client on the basis that actaully works better than Outlook. It supports LDAP address books, and has offered to configure one for me many times. All I needed to do was configure slapd (the OpenLDAP server deamon) and point Thunderbird at it.

This blog entry isn’t a tutorial in configuring FreeBSD, OpenLDAP and Thunderbird to work together. I’m saving you from wasting a lot of your time trying. It does “work”, once you’ve sorted out schemas and got to grips with the arcane syntax of the configuration files and the hierarchical nature of the thing. It’s just that it’s useless even when it’s working because it’s READ-ONLY. Being able to add and amend entries in my address book is so fundamental to the nature of an address book that I didn’t bother to check that Thunderbird could do it. What’s the use of a read-only address book? Well there might be some point in a large organisation where a company-wide address book is needed, administered by a tame geek in the basement. For the rest of us it’s as fileofax with no pen.

So what are the good people at Mozilla playing at? The omission of read/write has been listed in their bug database for over ten years, and no one has tackled it. I thought about it for a while, but given the that Lightweight-DAP is a misnomer on a spectacular scale I thought again. Clearly no one who knows about LDAP actually likes it enough to want to help; either that or none actually understands it apart from the aforementioned geek in the basement, and he’s sitting tight because allowing users to edit address books might be detrimental to his pizza supply.

The time is right for a genuinely lightweight protocol for sharing address books in a sane and sensible manner; something like IMAP for addresses. I’m therefore writing one. Unfortunately I’m not so clued up on Thunderbird’s internal workings; if you are and wish to implement the front end please drop me a line and I’ll write a protocol and server that works.

Unfortunately this one issue is a killer app for Microsoft’s lightweight over-priced Mail system called Exchange. It’s a big of a dog (inflexible) but at least Microsoft seems to have got this fundamental functionality for sharing personal address books between mail clients sorted out. I believe it uses something similar LDAP underneath (along with IMAP for the mail itself); so it’s not impossible.

I’m very surprised to find myself having anything good to say about Outlook/Exchange Server. It might still be traumatised from the discovery that my assumption that the obvious LDAP solution was nothing of the sort. It’s just it’s so damn complex for no apparent reason that it gives the impression it must be great if you could only understand it.

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