Mailbag: Open Source Software, Mailing Lists

Note: This column will now appear weekly, and as a result, I have the time and space to answer questions that I get via e-mail and also on PC World's Office & Business forum. I won't be able to respond to all queries, but will try to address those of greatest interest to people who use technology to manage and grow a small or medium-sized business. Queries will be edited for length.

I have read your article "Making Your Mailing List Work for You." Could you please help me with information about other mailing list managers? Open source is the best. The application needs to be LAMP compatible.
--Tsvetan Lalov, Bulgaria

Before I get to the specifics of this interesting question, I'd like to make sure all readers understand the significance of Lalov's open-source and LAMP compatibility requirements.

Open-Source Software

Who doesn't like a freebie? I don't see many hands raised.

In my opinion, open-source software is one of the best deals around. You don't pay to license the software, since it is developed by programmers who donate their efforts. You may pay for add-ons or support services, however.

All open-source applications have publicly available source code, which one may modify if desired. However, not all applications for which source code is available have open-source licenses; some are commercial applications (see my earlier column on this subject).

The quality of open-source software varies, much as it does with commercial software. But since it's free, there's no cost other than the investment of your time to install it. Then you can evaluate it to see if it meets your needs.

There are potential drawbacks to open-source apps, though. Since open-source software isn't backed by a commercial organization, I always recommend that you check out the support options. Typically, free support is self-service. Community forums allow users to share their knowledge and experience and help each other out.

The best forums also benefit from the participation of application developers, who can offer their in-depth knowledge and spot potential bugs. Developer involvement is also a good indication of whether the software project is actively supported or has been abandoned.

What Is LAMP?

Some readers may be curious about the LAMP requirement that Lalov mentions. The L stands for Linux. The A stands for the Apache Web server, one of the two most popular types of Web server used today. The M is for MySQL database software. Finally, the P stands for the PHP programming language.

The other popular Web server is Microsoft's Windows IIS (Internet Information Service), but the company remains a longtime underdog in this market. According to Internet researcher Netcraft, as of May 2007, 56 percent of the Web's servers run Apache, compared to 31.5 percent that use Microsoft products.

Why is Apache, from The Apache Software Foundation, so popular? Apache is a free, open-source application, while Web hosts must pay to license Windows IIS. Some would also argue that Apache has fewer unpatched security weaknesses; its name is a pun on "a patchy Web server."

You can use an application that runs under LAMP--a mailing list manager, for example--on most of the world's Web servers. In contrast, a Windows IIS-based mailing list application will be compatible with fewer than one-third of Web servers. A few versatile mailing list managers are available in versions for both servers.

If you don't know what type of Web server your business runs, ask your hosting service or server administrator. Alternatively, you could use the handy "What's that site running?" form on Netcraft's site.

PoMMo: Post-Modern Mailing Management

In the column on mailing list managers that Lalov references, I discussed the Majordomo and Mailman mailing list managers and the JangoMail mailing list service. Mailman comes closest to meeting Lalov's requirements. It's available under the GNU General Public License, but it uses the Python language, not PHP.

You can test-drive poMMO before you install it on your Web server.
You can test-drive poMMO before you install it on your Web server.
For another option, consider poMMo (for "post-modern Mailing Management"). It's an update to bMail, an older mailing list manager.

poMMO is an open-source mailing list manager with an attractive and easy-to-understand interface. It uses templates to control the look and feel of subscription forms, so you can match them to the look of your Web site. I like the way poMMO offers personalization capabilities to customize outgoing messages, such as adding a name.

poMMo supports both Apache and Windows servers. It has a lively community forum and is under active development. It requires support for MySQL databases and the PHP programming language, which are components of the LAMP platform.

It's fairly easy to install, assuming you know how to install software on your Web server. If not, you may require assistance. Just extract the poMMo zip file into its components, then upload them to a directory on your Web server. You'll need to configure a PHP file and set up a MySQL database before you complete the installation.

To learn more, take poMMo for a test drive using the online demo.

Richard Morochove is an IT consultant and writer. Send him questions about using technology in your small to mid-sized business via e-mail. PC World may edit your query and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.
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