by Gareth Russell
Mozilla Thunderbird 0.7 is the new lightweight email and newsgroup client from the Mozilla Foundation; it’s a new take on the email client and has been built almost from the ground up, with the proven Gecko rendering engine. As with Mozilla Firefox its main aim is to try and satisfy the average user's requirements, with a minimum amount of fuss. Email clients over the years have tended to suffer from “feature creep” and “bloat”, Thunderbird removes the clutter such as Intstant Messaging integration which you may never use. Thunderbird has all of the basic features you'd expect to find in any email client, with IMAP and Pop3 support, email filters and the ability to manage multiple accounts. Thunderbird also contains many other non-standard features such as built in junk mail filtering, S/MIME, digital signing, message encryption, spell checking and a flexible user interface. On top of this, Thunderbird is possibly the most extendible browser available with its excellent extension system, allowing you to create an email client that suits you.
Thunderbird 0.7's changes, include: a smaller download size for Windows, speed improvements in Windows, Linux and Mac OS X, new themes and extensions managers, as well as a talkback program for the unlikely event that Thunderbird crashes. A number of bugs have been squashed for the release, helping to iron out any rough edges which existed in the previous editions. The most important change in 0.7 is the overhaul of the extension system with new extensions controls allowing for easier management of extensions and which, now make it possible to update your extensions to the latest versions without having to go and manually download them.
As with Firefox, Mozilla Thunderbird features a stripped down interface, which is more thought out than previous editions of Mozilla Messenger. The default graphical interface features a three-pane setup much like Microsoft Outlook Express or the original Mozilla Messenger. On top of this; however, Thunderbird provides three other default settings including an interesting three pane vertical arrangement, which manages to use more of the display area to display your emails than the standard setting. Most importantly though, Thunderbird does not try to restrain you by its interface and its easy to customise the layout by adding new buttons to the toolbars or to add new window panes for content to get it exactly how you want it.
One of the most attractive features of Thunderbird is the advanced Junk Mail filters included my default in Mozilla Thunderbird. The Junk Mail is adaptive by using a system of Bayesian filtering, this learns what is junk mail and what is not by you indicating to Thunderbird whether it is or is not junk. Junk can be defined by simply checking a junk mail icon next to the subject of the email. When a similar email appears in your inbox, Thunderbird will indicate that it believes the message is junk with the option to correct it if it is wrong. It's surprising how short a period of time it takes, before Thunderbird catches all of your junk mail with no mistakes. It only took a couple of days, before my inbox was junk mail free, with only a couple of false positives. Thunderbird can also be told to move the junk immediately to a temporary folder or to delete it straight off. This really sets it apart from programs such as Outlook Express which don't have built in junk mail controls, as you'll no longer to be forced to wade through a load of junk mail just to read you emails. No more time wasted moving all those offensive pornography emails which you receive to your work email address, no more time wasted deleting those university diploma emails and in particular no more being caught out by those emails with the viruses attached. Thunderbird really is revolutionary as an email client, when it comes to dealing with junk mail.
Thunderbird includes S/MIME email support, which is an open standard for secure messages. S/MIME messages are particularly useful as they offer sender authentication with digital signatures and can be easily encrypted. The other advantage of S/MIME messages is that they are based on a widely used standard, which allows for compatibility with most other email clients such as Microsoft Outlook or Ximian Evolution.
Security does not just stop with the S/MIME support in Thunderbird, thanks to the system of extensions. An extension known as “Enigmail” provides support for authentication and encryption of the GnuPG system of security. The extension integrates well in Thunderbird, so much so that it is difficult to notice that it doesn't come as standard in a source package. It's also an extension which is not something which every user will require, and it's good that it’s easily obtained and installed for those who would need the support.
Extensions for Mozilla Thunderbird are obtained by visiting the Thunderbird Extension page, selecting the extensions which are required and downloading them. Then it's merely a matter of opening the Extensions panel (Tools > Extensions), and following the “Install” dialogue. It's certainly an improvement on the system offered by 0.6 versions or older of Thunderbird, as you would have to go all the way into the Options panel to access the extensions controls, which was a bit too much hassle. The dialogue now is much more easily accessed.
One of the more interesting extensions available for Thunderbird is the Calendar. This is part of the Mozilla Foundation and aims to provide calendar and scheduling type functionality for users of Messenger and Thunderbird, through an implementation of the iCal standards. Sadly the user interface for the Calendar extension feels a bit “muddled” with too many window panes cluttering up the space. The four window panes contain: an hour by hour break down of the day's schedule, an overview of the month, a task list and a list of all events on the calendar. Of course these windows can be collapsed, hidden and resized to suit the user's needs but it feels like too much is fighting for the user's attention by default. The Calendar's integration with Thunderbird is also lacking somewhat with access to the calendar only via the Options menu. It's not all bad for the Calendar application however, as it integrates well with the Address Book and can import calendars from other applications such as Microsoft Outlook or Ximian Evolution. Enterprise users should take note however, as it still does not have the ability to use a Microsoft Exchange server.
Other extensions available include, “Mouse Gestures” which introduces mouse gestures into thunderbird. These are easily configurable, so that you can be checking in your inbox with just a little wiggle of your mouse. “Quick Note” is an application that allows you to take quick sticky notes whilst browsing your email. There's even a “Weather” extension available, which provides a weather forecast for any US ZIP code and details everything from the humidity to wind chill, all in a tool tip.
Thunderbird, whilst it's a good application it still doesn't have the same universal appeal as it's Firefox counterpart, since lightweight email clients just don't have the same universal appeal of browsers. There are some features missing from Thunderbird, which I find difficult to work without such as virtual folders, which I use to sift through large amounts of email on the fly. However, I feel that it must be remembered that this is a lightweight email client, and shouldn't be expected to contain many additional features. Overall Thunderbird despite not being as popular as the hugely successful Mozilla Firefox Browser is a capable, customisable email client suitable for the home or business user (as long as they're not interested in other “groupware” features such as a Calendar). Thunderbird is highly recommended to those that require a lightweight email client that is fast, secure, easy to use and filters out your junk mail whilst being customisable enough to suit almost anyone's needs.
You can obtain Thunderbird from the Mozilla website: http://www.mozilla.org/
* Part I Mozilla - Back to Basics: Part 1 Firefox
Gareth Russell is a Student living in Rural Suffolk in England. Gareth has been a Linux and Open Source enthusiast since July 2001 when he discovered Linux, having started out on Mandrake Linux 7.2, Gareth eventually moved on from Mandrake when Red Hat 8 was released and has stayed with Red Hat ever since. Gareth is an administrator of FedoraForum.org an online forum for Fedora Core support. His other interests include gaming, rock music and politics. Gareth's Homepage can be found at www.garethrussell.com and Gareth can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org