Mozilla Thunderbird 3 finally lifts off the runway
An e-mail program that most people don't use just received an overdue update -- but it may still be a significant development if you care about the future of standalone mail programs.
The application in question is the free, open-source Mozilla Thunderbird, a neglected sibling of the far more successful Mozilla Firefox browser. Thunderbird 3 -- this program's first major revision since 2007, a free download for Windows 2000 or newer, Mac OS X 10.4 or newer and newer releases of Linux -- combines a few smart new features with a woeful lack of progress in other areas.
Thunderbird 3's new-account setup interface leads this release's list of advances. Instead of having to plug in a long series of server addresses, protocol options and port numbers, you can just type an e-mail address and account password to have Tbird automagically look up the correct settings -- which it did almost instantly for Gmail and Windows Live Hotmail accounts.
The new search feature shows a comparable level of brilliance. Type a search into the box at Tbird's top right corner, hit the Enter key and the program will open a new tab in its window to display search results grouped by relevance. You can re-sort them by date, if they contained attachments, if they were starred for follow-up, if they were sent to or from you, and by which other people appear as senders or recipients in those messages. It's one of the few mail search options with a speed, simplicity and flexibility comparable to Gmail's.
Version 3's tabbed interface can also make it easier to deal with large volumes of e-mail quickly in the same way that Firefox's tabbed browsing helps busy Web users stay on top of their reading.
But Tbird's developers must have run down their batteries by the time they got to the program's address book. Aside from a few minor tweaks, it remains the same sorry mess that I complained about in a 2006 review of Thunderbird 1.5, a 2007 writeup of the 2.0 release and yet another piece on the subject this spring. As I wrote in that last column:
Its woeful address book is as obsolete as Outlook Express -- it can save only two e-mail addresses per person yet somehow leaves room to store a contact's pager number.
Seriously, a dedicated field for a pager number? Why not include one for a Telex address too?
Thunderbird 3 has no calendar function at all -- an essential ingredient if it's ever going to provide Microsoft's mail/calendar/contacts Outlook some desperately needed competition -- unless you download a beta version of its Lightning extension. It may be telling that Ars Technica's positive, largely developer-oriented review expresses more optimism about the ability to run Google Calendar in widget form inside Thunderbird than about the in-development-since-2006 Lightning.
Thunderbird's plodding pace of upgrades, little better than that of Outlook itself, compares poorly to what Firefox and Gmail users have come to expect. Nor does it look good compared to the slower but steady improvements that Apple has made to Mac OS X's Mail program.
I think Thunderbird 3 is a fine upgrade from version 2 and a stronger option to Microsoft's Windows Live Mail application. But Tbird's real competition lies on the Web; those online-only rivals have privacy and reliability issues, but they're free, work from anywhere with an Internet connection and generally allow for far more rapid fixes and upgrades. It's fair to ask if Thunderbird 3 has arrived too late to make much of a difference in this software's fortunes.
Am I being too harsh? Let me know in the comments...
December 9, 2009; 3:58 PM ET
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