Mozilla Thunderbird email

Tuesday, 26 April 2005

Everybody loves Mozilla Firefox, the open-source web browser du jour. But there’s nowhere near as much attention being paid to its sister application, Thunderbird, an email and news client and RSS reader. I use Thunderbird for all my email: it has a lot of excellent features, but somehow doesn’t have quite the same mojo as Firefox. Here are some of the things I love, and some other things, about this fine program.

The best things about Thunderbird:

  • Excellent spam filtering — it uses a Bayesian spam filter to detect junk mail. It works pretty well for me, though I use it in combination with SpamAssassin on the server. SpamAssassin stops about 90% of my spam on the server, then Thunderbird gets most of the rest.
  • POP3, IMAP and RSS support — though I haven’t used the RSS features.
  • Extensions — Thunderbird uses a plug-in extension architecture like Firefox, so you can download extra functions, tweaks and UI hacks.

The thing that would really get me excited about using it is the killer feature it doesn’t have: tagging (another concept du jour). Thunderbird expects you to manually organise your email into a fixed hierarchy by filing it into named folders: it physically moves the email into files and folders on your hard disk. This filing isn’t very useful. When I’m trying to find old email, I always end up searching my entire mailbox because I can’t remember where I would have filed things. For example, my friend sent me an email about his experiences with his new camera: did I file it under “Friends” or “Tech”?

Rather than imposing a single hierarchy, it would be much better not to file things at all: just index all text in all email, and allow users to tag emails with relevant keywords. Then you can find email simply by searching. The focus would be on full indexing and fast searching with a minimum of user effort.

This idea has been around for a while. The M2 Mail client built into Opera has done this for years, and more recently GMail brought search-focused email to the wider world. The Opera system is excellent: it looks like a traditional folder structure, but underneath it’s a tagging system. I’d love to see Thunderbird use this.

Thunderbird does have a a search-based classification feature called Search Folders, but it’s slightly clunky to set up and doesn’t allow any extra tagging, which is needed to make it useful.

Also, like every program, Thunderbird has bugs, including one that bites me often. In an attempt to publicise it and get it fixed, I mention it here: Bug 277352 – After sending the e-mail, the systems ‘hangs’ on ‘copy to send folder…’. I’m digging in the code myself to try to fix it, but it will take me some time to isolate it, and I don’t really have that much time.

Anyway, I still use Thunderbird every day. It’s not as essential as Firefox, but I like it a lot.

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6 comments

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  1. I totally agree with you. Mozilla Thunderbird is a nice mail client but I wish it supported tagging. How do we get the Mozilla people to add this feature?

    I made a similar observation to yours here.

    http://mentalcompost.blogspot.com/2005/06/tag-friendly-mail-client.html

  2. The best way to add this feature to Mozilla is to do it yourself! That’s the beauty of open source. It would be a big change though. It might be worth looking on the Thunderbird forums to see if it has been discussed.

    One way to implement this is to store all emails and tags in a database (in the obvious way), and display each tag as a folder. You could cache the headers of the emails in each folder, as Thunderbird already does. Storing the email in a database would also improve searching, since you could have a full-text index.

    All this might actually be fairly easy to implement, at least for POP3 mail. A feature like this could capture the zeitgeist and propel Thunderbird to Firefox’s dizzy heights. Well, I would love it anyway.

  3. Is there any source code that I could find to read the Thunderbird email database format from my own application?

  4. Of course, of course — go right the the source and look at the Thunderbird source code.

    In case it helps, Thundervbird stores emails in raw format — just plain text, exactly as received. The .msf files that it creates store information like sorting and so on. I don’t know the format of those — you’ll have to look at the source. Good luck.

  5. Hi guys,

    Nice to come across this topic. I’ve been dreaming of writing my own email client exactly for this reason but haven’t gotten to it yet (surprise). In addition to the comments made already, I’d go even further and allow a hierarchy of tags, mandatory tags etc (so that if you work with others your “structured” email archive is built-up in a similar way). With a mandatory tag I mean something extra to the “Subject” line that is not free text but uses a structured list – that is created on the fly as needed. Obviously some more thoughts about collaboration with groups need to go into this…

    My question: has there been any progress lately re this that you are aware of?

  6. the new version of Thunderbird is SWEET. i have finally rid myself of MS office and moved on! It feels so good to get 2.0 up and running…now if only they could make the new mail notification smaller and able to hover over.

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