E-Mail Client Software Finally Gets A Kick In The Pants - InformationWeek

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Government // Mobile & Wireless
11:19 PM

E-Mail Client Software Finally Gets A Kick In The Pants

The early reviews for Thunderbird 3 are rolling in, and most of them give Mozilla's updated email client a big thumbs up. Whether business users will notice is another matter entirely.

The early reviews for Thunderbird 3 are rolling in, and most of them give Mozilla's updated email client a big thumbs up. Whether business users will notice is another matter entirely.In 2007, Mozilla set up a new messaging software spinoff to pursue one major goal: Give Thunderbird the features and the marketing muscle required to make a real impact in the desktop email software space.

Mozilla Messaging obviously faced an uphill battle: In spite of generally positive reviews, previous versions of Thunderbird never made much of a splash, especially among business users. And in a market defined by Microsoft Outlook at one end and Web 2.0 apps like Gmail on the other, does a desktop-based upstart like Thunderbird really stand a chance?

According to Ars Technica's glowing review of Thunderbird 3, the answer appears to be yes: The growing dominance of Web-based messaging services like Gmail have raised challenging questions about the future relevance of desktop mail clients. Thunderbird 3, which was finally released this week, delivers some truly innovative features and offers compelling evidence that desktop clients still have a lot of untapped potential and can provide capabilities that complement and exceed the power of even the best Web-based mail offerings. According to Ars, Thunderbird's revamped search capabilities are probably the single most important improvement. It's a verdict that CNET repeats in its own positive review: Undeniably, the killer feature in Thunderbird 3 is the search. The most obvious competitor, Microsoft Outlook, doesn't offer anything that comes close to the level of granular control that Mozilla has given Thunderbird users. Although CNET concludes that Thunderbird 3 might require "some fidgeting" to deliver top performance in a business (i.e. Microsoft Exchange-driven) environment, it also labels Thunderbird a "top-notch e-mail client" that is "far more scalable to user needs than anything else currently available."

Here's the upside: As CNET's Matt Asay points out, leading desktop email clients like Microsoft Outlook and Apple Mail are about as innovative today as Internet Explorer was a decade ago. This is a market that desperately needs a kick in the pants, and Thunderbird 3 might be the perfect way to deliver it.

Yet I'm not convinced that Mozilla Messaging is ready to make inroads among business users. Perhaps the biggest obstacle at this point is Thunderbird's calendaring support. In order to handle Outlook meeting requests, Thunderbird users must download a separate add-on known as Lightning. Initially, Mozilla had planned to integrate Lightning and Thunderbird but later changed its mind. (Separate Thunderbird extensions are available to integrate shared-calendar functionality for Google Calendar and Zimbra users.

This is likely to be a non-issue for individual users or experienced Mozilla hands. But if Mozilla Messaging wants to give small-business IT departments every reason to give Thunderbird 3 a try, it simply can't afford to blow off these small but important details.

At this point, however, I don't want to be too pessimistic about Thunderbird's prospects. It has clearly come a long way over the past two years, and it now has the organizational resources required to keep moving forward.

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