Review: Open-Source Thunderbird Lays An Egg

Mozilla's open-source E-mail client looks more like a watered-down version of Outlook Express than the second coming of Firefox, says Scot Finnie.

A lot of you have been bending my ear with the suggestion that I try Mozilla's Thunderbird. I don't really make a habit of reviewing email software, even though I do write about the subject a lot. Why don't I review email products? Because I've learned over the years that my needs are a lot more demanding than most people's.

For example, I need an email program whose message rules can filter both incoming and outgoing messages. Thunderbird can only filter incoming messages. I need an email app that can pull dozens of email accounts into a single inbox and folder hierarchy. Thunderbird is primarily designed to handle multiple accounts in separate inboxes. It has a feature that allows it to merge those accounts into a single inbox, but Mozilla decided to protect us from ourselves by creating a default SMTP server that's designed to serve all of your accounts, and that frankly turns the whole program into a giant mess for experienced email users who are able to work with multiple SMTP servers. I also need an email program that provides true individual account controls (plus an "identities" or "personalities" feature, which lets you create multiple account-like entries for a single mail account). Thunderbird makes a stab at this, but it's fatally flawed, primarily because of the compromises already ! mentioned.

One other pet peeve. Many of Thunderbird's settings dialogs are modal. Once opened, they prevent anything else from being opened. That can be annoying when you want to copy and paste settings from one account to another, for example. I also had trouble getting ThunderBird's import tool to import the Eudora address book, even though it offered an option to do so. My Eudora installation uses the default locations for all Eudora files, but Qualcomm made a change a couple of years back on those defaults. My guess is that some Thunderbird developer was using an old version of Eudora when writing the import script.

After just 30 minutes with the finished product, my assessment is this: Thunderbird looks a lot like Outlook Express. In fact, it reminds me of a cross between the cult-favorite Calypso emailer from the 1990s (which is now being marketed and developed by Rose City Software as Courier) and Outlook Express. It's actually less powerful than Outlook Express (though OE has other severe problems) and more powerful than the original Calypso.

Frankly, all, you can do better than this. There's a product called PocoMail that might be worth a look if you haven't tried it. It has much of the power of Eudora with a cleaner interface more like Outlook Express. My only qualm about PocoMail has been that the product is updated sporadically, and reliability hasn't always been excellent.

Sorry to pour cold water on Thunderbird when I know so many of you are newly fond of it. The interface is very slick but I do not like Mozilla's underlying strategy. The very same approach is perfect for the Firefox browser. But the world doesn't need another light-weight email package — there are already far too many of them. What we need is something that can go up against Outlook, Outlook Express, and Eudora head on. Something with significant features that will give us a real alternative. It's clear to me that Mozilla is more than capable of creating such an email application. They just went in a different direction. As a result, I find Thunderbird to be a bitter disappointment.

This review first appeared in the February, 2005 issue of Scot's Newsletter. Scot Finnie is Editor, the Pipelines and TechWeb, as well as the author of Scot's Newsletter and previously an editor with Windows Magazine, ZDNet, and PC/Computing. He has covered Windows and other operating systems for two decades.

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