Mozilla Thunderturkey and its malcontents

And better email alternatives

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I'd never needed to know about IMAP until Thunderbird V3 changed my POP3 settings to IMAP and made it almost impossible to change them back. Worse, I'd only just persuaded my wife to convert from the ancient Demon Turnpike client, which had the overwhelming advantage of no development, so at least it worked.

Rather than doing these version changes, maybe it would be better to freeze the old version that works and put the developers onto a new project, which we can adopt later, if it's better.

Submitting bug reports now just gets grumpy responses - like they're used to everyone saying how wonderful it is, so now they're really defensive because everyone hates it.


I have to agree with you about Thunderbird - by any measure it's ancient. It looks ancient - in fact I think the interface to Netscape Communicator 4 (which I last used about 12 years ago) was superior. The act it has advanced so little in a decade is a pretty poor statement, though to be fair Outlook 2007 isn't that different from Outlook 98. I don't use Thunderbird at all any more - my wife uses it on her Windows PC but I found it just horrible and clunky on Mac. I use Apple Mail not because I think its terribly superior but because it integrates with the Mac Address Book and iCal.

The problem seems to be that binary mail clients are just a bit more secondary that they used to be. Web Mail clients are probably the primary interface people use these days simply because it's always there with them regardless of computer. I think the impact of this has dented the market for mail clients, no one wants to pay for them and less people use them. When I used to use Windows I used The Bat! pretty much exclusively. Like you say, it's an excellent client and I think it's miles ahead of anyone else. I haven't used it in about 10 years but even the version I remember is probably still better than most clients available today.

You can see the importance of web mail through the likes of Gmail and also through the development of of commercial products like Outlook Web Access. Today OWA is almost indistinguishable from the full Outlook client and I reckon a lot of users log on to OWA as opposed to using either MAPI or IMAP. On top of this is the growth in mobile usage. I reckon I read and reply to more mail on my BlackBerry than I ever do on a desktop client. Overall I think the future for decent email clients is a bit grim - the browser has become the universal client for just about everything including email. Also the mail protocol has fundamentally changed. 10 years ago just about everyone used POP3 and you needed a decent client to manage the mail. Today just about everyone uses IMAP - you want your mail available regardless of your client. With POP3 changing clients used to be a nightmare - trying to export and re-import mail into different clients was nearly impossible. I think there was only Eudora that standardised on the Unix Mbox format - everyone else used something proprietary.

Once email became truly mobile, it got IMAP, it got decent web mail and got onto phones, the die was pretty much cast for the future of fat clients. We got broadband so POP3 became pointless - no one needed to logon quickly download mail and then log off as they were being charged by the minute. With broadband you could stay online as long as you liked. You didn't need complicated clients to manage your POP3 messages because they were all saved online. Web mail interfaces got much better which meant you didn't need fat clients. I think set against this the effort in developing mail clients was in sent into a downward spiral; ten years ago there used to be loads of good, shareware clients that have all but vanished. I think mail has just taken another evolutionary change and the result is that fat clients are slowing drifting towards obsolescence.

Kevin Hall

Surely the state of email clients can't be a minority interest amongst El Reg readers? We all use MUAs.

Personally i find it one of the most important considerations. As a Linux advocate, i find the MUA can be a powerful element in 'turning' Windows users, to adopt spook terminology, and i bemoan the tendency to bloat codebases and require ever more system resources to perform standard tasks.

I'm very keen (as a TBird user) to look into some of the alternatives you've mentioned.

Charles Johnson

So without any delay, here they are:

Life beyond Thunderbird

Thought you might be interested to hear that I've been using claws since 2005, and before that Thunderbird and a few proprietary ones going back to 1994. Although it's had minor wobbles over the years, Claws is the only mail reader that I've never needed to do a database rebuild for.

-- Will J Godfrey

Just a quick note to support "Zimbra Desktop" as an alternative open source email application. Whilst it is designed to be supported by the Zimbra Server, it supports pop3 and IMAP. Furthermore it is cross platform, available for Windows,Mac and Linux.

V1 of Zimbra Desktop was in my testing a little shy on features, the beta 2 version shows promise.

Best Regards



Switching back to Alpine on a SDF UN*X shell account. Who needs graphics?


Pah. Real men use ssh and say HELO. But seriously,

I have read your article on this subject with some interest, since I, too, have been bitterly disappointed with Thunderbird's memory footprint of 105MB for my set of IMAP folders. When you suggested Claws Mail, I felt I had to give it a shot.

I must say that my feelings on Claws are somewhat mixed. On one hand, it does manage to improve on Thunderbird's 105MB memory footprint - it "only" uses 65MB of RAM. While this is a significant improvement, it just doesn't seem ground breaking. Pine manages it in under 4MB, so does the GUI itself justify that much bloat? Then again, after Evolution's 165MB memory footprint for the exact same data set, anything seems like an improvement.

The main issue for me is the lack of plugins to seamlessly support integration with Google Calendar and Google Contacts (I use an Android phone so this is important to me).

The other feature that seems relatively unique to TB is the message move functionality in the context menu, with recently used folders "cached" so they are quickly accessible. I find this much more natural and quicker to use for filing away mailing list messages than than Claws' and Evolution's pop-up menu setup.

Still, I think it is great that you indirectly brought up the wider issue of bloatware becoming a standard. The attitude of present day developers needs to change drastically if we are ever to see decently performing, well designed software become even remotely common. The "memory is cheap" view doesn't lead to good programming. What concerns me, as someone who has been a software developer for 20 years, is that the issue is so widespread that even in academia the fundamental fallacies such as "Don't bother optimizing, that's the compiler's job." are being openly taught to the next generation of computer scientists by people who really should know better. The fact remains that there are very few things we are achieving with computers today that we weren't achieving 15 years ago, despite the vast increase in resource requirements by software.

Best regards.

Gordan Bobic

Do we need better email clients?

Oh, Jesus Horatio Forgharty Christ, yes!

Probably the most important issue is that emails are still a deferred messaging service, which made sense back when the relevant protocols were invented, but is no longer valid today. Some suggest everyone switch to the likes of Facebook, Twitter, or one of the umpteen IM protocols, but this is just ridiculous: How many bloody communications applications should anyone need?

All these protocols serve the same purpose: getting messages from User A to User B, and vice-versa. There should be no need for multiple applications to achieve the same goal. I want to open up *one* messaging application and have access to *everything*. No need to run Mail, Adium, Skype ('cos Adium doesn't do Skype), Twitter widgets and Facebook widgets. Let's have it all in one damned place, please. (And yes, that should include videoconferencing and the like.)

Any solution to the email problem should therefore take a more holistic view: we need a protocol which can provide both deferred and real-time messaging, with none of that "ASCII vs. HTML" bollocks either—I'd go with Unicode and PDF. (The latter is an open standard format, but has the advantage of DTP-levels of precision, as well as re-flow facilities, so you get the best of both worlds.)

Add in strong, PGP-style, cryptography built in as standard and we can then send and receive messages and know that the people responding to us are who they say they are. It'll create a two-tier messaging system: open, "untrusted" emails would be automatically flagged as such; encrypted, "trustable" emails would be more common between friends, relatives and businesses.

Granted, this can never be 100% secure, but it's a lot better than what we have now.

One day, the above—or something like it—will happen. You could argue that I could write an application which supports all the proprietary formats, as well as email, Jabber, etc., today. But it'll never feel truly unified.


-- Sean Timarco Baggaley

I'm not so sure we need a "one shop" client for everything. So far people who've tried to integrate social networking have found a pretty strong pushback - have a read of this excerpt from Engadget's preview of Windows 7, and the problems that integrating "friends" into your address book causes: click here and grep for “facebook”.

HP ProLiant Gen8: Integrated lifecycle automation

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