Thunderbird is go!

So that’s my web browsing taken care of. For my email client, I have made the radical move of abandoning Outlook. Both Outlook and Outlook Express are terribly misunderstood products. I have never really had much time for Outlook Express, viewing it as a slightly dim cousin to the full Outlook product, but then Outlook itself has a slightly schizophrenic personality too. Some people, for reasons I have never quite understood, use it as a POP3/IMAP4 client, which is a little mad as it is far too heavyweight a program just for that role. Outlook only makes any sense as a client for Microsoft Exchange Server, and in that role it is superb, which is hardly surprising as it was designed for exactly that purpose. This is especially true of the latest version.

Thunderbird is go!

However, I decided to wean myself off Outlook because I was using almost none of the advanced functions, and most of the clever stuff that I did need was being handled by the Exchange Server back end anyway, stuff like mail routing and filtering, anti-spam filters and the provision of the Outlook Web Access interface to the mail store via HTML. None of this relied on Outlook being the mail client, so I decided it had to go.

This left the obvious question of what email client to adopt. For a start, it had to have strong IMAP4 capabilities; it had to be robust and reliable and be able to cope with a few gigabytes of offline email without falling apart at the seams. In the end, after much exploration and tasting, I went with Thunderbird, the sister product of Firefox.

It seems to be robust and easy to use, but mercifully it does not attempt to be too friendly by glossing over the details of how email works. I like the power and flexibility that it gives me and, to be honest, I also like the way it does not, unlike Outlook, tie me into Active Directory and the complexity of its address books and other internal plumbing.

It is clear that there are three big questions to be answered before I can go on any further, so let’s tackle them head on. First, am I recommending that you should follow suit? Should you nail IE’s head to the coffee table and install Firefox? Am I recommending that you ditch the Outlook client and move over to Thunderbird? The answer to this is ‘yes, but with provisos’. If you are a large corporation, you have a huge investment in client training and ease of use, which you must never underestimate – moving even from IE6 to Firefox is almost certainly not worth the upheaval. What’s more, in a large corporate environment, the weaknesses of IE6 ought to be restrained by adequate network administration; you will not be allowing unrestricted and unmonitored Internet access by any tool; and all HTML content coming into the site will be carefully scrubbed by content-cleaning tools. In short, the risk profile is greatly reduced. In the SoHo/SME environment, things aren’t so clear cut, and I really am enjoying my use of Thunderbird and Firefox, especially because they work identically across platforms – useful to those odd people, like myself, who believe the best laptops are made by Apple.

Now for the answer to the second big question: both Thunderbird and Firefox are open-source applications, and you can download their source code if you wish. Making improvements is encouraged, as this is, after all, a community effort. So do I feel empowered by the fact that both of these applications are open-source? Yes and no. Yes, I think improvements will come through quicker than they do nowadays from Microsoft. By ‘improvements’, I do not simply mean bug fixes, but whole new versions, new features and new add-ons. Microsoft’s two-year development cycle is fine for some customers, but for those of us wanting more it feels positively glacial. Do I think bugs will be fixed sooner in Thunderbird than in Outlook? That’s impossible to predict, and only history will be able to answer, but both products do have routes for the rapid distribution of updates and fixes. But, most importantly, do I get a warm cuddly feeling that I can and go browse the source code, compile up my own version and fix something that annoys me? Not in the slightest. That side of things leaves me completely cold. The reason is simply that I do not have time nowadays to learn the source tree of a major product like Thunderbird or Firefox. And since I do not have the knowledge of what is going on in the code, it makes it hard to fix anything in a controlled and productive fashion. Of course, I’m delighted that there are others out there who have wrapped their heads around both Outlook and Thunderbird, but it does not matter to me whether they are in Budapest or Redmond, provided they generate a stream of fixes and improvements.

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