Thunderbird: Not Quite Ready for Business

By Steven Vaughan-Nichols  |  Posted 2005-01-10

Thunderbird: Not Quite Ready for Business

I love Thunderbird, the Mozilla Foundations standalone e-mail client.

I mean I really, really like it a lot. I use it on my Windows XP machines; I use it on my Linux systems. I put it on my daughters Mac, and Ive replaced my wifes copy of Outlook Express on her Windows 2000 box.

They love it. I love it. But the love is not unconditional.

While I think Thunderbird is a great replacement for Outlook Express, Eudora or my own personal favorite for many years, Pegasus Mail, it just isnt quite ready for corporate, prime-time e-mail.

For starters, it still has some bugs in it.

Take, for example, the error message, "This folder is being processed. Please wait until processing is complete to get messages." Sometimes, this is a trivial error message, other times youll need to kill Thunderbird because that e-mail program is never coming back to life.

Click here to read more about Thunderbird.

It depends entirely on whats causing the problem. There are, by my count, six ways to get this error message. And one of them leads to another, potentially more serious problem: anti-virus program incompatibility.

Thunderbird doesnt work and play well with all anti-virus programs. In particular, it can have serious trouble with Symantecs Norton Antivirus. Indeed, if you dont have the pair set up to play well together, you can actually lose messages.

This problem isnt unique to Thunderbird. Netscape, Mozilla and Outlook Express all share it. And there is a workaround, but still, it annoys me that Thunderbirds Windows installation program doesnt give you a heads-up that you may run into trouble if it detects this most popular of all anti-virus programs.

Ive also run into memory problems. To keep itself speedy, Thunderbird keeps messages from open folders in memory. Thats fine most of the time for most people, but as someone who gets thousands of messages a week, Ive run into situations where Thunderbird slowed to a crawl because I was running out of RAM.

A related problem is that you might think you could get rid of this problem by deleting messages, and you can. But you dont do it by deleting messages per se or even using the Empty Trash command.

No, all that does is hide messages. To really delete them, and gain back the wasted space, you need to compact your folders ... one by one.

This is documented, but when I delete something and then on top of that throw out the "trash," I assume that the message is gone. I think most users would, and since this can have an effect on performance, Id like to see the program default to combining delete and compact, or at least give me the option of running compact on all folders at a set time every day.

Next Page: Problems with trashing spam.

Trashing Spam

Finally, while Thunderbird has a good Bayesian spam filter, it does—for reasons I cant tell, and no one else can as far as I can tell—sometimes mark messages as spam, but then it doesnt automatically trash them as Ive set it up to do. Its no deal breaker, but it is annoying.

After all that, you may wonder why I say I like Thunderbird. Well, first there are all the reasons we list in our latest review of Thunderbird.

In addition to the ones listed there, I also favor Thunderbird because its more secure than Outlook or Outlook Express. Both Microsoft mail programs have come a long way since I called Outlook a security hole that pretended to be an e-mail client, but Thunderbird starts out more secure than either one since it doesnt have roots into the actual operating system.

Besides, while Internet Explorer vulnerabilities get most of the press, Outlook still has major holes in it. For example, according to SecurityFocus, Outlook 2003 still has a media file script execution hole that could be used to run programs on your PC.

All in all, if Im running e-mail on Windows, Id rather have Thunderbird, warts and all, rather than an eternally insecure Microsoft product.

But thats me. For businesses, especially large ones, Thunderbird really, really needs group calendaring and schedule management capabilities.

The Mozilla folks are working on giving us just such capabilities in the Mozilla Calendar extension project, but, in the current 0.2 release, its still a long ways off.

In addition, for group calendaring, the Calendar relies on WebDAV (Web-based Distributed Authoring and Versioning), and its not clear to me how popular WebDAV is going to end up being.

Id be happier if it supported WebDAV and Microsofts Exchanges MAPI (Messaging API). Like it or lump it, Exchange and MAPI are well-entrenched in many companies groupware infrastructure.

Now you can get an open-source e-mail client that supports MAPI scheduling and, thus, Exchange group calendar. But its not Thunderbird, its Novells Evolution and Exchange Connector.

I like Evolution, but it runs only on Linux and Solaris. For Windows users, Thunderbird is clearly the open-source e-mail client of choice.

Still while I can recommend Thunderbird for computer-savvy home users and small businesses in a heartbeat, I cant recommend it for naïve users or big businesses.

That said, given the incredibly rapid rate at which the Mozilla Foundation improves its programs, I have little doubt that by this time next year, Thunderbird will be at least as popular as Firefox is now. Senior Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been using and writing about operating systems since the late 80s and thinks he may just have learned something about them along the way.

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