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Paul Festa


Weeks after the successful launch of its Firefox browser, Mozilla has released an e-mail application in another salvo on Microsoft’s home turf.

The Mozilla Foundation, an open-source development group founded by Netscape and spun off last year by Netscape’s parent company, Time Warner, on Wednesday published a release candidate of its Thunderbird 1.0 e-mail management software.

The release candidate–a substantially complete version of the final product posted for last-minute testing on the eve of the official release–“is a big step forward for giving users a safe e-mail experience,” said Scott MacGregor, Thunderbird’s engineering lead. “We think users will enjoy our adaptive spam filters, in addition to new features like saved search folders and RSS (Really Simple Syndication) integration.”

Thunderbird 1.0 will fly into a marketplace with no shortage of competition–both proprietary and open source.

Microsoft is a deeply entrenched leader in e-mail software. Its Outlook client application and Exchange back-end software rule the enterprise market. Its Outlook Express is a popular free end-user application. Its free Hotmail e-mail Web site, which boasts nearly 200 million accounts, has been a key driver of traffic to its revenue-producing MSN Web portal.

In addition, some consumers have migrated entirely to Web-based e-mail sites like Microsoft’s Hotmail, Yahoo Mail and Google’s Gmail. Those sites increasingly are trying to match the desktop applications’ level of functionality. Toward this end, Yahoo in July acquired Oddpost.

Thunderbird offers some Exchange integration capabilities, and Mozilla said it has had some success with small businesses and universities. But Mozilla intends primarily to compete with the free, consumer-oriented Outlook Express.

If Thunderbird is to make any market inroads, analysts say, it will have to do what Mozilla’s Firefox browser has succeeded in doing: capitalize on frustration with Microsoft’s product.

“I don’t know if the same dissatisfaction is there with Outlook, but we’re looking at Outlook Express and we’re seeing a lot of parallels with IE,” MacGregor said. “There are the nuisances of the Web, spyware slowing down your experience, spammers clogging your inbox, viruses in attachments…We think Thunderbird can help.”

Outlook Express has been implicated in numerous security scenarios, often the same ones affecting IE and Outlook. But considering the level of frustration with IE, which has gone years without a feature upgrade and whose recent security makeover is available only for users of Windows XP, Thunderbird may have a tough act to follow.

“The most widely used, good-enough e-mail choices are not great choices,” said Peter O’Kelly, an analyst with the Burton Group. “They’re not leading edge in their capabilities, and there’s no guarantee that the security is going to be where you want it. But when was the last time you got excited about an e-mail client? You probably don’t wake up in the morning thinking, ‘I need a better e-mail user experience.'”

Open-source e-mail projects include KMail, an application designed for use with Linux-based KDE (K Desktop Environment); Evolution, an application used with the Gnome environment, also Linux-based; and the nascent Chandler project at Mitch Kapor’s Open Source Applications Foundation, which plans to develop an open-source application that ties in calendar, e-mail and other functions.

One open-source project–the OpenOffice productivity suite formerly known as StarOffice–dropped its e-mail reader years ago.

Proprietary, free, stand-alone e-mail applications include one distributed with Opera Software’s advertising-supported browser (Opera also sells an ad-free version); another distributed with Apple Computer’s operating system; Qualcomm’s free, ad-supported Eudora application (Qualcomm, too, sells an ad-free version); and Microsoft’s Outlook Express.

Whatever its reception in the market, the official release of Thunderbird 1.0 scheduled for Dec. 7 will mark a significant milestone for a product that has long soldiered on in the shadow of its more famous browser sibling.

Thunderbird’s ancestor, Netscape Messenger, came bundled with the Navigator browser and other applications in the Communicator software suite since its first versions in the mid-1990s. In 1998, Netscape established Mozilla and put both the browser and the mail application into open source development. At Mozilla, the application was known simply as Mozilla Mail.

Nearly two years ago, when Mozilla decided to trim the browser down to size with the Firefox project, it decided to give Mozilla Mail a makeover as well. That makeover became Thunderbird.

Thunderbird offers a laundry list of features commonly available in e-mail applications, including support for the IMAP, LDAP and POP mail protocols and HTML mail; message labels, search, and an address book; return receipts, message filtering, import functions, and a tool for managing multiple e-mail and newsgroup accounts.

In addition, Mozilla hosts several dozen extensions to the application that perform tasks like changing the appearance of buttons, changing a sender’s identifying information for single messages and compacting folders.