SolutionBase: Open source your e-mail client with Thunderbird

First, went after Microsoft's Web browser dominance by releasing Firefox. Now, it challenges Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express with Thunderbird, an open-source e-mail client alternative.

Microsoft has basically taken over the commercial desktop software market. About the only real threat facing it any more comes from the Open Source movement. First, Windows came under attack from Linux. Then Sun released Open Office to challenge Microsoft Office. Restarting the Browser Wars of the 90's, released the Firebird browser.

The next target on the list appears to be Outlook and Outlook Express, Microsoft's popular e-mail client. Fresh off the release of Firebird, released Thunderbird. Thunderbird is an open-source e-mail client that has features not found in either Outlook or Outlook Express. Here's what you'll find.

What does Thunderbird do?

At its very core, Thunderbird is an e-mail client. As with all e-mail clients, including Outlook and Outlook Express, Thunderbird sends and receives e-mail, allows you to maintain an address book, and organize incoming e-mail messages. Features included in Thunderbird that you won't find in Outlook Express allow you to do such things as:

  • Change the appearance of the program using themes
  • Integrate RSS feeds
  • Create Saved Search Folders which group messages based on your requirements
  • Group messages according to date, subject, or sender
  • Block image requests embedded in e-mails that may reveal information to third parties
  • Control spam using an integrated spam filter that you can customize
Outlook and Outlook Express have gotten a nasty reputation for being unsecure. This has occurred because of the many viruses that take advantage of Outlook and Outlook Expresses macro features. An infected e-mail can quickly e-mail itself to everyone in a user's Address Book.ï¿? Thunderbird is immune to this form of virus because it lacks the macro feature. You can still GET a virus through Thunderbird, but it won't automatically replicate itself.

As if the basic features weren't enough, you can add to Thunderbird through the use of extensions. Extensions are third-party add-ons that serve many different functions. Some popular extensions for Thunderbird include:

  • ConQuery Adds a query option to the context menu when you right click a message
  • DictionarySearch Allows you to look up a selected word in an online dictionary.
  • Enigmail Integrates OpenPGP into Thunderbird.
  • Linky Allows you to validate links and pictures in messages
  • Mouse Gestures rather than using the toolbar or menu commands, this extension lets you issue commands by moving your mouse.

Like its web-browsing cousin, supports versions of Thunderbird that run on Windows, Linux, and MacOS. Also like Firebird and because Thunderbird is open source, many people have developed versions of Thunderbird that work on other operating systems including Solaris and OS/2. For the purposes of this article, we're just going to look at the Windows version of Thunderbird.

What doesn't Thunderbird do?

Outlook will talk directly to an Exchange server using MAPI, where Thunderbird can only do so if you configure your Exchange server as a POP or IMAP server. In that respect, Thunderbird probably makes a better potential substitute for Outlook Express than Outlook because Outlook Express also only talks to POP and IMAP servers.

Another Outlook feature missing from Thunderbird is the calendaring and group-scheduling functions. Thunderbird is a raw e-mail/RSS client and nothing more. This is another area where Thunderbird is more closely matched in features to Outlook Express, because Outlook Express doesn't do calendaring either. plans to address this missing feature with their Sunbird project.

Obtaining and installing Thunderbird

You can obtain Thunderbird directly from's Thunderbird Web site. The file you need Thunderbird Setup 1.0.EXE, is only 5.8Mb in size, so it won't take very long to download. Save it to a temporary location on your hard drive and you're ready to go.

Thunderbird installs like most other Windows programs. There's a wizard that will walk you through the entire process. As you go through the installation, there are no major gotchas to worry about. You can just use the Standard Setup option unless you want to disable the RSS Feed reader and/or specify a destination for the program. When the basic installation is finished, you can configure Thunderbird.

When you run Thunderbird for the first time, a wizard will first ask you if you want to migrate information from Outlook or Outlook Express if it detects that either are in use. After the migration is complete, the main Thunderbird screen will appear. The wizard will then ask if you want to make Thunderbird the default e-mail application for the workstation. You should click Yes, so Thunderbird will start if you click a Mailto: link from your Web browser.

If you allowed Thunderbird to import settings you're done. If you didn't import settings you'll have to set the POP and SMTP settings to allow Thunderbird to send and receive mail. The Account Wizard will help you through the process. It will appear either automatically if you don't import settings or you can start it by clicking Tools | Account Settings and then clicking the Add button. You'll need to know the name/IP address of your POP3 or IMAP server for receiving e-mail as well as your SMTP server. You'll also need to know your login name and password for you mail server. When you're all done, click OK. You can then click Get Mail to pull e-mail from your server.

Configuring Spam protection

You can enable Thunderbird's built-in spam protection by clicking Tools | Junk Mail Control. You'll see a quick splash screen describing Thunderbird's junk mail feature. When you click OK, you'll see the Junk Mail Controls screen. On this screen you'll tell Thunderbird how to block spam.

In the Handling box, you can tell Thunderbird to where to move suspected spam. You can either move it to a temporary folder to check later, or you can have Thunderbird delete it outright. You probably want it moved into a temporary folder unless you get so much spam that you can't keep up with it all.

The Adaptive Filter tab allows set Thunderbird's Adaptive Filter feature. With your help, Thunderbird will learn what messages you consider spam and automatically mark them for you. Make sure the Enable check box is selected for this feature to work.

After you've set the filter, you can mark a message as spam by selecting it in your Inbox and clicking the Junk icon in the Toolbar. You can also mark it by highlighting and pressing [J]. If you accidentally mark a message, or if Thunderbird guesses that a message is junk when it's not, you can unmark the message by clicking the Not Junk button or by pressing [Shift][J].