Warning: This is long. I'm in a gabby mood. But when you write about something so basic to everyday life as email, it's easy to get a bit verbose. As my friends will tell, I find it easier than most...
One of the problems with modern software applications is that they tend to be incredibly feature laden. That's a problem you say? Yes it is. Feature overload leads to a great many features never being used because you don't know what to do with them, don't know they exist, or are only useful to about 5% of the target market. Mozilla seems to have avoided that trap with the latest release of it's fabulous email client, Thunderbird. Most features are infinitely useful to a great many people.
At first blush, things don't appear to have changed much. For the most part, Thunderbird looks and acts pretty much the same. For an email program, thats a good thing. Productivity applications that you use all the time should not have major interface changes. No one wants to spend a week learning how to do something that was fine before. Just ask the legions of people who positively hate the Office 2007 interface. It doesn't matter if it's better. It is radically different enough to get in the way of getting the job done.
Instead, useful features should be added that enhance the usual experience. This exactly what Mozilla has done in all releases of Thunderbird. No jarring, radical changes to the user interface. Just enhancements that make things work a little bit better. Many of the UI changes are immediately recognizable since they are adapted from either Firefox or web-based email sites like Gmail. With email clients, usual and recognizable is what you want.
The GUI Got Better
For example, Thunderbird now supports tabs. A simple thing, putting tabs across the top, but really useful. Your calendar (assuming you have the Lightening extension, which of course you do because it only makes good sense) and tasks can live in their own tabs making navigation to them simple. Messages can also be opened in tabs allowing you to have multiple emails open in a neat space. No more having a dozen windows spewed all over your desktop. Everything is nice and neat.
In typical Mozilla fashion, you can turn off tabs and use Thunderbird in the old fashion way. This is important since it doesn't force a change in behavior. Users can choose to continue working the way the always have or easy in slowly. This is not a trivial matter when training budgets are under constant pressure. The ability to expose features slowly or only to power users is a great help.
Another useful GUI enhancement is the action buttons on the email itself. In the past (and in most email programs) when viewing email from the message pane, actions on an email such as Reply or Delete are initiated from a toolbar on the top of the window. While you can still do this in Thunderbird 3, you also have the most common action buttons right on the email message pane itself. This allows you to quickly review, read, and take action without your mouse flailing about like its rodent namesake stuck in a trap. You can choose a more minimalist toolbar at the top or keep the old one and the message pane buttons. It's the best of both worlds.
Organize, Search, See
The new T-Bird goes all out to bring better ways to find and view emails and RSS feeds. My favorite new feature is the summary list. If you select a group of email or RSS messages, a search engine type list is displayed in the message pane. It shows you the title and a snippet from the beginning of the message for each message selected. This gives you a Google-like view which helps you to skim through a big batch of messages.
This also works with the new global search capabilities. Searching for emails in earlier versions was a decidedly local affair. You could search through a folder from the search bar but had to go into the advanced search for anything else. Thunderbird now sports a global search bar similar to the Firefox one, including auto complete. It helps to search through the gobs of emails that pack rats like me accumulate. You can apply filters of various sorts after the fact, narrowing your results in much the way as a you would with an Internet search engine. This is a very powerful feature.
In Thunderbird 2, Mozilla introduced tags but they typically were underutilized. Most people still moved messages to complex folder structures. Tags allowed for better organization since you could dump messages into one folder and perform multi dimensional searches on them. I create virtual folders of saved search results that allow me to find messages based on a number of tags. Mozilla kicks it up a notch in this release by making it obvious what you are supposed to do. They have added an Archive button and matching folder. Now, when you want to save a message, you hit archive and it puts it in a folder based on the year. Combined with tags and the new search, looking through dozens of layers of folders is instantly as old fashioned as a rotary phone.
It's Like Having A Big Brother To Look Up To
A lot of great ideas besides tabs and search features have migrated over from Firefox. My two favorites are Weave and Personas. Weave synchronizes information between different instances of Firefox and now Thunderbird. If you have multiple computers, say a desktop and a netbook (or are like me and have more than two) this is a valuable feature indeed. Though there have been a number extensions that do this sort of thing, it is much better as a Mozilla project that gets updated regularly. I wasn't able to get it to work in Thunderbird 3 RC1 but if it works like it does in Firefox, I can't wait. My hope is that some day it becomes a core feature and not an extension.
Personas is also a neat feature from Firefox. It provides a way of skinning the GUI without going all out and writing XML and designing buttons. Pretty much anyone with the ability to create a JPEG can do this. Personas are kept in an online repository making it easy to share and change them. I think this signals the death knell for themes. Personas are more lightweight and portable. And now my browser and email can look the same. Sweeeeet!
Changes Under the Hood
There are also a number of changes to the core code. Like with the Firefox 3.0 upgrade, the memory footprint for Thunderbird has shrunk a bit. This is very good when you are dealing with a low memory devices like a netbook or an old PC. Or an old PC used as a netbook...
A lot of effort also went into IMAP improvements. For many Thunderbird users, that's not that important since they get their email from a POP server. More and more ISPs, however, are moving toward IMAP because it allows for better synchronization amongst different email clients on different machines. Gmail has an IMAP option and AOL requires it. It is also the best way (at the moment) for Thunderbird to interact with an Exchange server.
One somewhat geeky new feature that I'm not sure I like is the Activity Manager. It keeps a log of all the things you did on Thunderbird. On the one hand I can see it's potential for debugging and answering the question “Oh no! Did I delete that email? The one with the time for my job interview?” On the other hand, there is also the potential for eDiscovery problems since it can explicitly tell you that someone suddenly nuked 25 emails when there was a preservation order. Sometimes metadata and logging are not wanted.
And Yet All Is Not Perfect
There are a number of strange, ugly, and just plain wrong things about this new release. Hey! Nobody is perfect and Mozilla proves that in spades. First, the elephant in the room – no Microsoft Exchange support. I get that Mozilla and Microsoft don't get along. I also get that Mozilla may think they are not that interested in the big, bad corporate market (though I don't believe that for a second). But Exchange is so ubiquitous that you have to wonder why, after all this time, there is no support for it. Heck, my ISP offers it for five bucks a month! If Microsoft is the problem then they should remember that the real enemies are Google and Oracle and get over it. If Mozilla is the problem then they need to remember that email is serious business and get over it. In any event, when anyone puts together a list of why Thunderbird is not a real email contender, Exchange support is at the top of the list. They need to add it just to shut those people up.
Oddities abound, especially in the GUI. Some are inconsistencies that had to have come up during testing. For example, there is now an Outbox. Unsent emails used to sit in the Drafts folder. Perhaps this is another way to support offline work but it needlessly confuses the process of sending emails.
And why when you compose an email does it still open in a separate window? Other email messages open in a tab. Same goes for the address book. Inconsistencies like that confuse regular users and annoy the power users. Maybe that gets fixed in a later release.
Speaking of unusual behavior, why does the reply button on the message pane have a little selection arrow but only one selection, yet the reply all has one that shows reply all and reply? A bit redundant isn't it? What I do like is that the reply all button only shows up when there is more than one person to reply to. Nice touch.
Finally, whereas the search features are so much better than before, the page that is generated to show them is ugly as sin. We are talking about a page that looks like an amateur web site from 1994. Lots of functionality but no aesthetics.
Thunderbird 3 is still a release candidate but is really close to production grade. The GUI enhancements and search features make it a worthwhile upgrade. There are still a few unusual issues but those might be ironed out over time or someone will come up with extensions to deal with them. The enhancements are great and the complaints small. My kind of software!
Disclaimer: Like everyone else, I get Thunderbird for free. So while technically not a paid endorsement, it's best to mention it anyway. I don't want the FCC giving me grief. And it give me an excuse to be silly.