netscape

Trying Thunderbird

by Michael Alderete on 8/15/2003

Today I set up Mozilla Thunderbird, the new e-mail client that’s coming out of the Mozilla project. I wanted to give it a whirl, because I’m looking for a new e-mail client for Rochelle. She’s been using Netscape 4.7 to manage her e-mail, and that application is getting old, and has a number of issues, mostly having to do with the fact that it’s now completely unsupported software. Also, Thunderbird has best-in-class spam controls, which is very important, since Rochelle is beginning to receive more and more spam.

Problem is, I haven’t found a better e-mail client than Netscape. Outlook and Outlook Express are out of the question. They are deeply insecure applications, and the number one vector for spreading computer viruses. (Mark my words, in the next 12 months there will be a malignant virus that will wipe Outlook users’ hard disks clean. It’s just a matter of time.) They are also spam-friendly applications (though an Open Source project, SpamBayes, gives Outlook robust anti-spam tools). People who voluntarily use Outlook or Outlook Express are stupid. IM!HO.

I actually bought Eudora Pro for Windows for Rochelle’s computer, on the basis of my experience using Eudora on the Mac for the last decade. But Eudora for Windows uses the obsolete Windows MDI interface paradigm, where all of the windows are contained in one “parent” window. It’s maddening, and a relic from the late 80s. The application has a number of other quirks, differences from the Mac version, to the point where I found it unusable.

So I’m evaluating Thunderbird, to see if it’s ready for Rochelle. I plan to use it regularly over the next few weeks, configured to manage one of my less-used e-mail accounts.

It’s a good thing it’s a less-used e-mail account, because already in my first 15 minutes, it’s clear that Thunderbird is still pretty raw (giving double meaning to the “trying” in this post’s title). Basic e-mail functionality is there, and the application seems solid (no crashing); this is the result of Thunderbird’s gestation as part of the Mozilla Suite. You can use, and even rely on Thunderbird. But there are a lot of fit-and-finish issues, which seem like small things, but add up to making it unsuitable — unenjoyable — for daily use.

Some examples:

1. The first thing I want to do when setting up an e-mail client is turn off automatic downloading of HTML images. (Loading images in a spam message can tell the spammer your e-mail address is valid, resulting in a lot more spam.) There is a control for this in Thunderbird’s preferences, hidden a little too deeply (Advanced -> Privacy -> Block loading of remote images), but easily checked once you find it. So far so good.

The problem is when you get messages with graphics from valid senders. The graphics don’t display, as per the general preference, but there’s no way to override that for the one valid message. This renders some messages unreadable.

Solution: a toolbar button in the message window to download that message’s graphics.

2. The default font settings render many messages a blur, with the text far too small to be legible. (This is on Mac OS X, it might be better on Windows or Linux.) The “minimum size” preference seems to do nothing, and the View -> Text Zoom menu option does not appear to be a global setting. I finally solved the issue by changing my Serif font setting to Lucida Grande, a sans serif font that is highly readable, even at small sizes. But all in all, there are far too many settings and options that affect text size and font choice, and it’s not at all clear what does what, how they interact, or how to accomplish specific goals with regard to text rendering.

It reminds me of Don Norman’s description of refrigerator / freezer settings in a href=“http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0465067107/haightlifecom”>The Design of Everyday Things. In most home refrigerators the freezer and refrigerator compartments share a single compressor, the key component of the cooling system. Because it’s shared, making changes to the freezer setting, e.g., setting it lower, can affect the refrigerator setting, making it lower too. So you turn up the refrigerator knob to keep your lettuce from freezing, but that makes the freezer less cold, and your ice cream oozes out of the carton. You have to fiddle and fuss to finally get to a balance you can live with.

It’s a ridiculous thing for an end-user to have to deal with, and it happens because the designers give you controls that affect the system’s internals directly, instead of letting you choose a goal state (e.g., a specific temperature for each compartment), and have the system figure out how to achieve it. Product designers and programmers do this because it’s easy to build, and because they don’t see anything wrong with it. The problem is that users don’t think like programmers, and have trouble figuring things out.

Thunderbird is supposed to be a simplified, easy-to-figure-out e-mail client, vs. the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink e-mail client in the Mozilla Suite. They have a ways to go with the text settings.

3. Thunderbird makes some assumptions about my e-mail reading workflow that are wrong. If I open a message, read it, and then delete it, Thunderbird automatically opens the next message, in a window sized and positioned exactly like the first message.

First of all, while this straight-through workflow may work for some people, it’s deeply distracting to me. I pick and choose my e-mails, working via priority order (or whim), not on the order the messages arrived. I suspect most sophisticated e-mail users do this. Auto-opening a message I would prefer to defer looking at just means I have to close it, and then right-click to mark the message as Unread. Pain in the ass. There appears to be no way to affect this behavior.

The second issue with this is that Thunderbird’s screen redraws are extremely efficient. There is zero flicker when one message disappears and the other appears. Because the new message appears in the same place and is the same size, only the text changes. If you’re looking at a new message that is visually similar to the previous one — say, two text messages — you might not notice it was new, and think that you didn’t hit delete at all. Guess what you’d do then.

These are three examples, but I’ve seen many other issues. I can hold my nose and manage this low-priority e-mail account, but it’s clear that Thunderbird has a few more months of development in front of it before I’ll give it to Rochelle.

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