As some of you probably know, I’m a long-time Thunderbird user, from back when it still had the cool blue Phoenix logo, and when what we now call FireFox had only just changed from being called Phoenix to FireBird. In other words, from when Mozilla still looked at BOTH their browser AND their mail client as being important products. Since those days I’ve watched in horror as Mozilla first neglected Thunderbird, and then abandoned it. While FireFox has gone from strength-to-strenght, Thunderbird has languished. The project was effectively thrown out of Mozilla and left to fend for itself. It also lost its lead author, and has stagnated. It’s a good mail client, but it’s behind the times. It’s missing simple features like a tabbed interface, and FireFox 3’s new, non-retarded, way of dealing with problem security certs. For all these reasons I was very excited to see the announcement of a beta version of Postbox this week. It’s a fork of Thunderbird being led by Thunderbird’s old lead, so in many ways, it’s a glimpse of where Thunderbird could have been, had it not been neglected by Mozilla. It definitely is a beta, but it’s a glimmer of hope at long-long-last!

To really test Postbox I’ve been using it as my only mail client in work since the day it came out. Thanks to the joys of IMAP I can now switch mail clients at the drop of a hat, without loosing any of my mail – fantastic! The good news is that this beta has proven itself to be stable enough to use. I have yet to see it crash, though I have found at least one bug.

As has become tradition on this blog, I want to start with some bad points, before going on to the good. Firstly, not all the old Thunderbird annoyances are gone. The massively counter-intuative and down-right confusing way in which Thunderbird handles multiple SMTP servers is still in Postbox. I was really hoping sanity would be restored on this front, but alas, no.

Similarly, like in Thunderbird, the new account wizard in Postbox totally ignores encryption options. It’s like jumping into a time machine and going back to a more innocent age. How on Earth can anyone designing a modern mail client think that encryption is the exception rather than something everyone should be using? Who still thinks that sending usernames and passwords through the internet in plain text is acceptable? Have the people who wrote Postbox never heard of the dangers of open WiFi? I find it staggering that anyone would even dream of sending their username and password to their mail server without encryption, but to not even offer encryption as an option in your new account wizard, come on, get with the program people! Thankfully, like Thunderbird, Postbox does support both SSL and TLS encryption for both sending and receiving mail, but you have to edit your account details after you create a new account to set these options.

Another bit of Tunderbird insanity which has sadly remained is the way Thunderbird deals with folders on IMAP servers. It does not check them for new mail! THE best thing about our mail server in work is that it supports server-side mail rules. This means that I can have all my mail sorted into folders by the mail server, rather than my mail client. If our server didn’t do that I wouldn’t be able to switch clients like I can now, because I have over 20 mail rules, some quite complicated! However, the fact that Thunderbird and Postbox don’t just see new mail in my many folders is a real pain. You can force these programs to see new mail in these folders by right-clicking on each of them one-by-one, going to Properties ... and then checking the Check this folder for new messages check-box, but this is quite annoying. Other mail clients aren’t this daft, why should Thunderbird, and now Postbox be?

Now on to my final complaint, in Thunderbird I became very reliant on colour-coding messages. Blue for “To-do”, and red for “Important”. It was simple to do from the keyboard even, hit the ‘1’ key and a message went red, hit the ‘2’ key and it went blue. Unfortunately, that’s all gone in Postbox. In fact, this has been by far my biggest disappointment with Postbox. I don’t like changing my workflow when I finally find one that works!

I did also mention in my introduction that I’d found a bug, it’s not a huge one, but it is a little annoying. Postbox automatically puts related emails into a collapsable threads, which is a good feature. If you click on a collapsed thread you get a stripped-down view that shows all the content of all the messages in the thread. However, the code for generating that view seems to have some issues, I’ve regularly gotten an XML error when I try to view a thread. It seems to happen only when the thread contains HTML formatted emails, but that could just be a fluke, it doesn’t happen often enough for me to definitively spot a pattern.

Before I go into the good stuff, I do also want to mention a short-comming of Postbox that may be a serious problem for some people. It does not support Thunderbird plugins! Just like FireFox, Thunderbird has been customisable with plugins. I don’t use many, but I do use some, and I have to say I miss them in Postbox. This lack of plugin support is not a show-stopper for me, but it may be for some people.

So, what’s good about Postbox, thankfully, loads! Right at the very top of the list for me is tabbed email viewing. I’ve really come to love this on Yahoo Mail’s new Web2.0 webmail interface, and I really miss it in Thunderbird. This is a natural step that I can’t imagine would not have gone into Thunderbird of only Mozilla could have cared about it.

Similarly, Postbox also adopts FireFox 3’s interfaces for dealing with security and security exceptions. You get that same nice yellow bar that FireFox three uses when it blocks popups every time Postbox blocks images, and you also get a button for easily making a permanent exception for the sender in question. Postbox also adopts FireFox 3’s way of dealing with invalid security certs. It’s not unusual to have a self-signed cert on your mail server. If you run your own mail server no one but you will ever have to connect to it, so why waste money getting you cert signed by a recognised CA? What matters is that your transactions are encrypted, and that the cert offered never changes (so you can spot man-in-the-middle attacks). Like FireFox 3, Postbox lets you make a permanent security exception for a cert, so you view it once to check it really is your self-signed cert, and then you tell Postbox to trust that cert for ever more, and never give an error for it again. Thunderbird doesn’t do this, and I have to accept my self-signed cert each and ever time I start Tunderbird. It is, to say the least, annoying!

Postbox has really shaken up the UI. By far the most significant change is a side-bar they call the Inspector that extracts important things from your emails and displays them together as a side bar. What do I mean by important things? I mean all attachments, images, and URLs contained within an email. No more scrolling to the bottom to find the attachments, they’re right there to the right of the mail. You can also get a QuickLook-like preview of images right from the side bar, very handy. The only slight down-side is that attachments ONLY show up in the side bar, and are not shown at all at the bottom of the email. This goes against what every mail client I have ever used in my entire life has done, and is so counter intuitive that I actually replied to someone to tell them they’d forgotten the attachment, because I never noticed it in the side bar! Granted, now that I’ve figured out that’s where they are, I find it really helpful, but I think they need to be at the bottom of the mail too.

As a Mac users, another great feature is one-way Apple Address Book integration. What do I mean by one-way? I mean Postbox reads contacts out of your Apple Address Book, but it doesn’t send addresses to the Apple Address Book. This is exactly what I want. Postbox still gathers every address your mail client ever sees and keeps it in its internal address book, but it doesn’t clutter your Apple Address Book with all that crud. Also, just like Thunderbird, it can connect to a directory server on your network to look up addresses. All this leads to a fantastic experience in work. I get all the addresses Postbox has ever seen, all the addresses in my Mobile Me account (via Apple Address Book), and all the addresses our LDAP server knows about. Perfect!

Finally, the whole UI has been cleaned up a lot. Small, compact icons, and nice anti-aliased text everywhere. When you click on email headers you get a nice business-card-like display that pops up with all the details, and everywhere you look there are nice little UI touches. It feels like a modern app, while Thunderbird feels like it is stuck in the past, which, until Postbox came out, it really was.

I haven’t switched to Postbox at home yet, but I am keeping it in work for now. Should it prove to be stable there for a few more weeks, I’ll switch to it everywhere. BTW, this beta is available for both Windows and Mac, but not yet for Linux, but it is apparently coming to Linux soon. Overall I’m very happy with Postbox, and delighted to finally see some progress for Thunderbird, even if it did have to come from a forked project. Just another example of why I love open source I guess!