Walt Mossberg

New Mozilla Email Is Easier to Use, But Not Easy Enough

The good thing about open-source software is that it harnesses the talents of techies around the world. The bad thing about open-source software is that it’s too often geared toward such techies, not average folks. That’s why there haven’t been many widely popular open-source products for mass-market computer users. The shining exception is the Firefox Web browser, which is published by the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation.

Now, Mozilla is trying for another win, with a new, overhauled version of the companion email program for Firefox, called Thunderbird. Unlike Firefox, Thunderbird never really caught on, partly because it was too complicated. The foundation has spent two years streamlining, simplifying and automating the email program. The result is the newly released Thunderbird 3, which will compete with products such as Microsoft Outlook on Windows and Apple Mail on the Mac.

While many people these days are content to store and manage all their email using Web-based interfaces provided by Yahoo (YHOO), Google (GOOG) and others, plenty of folks still want to use local programs. These save the messages to their own hard disks, include oodles of customized features, and can be more easily used offline.

But the choices among such local email programs are dwindling. Outlook, which can be bloated and slow for consumers, has driven out many competitors on Windows, and the new Windows 7 doesn’t even come with a built-in email program. On the Mac, most people seem to use Apple’s (AAPL) very good built-in email program, Apple Mail, but it’s hard for third parties to customize.

So, can Thunderbird 3, which is free and runs on Windows, Mac and Linux computers, become the Firefox of email, the go-to choice for average users looking for an alternative to the big guys?

After testing the new edition for about a week, I believe that Thunderbird 3 is a significant improvement over earlier versions of the product. It is indeed a step forward, with some interesting new features and generally simpler operation. But, in my view, all the techie rough edges still haven’t been sanded off and it’s still clumsy in a few places.

First, the pluses. Mozilla has brought tabs, now standard in Web browsers, to Thunderbird. If you simply double click on an email in a list, it opens in its own tab. That way you can consult key emails when you need them without opening a welter of overlapping windows. If you do a search, the search results appear in their own tab.

The new Thunderbird also has a very cool filtered search system. It not only brings up all messages containing your search term, but shows a graphical timeline of the message traffic on that search term. In a left panel next to the list of search results, it lists all the people mentioned in the messages turned up by the search—even if you weren’t searching for them—and lets you further refine the results by just clicking on their names.

There is also a rapid way to add email addresses in a message header to your address book: You just click on a star icon next to the name. There also are multiple ways to view folders. With one click, you can choose to see a list of only unread folders, or favorite folders, or recent folders.

Another cool feature is an attachment reminder. If you are writing a message and you include words like “attachment,” “attached,” or “enclosed,” Thunderbird will pop up a yellow warning at the bottom of the screen reminding you to attach a file.

And, throughout the program, the designers have tried to simplify things, so you don’t have to be an engineer to use it. One example, which is a catch-up feature, is an account set-up wizard that spares you from knowing the names of servers.

But there are still too many issues for me. Thunderbird can’t be set to automatically show a CC or BCC line in a new email you’re composing. Every new address you add is set as a “To” address, and you must click on a drop-down menu to change it to CC or BCC—an extra step that becomes tedious quickly.

In addition, unlike in Outlook or Apple Mail, you can only have a single signature for each account. The program also doesn’t support Microsoft Exchange for corporate mail, unless IT administrators make changes at their servers.

And I found that the program’s preferences and settings, while improved, can still be too techie. For instance, to tell the program to display certain graphics in email, even though they can pose a security risk, you must choose an option called “mailnews.message_display.disable_remote_image.”

To be fair, because Thunderbird is an open-source program, it relies on third-party add-ons and extensions for some features, such as multiple signatures. But some of the add-ins I tried, like a built-in calendar that can synchronize with Google, took multiple complicated steps that would likely deter a mainstream user.

If you’re looking for a new email client, the new and improved Thunderbird is worth a try, but it’s not yet the Firefox of email.

Find all of Walt Mossberg’s columns and videos online, free, at the All Things Digital Web site, walt.allthingsd.com. Email him at mossberg@wsj.com.

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