By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, March 12, 2006; F07
To a lot of people, e-mail has become something that only lives on the Web in free services such as Yahoo's or Google's. Why bother running a separate program just for your mail when you can pile up messages by the gigabyte on somebody else's server, then access it from anywhere?
The latest Web-mail interfaces, such as Google's Gmail, Yahoo Mail Beta or America Online's AIM.com, even provide most of the speed and fluidity of desktop software.
But that doesn't mean the traditional, PC-based mail program is dead either. If you want to use your mail in an ad-free environment, read and write messages even when you're offline, and keep a permanent copy of your correspondence on a machine you control, nothing will do as well as a dedicated mail application. Those reasons keep millions of users spending almost as much time in e-mail software as in Web browsers.
So why is the selection of Windows mail programs still so weak?
Microsoft's Outlook Express is free and integrated into Windows, but this creaking relic is hapless at filtering out spam or managing large volumes of mail. Microsoft's Outlook is built into Microsoft Office (traditionally a quasi-mandatory purchase on PCs), but is really designed for groups of employees networked across corporate campuses, not lone users at home.
Most of the competition does little better. Qualcomm's aging Eudora requires you to pay up or put up with banner ads. The Bat and Pegasus Mail's intricate interfaces cater mostly to experts. Incredimail's animated icons and goofy sound effects are too cartoonish.
This group did see an upgrade two years ago with the arrival of Mozilla Thunderbird, a free, open-source mail program developed alongside the Mozilla Firefox Web browser. But while the popular Firefox has helped restore competition and innovation to the browser market, Thunderbird hasn't made the same difference in e-mail yet.
The January release of Thunderbird version 1.5 ( http://www.mozilla.com/ , Win 98 or newer, Mac OS X 10.2 or newer, Linux) shows why. It excels at many of the basic tasks of e-mail, but makes only a half-hearted attempt at others-- most important, its address book.
Thunderbird is more than fit to consign Outlook Express to deserved obscurity (thanks in part to its generally reliable system for bringing over OE mail and settings). But Outlook users who have learned to look past that bloated application's flaws have fewer incentives to jump ship.
Thunderbird's greatest strengths are its speed and simplicity -- this program gets up and running while Outlook is still fumbling for the snooze button. It presents mailboxes and messages in a simple three-pane layout, like in Outlook Express, but finding particular e-mails takes far less time, thanks to the find-as-you-type search form at the top of Thunderbird's window.
Revisions between versions 1 and 1.5 made Thunderbird substantially easier to understand, notwithstanding such glitches as a missing help file. (The item under the Help menu only opens a page on the Mozilla site.)
You don't have to switch between multiple dialog boxes and click through tedious "wizard" interfaces to configure this program. Aside from junk-mail detection and your own message filters, all of its settings occupy two compact windows. (Thunderbird supports the two main types of mail account, the widely used POP, or "Post Office Protocol," and the more convenient IMAP, short for "Internet Message Access Protocol." )
Thunderbird's junk-mail detector learns from you; each time you mark a message as junk (or undo Thunderbird's incorrect marking), its recognition improves a little. It now also scans for phishing messages, those scams purporting to be from banks or credit-card issuers. Suspect messages get an unmistakable warning, followed by a second alert if you click their phony "log into your account" links.
When a virus lands in your inbox, however, Thunderbird doesn't take advantage of the option in Windows XP's Service Pack 2 update that deactivates programs lurking in attached files.
Beyond e-mail, Thunderbird can also read Usenet newsgroups (online forums now ignored by most users) and subscribe to the newsfeeds many Web sites publish. But adding newsfeeds requires a clumsy copy-and-paste dance instead of clicking on links in your browser.
I'd gladly swap Usenet and newsfeed capabilities for a decent address book. Its excuse for one can store only two e-mail addresses per person, makes editing the contact information as awkward as possible, offers no built-in way to share its contents with other software or hardware devices, such as a handheld organizer, and can't even open or save contacts in the standard vCard format.
I've relied on Thunderbird in Windows for e-mail for most of the last two years, but I've given up on its address book. Instead, I let its auto-complete feature remember addresses I use most often and keep my real contacts list in Mac OS X's Address Book, which integrates perfectly with OS X's Mail and can sync to my Treo 650 phone as well.
There's an enormous opportunity for Thunderbird's developers here to jump past the likes of Outlook Express or Outlook. For example, why can't an address book track whom I'm overdue to send a note to? Why can't it let me update street addresses for family members all at once? Why can't it share the same contacts list across multiple computers -- one of the unmatched benefits of Web mail?
Some of these missing features can be filled in with the impressive variety of downloadable Thunderbird extensions. But a program aspiring to make e-mail work for the masses shouldn't come with so much assembly required; long-suffering Windows mail users deserve a little better than that.
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro [email protected].