Thunderbird: Mozilla’s Open-Source Email Client Lives

May 11, 2017 · 4 min read

By: Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

These days, people tend to use web interfaces for their email. Call me old-fashioned, but I still like email clients such as Thunderbird and Evolution. Why? Primarily because — thanks to Post Office Protocol (POP) — it’s easy to keep my mail on my local desktop.

Of the two, the Mozilla Foundation’s open-source email Thunderbird is by far the most popular. That’s because Evolution is pretty much locked into the GNOME/Linux desktop. You can install and run Thunderbird, on the other hand, on Linux, macOS, or Windows. If you feel brave, you can run it with unofficial ports on FreeBSD, OpenBSD, and — believe it or not — OS/2 in its modern version eComStation.

As an email client, Thunderbird supports all the primary email protocols such as POP, Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP), and Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP). This means you can use it with any email server or service. In my case, that means I use it to read mail both from my own Dovecot server or from any of the popular web email based services such as Gmail or ProtonMail.

Thunderbird also has its own email features. One I find very useful is Smart Folders, which combines general-purpose folders like Inbox, Sent, or Archive from multiple accounts. Instead of going to the Inbox for each account, I can see most incoming email in one Inbox folder.

I say “most” because I use Thunderbird’s Message Filters constantly. If you’re like me, and you have multiple business partners and subscribe to multiple mailing lists, the only way I can stay on top of my email flood is by filtering messages into individual folders. So, for example, if I want to see what Linode has to tell me today, I just hop into my Linode folder.

Then, there’s the mail I never want to see: Spam. While you still need a server-based spam filter such as SpamAssassin to clear out the junk, Thunderbird has its own excellent, built-in spam filters.

Another nice feature is you can archive messages so they’ll no longer clutter your inbox. If, like me, you have hundreds of messages you need to track, it’s nice to have an easy way to keep them around without filling up your inbox.

That’s especially important since, while Thunderbird has excellent search tools, these can slow down in overfull email boxes. And, boy do I have some fat email folders!

Thunderbird also boasts a couple of good security features. First, it automatically blocks remote images in emails from people you don’t know. That can be a little annoying at times, but it’s much less annoying than having malware trying to sneak in as an image. Second, Thunderbird protects you from phishing by flagging a message that appears to be phishing you and then alerting you when you click on a link in the email, if it looks to be taking you to a different website than the one indicated by the apparent URL.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that Mozilla has been neglecting Thunderbird’s development for years to focus its attention on Firefox instead. More recently, Mozilla has talked about spinning off Thunderbird entirely. For the time being, Mozilla has agreed to serve as Thunderbird’s legal and fiscal home while Thunderbird’s leadership works towards the long-term goal of becoming independent. This arrangement isn’t set in stone. If the groups don’t get along or Thunderbird doesn’t make progress, Mozilla may yet cut Thunderbird loose.

There also has been some consideration to turning Thunderbird into a web app. Nothing seems to be coming of that idea either.

Equally concerning, Ubuntu is considering dropping email clients entirely from its next release, Ubuntu 17.10.

So, despite the intrinsic utility of open-source email clients, especially Thunderbird, some larger issues, which you should consider, revolve about their use.

Is the day nearing when Thunderbird — indeed, all email clients — is coming to an end? I hope not. I, for one, still find them very useful.

Please feel free to share below any comments or insights about your experience with Thunderbird. And if you found this blog useful, please consider sharing it through social media.

About the blogger: Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols is a veteran IT journalist whose estimable work can be found on a host of channels, including, PC Magazine, InfoWorld, ComputerWorld, Linux Today and eWEEK. Steven’s IT expertise comes without parallel — he has even been a Jeopardy! clue. And while his views and cloud situations are solely his and don’t necessarily reflect those of Linode, we are grateful for his contributions. He can be followed on Twitter (@sjvn).

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We’re covering everything from tech news and industry happenings to event recaps and general tips.