By ANICK JESDANUN, AP Internet Writer
NEW YORK - The Firefox browser has become an instant sensation, in
just a few weeks gaining impressively against Microsoft Corp.'s
market-leading but malware-beleaguered Internet Explorer.
Security experts worried about IE's flaws and vulnerabilities have
recommended Firefox. Others, myself included, were impressed by its
The team that put Firefox together, Mozilla Foundation, now offers a
free standalone e-mail application, called Thunderbird. But this time,
the case for switching from Microsoft products is less compelling.
I just can't see too many people abandoning Microsoft's Outlook, if
they use it. Outlook is the gold standard in e-mail programs, despite
its $109 list price. Among other things, Thunderbird lacks a
calendar application, and its tools for sorting your incoming messages
are rather rudimentary.
If you're happy to sacrifice features for something free, anyone
running a Windows operating system already has Outlook Express.
So why bother with Thunderbird?
In some ways, Thunderbird is more powerful than Outlook Express.
But its built-in junk mail filter is based solely on what you, the
user, consider spam and legitimate mail. Unlike many other anti-spam
programs, Thunderbird will do nothing until you "train" the software
by marking a few spam messages as "junk" and a few good messages as
This approach does reduce the chances of good mail ending up wrongly
blocked; a peril these days with many spam-filtering programs
for users who aren't careful.
Thunderbird also offers Really Simple Syndication, or RSS, a
technology for pulling headlines from news sites and Web
journals. Headlines and articles from RSS feeds appear as normal
e-mail messages so you can file them away, forward them to a friend or
do whatever else you might do to e-mail.
If you have multiple e-mail accounts, you can choose to view them all
in one bucket with Thunderbird, or in separate folders sorted by
account or type of account, say personal or work. Outlook Express lets
you keep accounts separate, but only by creating separate
"identities," meaning you can only view one account at a time.
Another plus of Thunderbird is that it automatically enters addresses
into your address book as you send out e-mail, making it easier to
identify replies as legitimate and to avoid retyping the same
addresses over and over. Outlook Express does that only for messages
to which you've replied.
Other than that, Thunderbird looks and works like any other e-mail program.
Available for Windows, Mac and Linux computers, the program lets you
do standard things like change fonts and sizes, specify whether to
include original message in replies and check for new messages after a
given number of minutes, which you specify.
It supports the two most popular e-mail protocols, POP3 and IMAP. It
will bring in Web-based e-mail from Google, Yahoo and America Online
using those protocols (Yahoo is available as part of a $19.99-a-year
premium offering). Thunderbird does not, however, support Microsoft's
Hotmail or MSN services.
Thunderbird does promise to let you import existing mail, address
books and account settings from Outlook, Outlook Express, Eudora,
Netscape 4, Netscape 7 and Mozilla (a combo mail-browser suite from
In practice, though, not everything worked. I couldn't import an
address book from Netscape 4, and my distribution lists on Outlook
Express disappeared in the conversion.
And some of the features that trump Outlook Express need work.
To activate RSS feeds, you must manually type in long addresses. Make
a typo, and you must start over; the software doesn't let you simply
change the one wrong character. Many good RSS programs these days can
automatically detect feeds.
And while Thunderbird lets you separate multiple e-mail accounts,
there's no easy way to sort them. Rather, they are listed in the order
added, not alphabetically or in some other meaningful order.
Perhaps the biggest argument for switching is that Thunderbird is
open-source. Two paid developers and hundreds of volunteers jointly
created it, releasing the underlying software blueprints for anyone to
inspect and improve upon.
That, they argue, produces a better and safer product than proprietary
systems like Microsoft's.
For some people, that's reason enough to switch to Thunderbird. For
others, I can't find a compelling reason unless you're dissatisfied
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