Can we go to the next message? - Please!
by Alan German
articles I have documented my gradual shift away from
mainstream software packages to open-source
offerings such as Filezilla, an FTP client, and
OpenOffice.org, a suite of office applications. Having
successfully discovered that OpenOffice provided an
excellent substitute for Word, Excel and PowerPoint, I
decided it was time to seek a replacement for Outlook,
Microsoft's flagship E-mail client.
Given my previous favourable experiences with Mozilla
products, I decided to try Mozilla Thunderbird in its
latest incarnation as Version 1.5. Downloading and
installing the program were entirely trouble free.
Running the program revealed a well designed, and very
colourful, graphical interface with the seemingly usual
assortment of menus, toolbars with command icons, message
folders and message display windows. The program was
relatively intuitive to use and I soon had a link set up
to my ISP's mail server and was able to send and receive
a few test messages.
This is where the fun started. I disabled the message
preview pane, since I prefer to see the list of messages
and then view each message in turn in a full window.
However, when reading messages, I suddenly found that I
didn't know how to move to the next message. I couldn't
find a Next button, nor any description of
where such a command might be located. Similarly, there
was no Previous button with which I could go
back to earlier messages.
A somewhat strange feature of the program is that the
help system is entirely web-based, so that without a live
Internet connection, you won't get much help. Even after
going to the web, I found the usefulness of the available
information to be somewhat mixed. There are excellent
tutorials, with full-colour screen shots, on items such
as installing the program and setting up accounts.
Similarly, there is a seemingly fine tutorial on basic
features and buttons. But, there didn't seem to be any
information on the missing buttons.
The other help system I often use is Google
and this is where I eventually found the solution(s).
Note the plural here. This is a multi-faceted problem.
Firstly, it turns out that the Next and Previous buttons
need to be added by customizing the toolbar of the
message window. Right-clicking on the toolbar provides a
pop-up box with various command icons that can be added
by dragging them onto the toolbar. Included are Next and
Previous buttons but, from the information gleaned from
Google, these only function on new messages; they don't
work on messages that have been previously read. So, even
though we could have buttons, they wouldn't necessarily
allow us to navigate through all messages in a given
folder. Secondly, even though the next and previous
options are not displayed, there are keyboard shortcuts
to these commands, namely F (presumably forward) to go to
the next message and B (back) to go to the previous
message. These commands were included in a tutorial on
keyboard shortcuts; however, since there were no obvious
buttons it didn't occur to me to look for shortcuts. So,
we now seem to have the capability of using buttons for
new messages, but not for any that have been read. And,
the beautiful graphical interface is useless for the
latter, so that we must resort to using the keyboard.
But, let's not give up on the program quite yet. A couple
of somewhat cryptic notes on one of the chat pages turned
up by Google provided further insight into the situation.
One posting indicated that the unconventional
functionality of the buttons was a documented bug which
users should vote for if they wanted it fixed. This
seemingly democratic process is evidently a
feature of open-source software development,
and one of which I was not previously aware. A second
posting suggested installing the Buttons!
A little more searching on Google provided more
information about Thunderbird as an open-source program.
Evidently, it is possible to include add-ons to the
program. One such add-on is Buttons! 0.5.1, a package of
buttons that can be included on Thunderbird's toolbars,
and two of which were Next and Previous buttons that work
as designed. The actual installation process
is rather simple. Download an XPI file from the add-on
web site, save the file to the Mozilla
Thunderbird/extensions sub-directory, run Thunderbird,
select Tools Extensions Install, and open
the saved extension file. The installation routine
complained that Buttons! did not support Thunderbird
Version 1.5, since it had been constructed for earlier
version of the program; however, the buttons worked fine
with the new version. So, finally we have a mail client
with the functionality we expect.
That seems quite a struggle for a program as popular and
well used as a mail client. Nevertheless, it must be said
that, with these add-on buttons in place, Thunderbird is
a very competent mailer. It has all of the usual features
of such programs and comes wrapped with an attractive
An address book lets you store names, E-mail and postal
addresses, and multiple telephone numbers for your
friends, relatives, and business contacts, with space for
information for both home and work, and even a set of
customizable data elements. There is a folder system that
lets you categorize mail in various ways, and a
rule-based system for automatically filtering incoming
mail. A menu button will define any given message as junk
mail, and a set of junk mail controls facilitates
automation of this process for the incoming mail stream.
The program supports multiple identities, if you use
several mail boxes for different purposes, and can be
configured to get mail from a number of different mail
servers at the touch of a button, if you happen to be
mail server rich.
The help system is currently a bit light in its coverage,
consists of a number of separate components (tutorials,
FAQ's, tips, etc.), and has the added disadvantage of
being entirely web-based. However, the program is
generally very intuitive and most users who have previous
experience with E-mail clients won't need help for most
The current version of Thunderbird seems to be a bit of a
work-in-progress; however, if you are willing to tweak
the software just a little, as indicated above, it is a
very serviceable product. Of course, if you are a
keyboard-nut and don't mind using F and B to move around
your various messages, the program works just fine
out-of-the-box. And, as with all open-source
software, you can't argue with the price!
Mozilla Thunderbird Version 1.5 (Freeware)
Originally published: April, 2006
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The opinions expressed in these reviews
do not necessarily represent the views of the
Ottawa PC Users' Group or its members.