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Can we go to the next message? - Please!

by Alan German

In previous articles I have documented my gradual shift away from “mainstream” software packages to open-source offerings such as Filezilla, an FTP client, and, 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!” extension.

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 user interface.

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 functions.

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!

Bottom Line:

Mozilla Thunderbird Version 1.5 (Freeware)

Next/Previous Buttons

Buttons! 0.5.1

Originally published: April, 2006

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