Put Thunderbird to work

Version 2.0 of the free e-mail client Mozilla Thunderbird raises the bar with back-forward browsing, advanced folder views, and tagging...but can you use it at work?

Mozilla Thunderbird 2.0

The most recent update to the Mozilla Thunderbird (download for Windows or Mac OS X ) mail client shoves the former fledgling out of Mozilla's nest. The goal, if unstated, is clear: get as many people as possible to try the app, and hope that the appeal of a lighter client with similar power to Outlook and Outlook Express will pull some users away from Microsoft's ubiquitous software.

For home use, Thunderbird 2 should be a no-brainer. Many of the newer features incorporate Web mail services, which can now work offline as well as on. Threaded post reading and customizable tagging are big pluses, and so is the integrated RSS reader. Taking a page from Web browsers, Thunderbird 2.0 added "forward" and "back" buttons that let you cycle through messages in order of viewing, regardless of their folders. Strong HTML support, junk-mail filtering, encryption options, numerous add-ons, and support for POP3, IMAP, and Gmail (with support for other Web mail services in the offing) make this favorite freeware a must try.

The big question for Thunderbird, however, is "Can it be used for work?" The app lacks an integrated calendar, and importing settings from Microsoft Exchange and Outlook can be tricky.

First, you need to configure Thunderbird for either an IMAP or POP3 account. If you don't know which one to use, contact your company's tech support. For IMAP, open up your Outlook, go to Tools/Email Accounts/Change or View Existing Accounts and then hit Change when you see the Microsoft Exchange server. Copy the address of the Exchange server and paste it into your Thunderbird IMAP account settings under "Server name." Type in your user name and you're good to go.

For POP3 accounts, you'll need to know the name of your POP mail server (often pop.yourserver.com). If you don't have it ready when you set up the POP account, you can enter it later through Thunderbird's Tools/Account Settings/Server Settings option. To check your Gmail with Thunderbird, you've got it easy. Simply choose the Gmail option from the Add Account option under Tools/Account Settings, enter your account name and password, and you're good to go. Other Web mail accounts will need to be set up as a standard POP3 account.

Another essential component of e-mail clients is the calendar. Ostensibly, Thunderbird is lacking in this department, but there is a workaround. There's an excellent plug-in called Lightning that gets better with every build.

Lightning extension for Thunderbird
The Lightning extension integrates the Sunbird calendar application with Thunderbird. (Credit: CNET Networks)

After I installed Lightning, I found an excellent forum post explaining how to import your calendar, and I'll summarize it here:

Go to your Outlook calendar and make sure it's set to the American date format, mm/dd/yy. Then go to File/Import and Export and choose Export to a File. Choose "Comma Separated Values (DOS)" and save the file, then import it into Lightning under Calendar/Import in Thunderbird.

Now meeting invitations sent to you from Outlook users will include a button in the message to add the event to your calendar.

Event invitation message
The \ (Credit: CNET Networks)

The latest Lightning build, as of this writing, supports adding events to the calendar that have been mailed to you, but not e-mailing out invitations yourself. The Mozilla Calendar Project blog hints that feature will be included in a future release. However, if you're a bit more adventurous, Lightning has a nightly build that is less stable than the official version but includes more features that are missing from the official release. Also, many Sunbird extensions work with Lightning.

I'm still having some difficulty connecting to the shared address book on the corporate Exchange server, and I'm waiting for some IT help with configuring LDAP settings. Here's an excellent LDAP address book resource I found for those who want to fight their own configuration battle.

The LDAP settings panel can be reached through Tools/Address Book/File/New/LDAP Directory. For now, I would recommend exporting the ones you need from Outlook and importing them into Lightning through the Tools/Import/Address Books feature.

Next week, I'll take a look at some of the best add-ons for Thunderbird, including themes. If you've made the switch to Thunderbird for your work e-mail, tell me about it in the comments.