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Thunderbird/Seamonkey Tricks

In 2004, Google introduced the Gmail service with a 1 GB mailbox and free POP access. That was a time when most people had email accounts with their ISP or had free webmail accounts with Hotmail or Yahoo. Mailbox storage was limited to measly amounts such as 5 or 10 MB. If you did not regularly purge old messages, then your incoming mail will get bounced with the dreaded "inbox full" error. Hence, it was a standard practice to store email "offline" using an email client. Each year now, a new generation of young people (mostly students) discover the Internet and they start with webmail straightaway. As popular webmail services integrate online chatting as well, they prefer to use a web browser rather than a desktop mail client to access email. This is sad because desktop email clients represent one of those rare Internet technologies that can claim to have achieved perfection. This article will bring these people "up to speed" on Thunderbird, the most popular FOSS email client.

Why use a desktop email client

With an email client, you store email offline. After the email application connects to your mail server and downloads new mail, it tells the server to delete those messages from your mailbox (unless configured otherwise). This has several advantages.

Gmail inbox screenshot

Live off the grid with no mail online. To get this Gmail note, you will have to empty the inbox and trash, and also delete all archived messages.

POP or IMAP access to email

Email clients access mail using two protocols, POP and IMAP, to receive mail. POP is best if you would like to download and delete mail. IMAP is best if you need access on multiple devices or at different locations. POP is more prevalent than IMAP. For offline storage, POP is the best. Popular webmail providers provide both POP and IMAP access. Before you can use an email client, you will have to login to your webmail provider in a browser, check the settings and activate POP/IMAP access for incoming mail. Email clients use SMTP protocol for outgoing mail. In Thunderbird/Seamonkey, you may have to add SMTP server settings separately for each email account.

If you have lots of email already online, then it may not be possible to make your email client create an offline copy in one go. Each time you choose to receive messages, the mail client will download a few hundred of your old messages. After it has downloaded all your old archived messages, the mail client will then settle down to downloading only your newest messages.

The settings for some popular Webmail services are as follows:

The following settings are common for them:

Some ISPs and hosting providers provide unencrypted mail access. Here, the connection security method will have to be "None", and the ports are set to 110 for POP and 25 for SMTP. However, please be aware that most ISPs block port 25 and many mail servers block mail originating from that port.

Thunderbird and Seamonkey

Popular email clients today are Microsoft Outlook and Mozilla Thunderbird. Thunderbird is the obvious FOSS option. Like the browser Firefox, Thunderbird is a modern software and supports many extensions or add-ons. Unlike Outlook (which uses Microsoft Word as the HTML formatting engine), Thunderbird has better CSS support as it renders HTML messages using the Gecko engine (like the Firefox browser).

The Seamonkey internet suite bundles both the Firefox browser and Thunderbird mail clients, in addition to an IRC client and a web page designer. Seamonkey is based on the philosophy of the old NetScape Internet Communication Suite, in which the browser was known as Netscape Navigator and the mail client was known as Netscape Communicator. Because of certain trademark objections with Mozilla, some GNU/Linux distributions bundle Firefox and Thunderbird as IceWeasel and IceDove. Seamonkey became IceApe. This was resolved in 2016.

If you have already opened the Seamonkey browser, then the Seamonkey mail client can opened in a flash. The vice versa is also true. This is very useful because website links in the Seamonkey mail are opened in Seamonkey browser. Firefox is a separate application from Thunderbird and does not have the same advantage. For this reason, I use Seamonkey instead of Thunderbird. Seamonkey is available at https://www.seamonkey-project.org/.

By default, Seamonkey looks like Firefox or Thunderbird. I prefer to change its appearance using the Modern theme, as it makes it look like the old Netscape 6 and also because I need the browser to look different from regular Firefox. To enable this theme, choose from the menu Tools » Add-Ons » Appearance » Seamonkey Modern.

Even on a desktop screen, space may be at a premium. Currently, Thunderbird/Seamonkey does not provide an easy way to customize the date columns. I use this trick in the launcher command to fix it.

export LC_TIME=en_DK.UTF-8 && seamonkey -mail

Columns in Thunderbird inbox

Changing format of the date columns requires a hack.

Email providers today do a good job of filtering junk mail. You can still do a better job with your own mail filters (Tools » Message Filters). You can choose to move/delete messages based on the occurrences of certain words in the From, To or Subject headers of the email.

Mail filters in Thunderbird

Configure your own mail filters.

Thunderbird as an RSS reader

Apart from email, Thunderbird can also display content from RSS feeds. It stores articles in the RSS feed offline, just like email messages.

Thunderbirds as an RSS feed reader

Thunderbird is also an RSS feed reader. (Does Twitter provide RSS feeds? It used to but not anymore. I use my TweetsToRSS app for that. Subhash TweetsToRSS is a readonly Twitter server, not client)

Thunderbird as an NNTP client

Usenet newsgroups predate the World Wide Web. They are like an online discussion forum organized into several hierarchical groups. Forum participants post messages in the form of an email addressed to a newsgroup (say comp.lang.javascript) and the NNTP client would thread the discussions based on the subject line. (Google Groups is a web-based interface into the world of Usenet.)

A newsgroup user sends an email message and the NNTP server converts it to a forum post. Now World Wide Web access is required.

Seamonkey ChatZilla

Apart from the Firefox-based browser and the Thunderbird-based email client, Seamonkey also bundles an IRC chat client. IRC is yet another Internet-based communication protocol that does not use the World Wide Web. It is the preferred medium of communication for hackers (not the bad kind). Here is a link for starters: irc://chat.freenode.net/ Many IRC servers are accessible only via a special port, usually from 6660 to 6669. Check with the server and unblock this port in your network's firewall/modem/router.

Backup

When you store email offline, the burden of doing regular backups falls on you. You also need to ensure that your computer is not vulnerable to malware such as email viruses. Webmail providers do a good job of eliminating email-borne malware but malware can still arrive from other sources. Windows computers are particularly vulnerable to malware spread by USB drives and browser toolbars and extensions. (In Windows, simply creating a directory named "autorun.inf" at the root level stops most USB drive infections.) Seamonkey stores all its data (email messages and accounts, RSS feeds, website username/passwords/preferences, etc.,) in the ~/.mozilla/Seamonkey directory. For backup, just zip this directory regularly. If you move to a new GNU/Linux system, restore the backed-up directory to your new ~/.mozilla directory.