The internet is a merciless engine of progress, and I don’t always think that’s a good thing. Take the Mozilla Foundation. Turning out internet software tools since the early days, it is now, according to statistic addicts, almost consigned to history when it comes to market share for its famous Firefox browser.
But there’s also Thunderbird, a cross-platform email client application that’s actually usable. This has recently been reworked with version 115, codenamed Supernova, and its changes are worth some attention.
We live in an era of cloud-resident email accounts. Actually, if you want to be pedantic about it, that description is nonsense.
What’s new in Thunderbird Version 115, AKA Supernova?
> Dynamic unified toolbar
> Much-improved visuals and icons
> Easier density control
> Intuitive app menu
> Sortable folder modes
> New tags view
> Modernized cards view
> Improved address book
> Expanded accessbility
> Improved calendar design
Cloud scales up and down as your demand for computing varies, driven by your business and your customers.
When did you last ring up Hotmail and say “deliver a bit faster”, or demand the right to migrate your online presence from one cloud hosting region to another? Not even Amazon’s (otherwise excellent) business email hosting service gives you one iota of the controllability that cloud hosters take for granted.
This cuts little ice with the type of user who throws ‘cloud’ around with abandon. The classic cloud-obsessed, intolerant user considers local expertise to be the kind of dinosaur they can do without, the moment they switch to the cloud. The problem for them is, thanks to COVID-19, we have all been through a global phenomenon that showed us exactly what happens when bureaucrats design a system using modern tools.
Investing in a solid local database
What does this have to do with Thunderbird? Very simply, it’s all about the uses and upkeep of a local database. Cloud systems assume there will always be a connection to the cloud, and that any database services are handled in a megascale, highly optimized fashion.
What I found was that while pandemic systems (viral detection tests, vaccination records etc) were demanded locally, and held centrally, there was no plan B: if you were denied access, then even local copies of PDFs on Android phones wouldn’t open. Ironically, that’s because the bureaucrats used the PDF format to limit the lifetime of the certificates they graciously allowed me to download, and the lifetime, even opened locally, demanded a cloud connection to be checked and permitted.
All of the crises I’ve seen in the last few years have, as an apparent side effect, included loss of access to the cloud. Whether it’s queueing for the passport check at Calais Eurostar, or sitting in huge traffic snarl-ups in California, the sign that you are in real trouble is that your cloud-resident services go down.
These experiences have made me much more interested in being able to have a local, portable repository of messages and documents, which doesn’t depend on the cloud. Enter Thunderbird. I want to be able to show officials everything I need to satisfy their enquiries without necessarily having a trusted link.
I know that Thunderbird isn’t alone. In particular, Yahoo has relaunched and rethought its local email app. I particularly like its take on the process of handling attachments, although I haven’t done enough testing to report on whether this is an entirely local process.
But I do think the use of email has now expanded so much that the assumptions about cloud storage and “reasonable” data sizes have had to be almost completely discarded. One of my customers has a 17GB Outlook data file: so big, I can’t summon up the courage to do battle with it, at least not on his old workstation PC. Even equipped with all the utilities and knowledge on offer at Slipstick, I am wary of tangling with scattered, age-old lists of vital messages interspersed with the jagged remains of deleted junk emails.
Despite my several decades of VBA experience, the state of Outlook local data isn’t something I’m inclined to dabble in. There are far too many ifs, buts, ohs, and oughtas in the readme files to reassure me that I’m taking a safe and reversible course of action with what is often a business’s most important data repository.
Why Thunderbird Supernova is winning me over
Thunderbird has no such qualms. It will go through a compaction exercise on an email folder with a right-mouse click. Zap! All that space left by deleted messages is gone. This might be for bad reasons: maybe Mozilla finds modern laptop or tablet disk volumes too miserly for the safe storage of vital messages in larger quantities, or perhaps it’s just too difficult to break the Outlook hegemony. But at least it tried.
I now run an ancient but very lovable ThinkPad Tablet 2 with an LTE modem and Windows 10 as my email viewer and repository. Slightly fiddly with my pinky finger as scrolling and selection stylus, but far better than staring at various hula-hoops and beachballs while waiting for cloud access to reappear. Normally with a downright angry queue of holidaymakers behind me, at the airport or ferry terminal.
I expect to have two types of heckling at this news, neither of which I actually disagree with. The first is those who point out that we have been here before, with mail databases dating back to Microsoft Exchange, Lotus Notes and many more. I can remember a certain frisson of shock at discovering that IceWarp could be set up to use a SQL Server for email message storage. Yes, various efforts to use databases for emails have been tried for decades. But I can report that if you hit an email database with a quarter of a million messages then you can quite easily break it: these days, a quarter of a million messages would be one nuclear family’s mail archive.
The second heckle is that nobody uses email anymore! This is one of those things that seems to follow the sunspot cycle, with eras of low activity followed up by eras of massive outbursts of change. After all, wasn’t Slack meant to replace email? I believe that email has found a new role: not as the main or even the first means of communication, but rather as the repository of information. It’s the place where all those horrible “follow-up copies” get sent, along with legal notices: stuff you aren’t gagging to read, but which it’s handy to be able to look back on, once the dust settles and the camera live stream LEDs go dim.
This demands a well-designed, extremely robust, and recoverable database. Something I am pinning my hopes on Mozilla being able to deliver.